House of Commons
Thursday 8 July 2021
The House met at half-past Nine 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
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Union in Scotland: Public Opinion Polling
As you quite rightly point out, Mr Speaker, football is indeed coming home. I cannot possibly understand why attendance is so scant on the Government Benches this morning.
The Government regularly commission research across the United Kingdom to understand public attitudes in order to inform and help to deliver relevant policies, and to ensure that we have strong, UK-wide, cross-Government communications campaigns.
Last month, the first-tier tribunal on information rights ruled that the Cabinet Office must release polling information that it has gathered on attitudes to the Union in Scotland within a month. Will the Minister confirm that he will be releasing that information, as he has been ordered to do, and whether he will also release the details on how much that information cost to collect?
In the Chamber last month, the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) astutely summarised, speaking of his own Tory UK Government:
“When the Government do not publish something, it is normally because it is bad news and they are trying to hide it away.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 761.]
Will the Minister say whether that holds true for his Department’s intended-to-be-secret polling on the Union? If it does not and the Union is indeed as strong as he and his ministerial colleagues agree, what reason do the Government have for fighting the release of this information for years?
The hon. Lady refers to my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). He is a former Chief Whip, and, as a member of that broederbond, I know that there can sometimes be a tendency to prefer discretion rather than transparency, but in my current role I am all in favour of transparency. Indeed, we do not need to look anywhere other than the current public opinion polls, which show that support for independence is declining and support for the United Kingdom is increasing.
The High Court ruling by Justice O’Farrell concluded that the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster acted with “apparent bias” in the “unlawful” action when he awarded contracts to his chums at Public First, who had previously worked as advisers to him, to the Prime Minister and, of course, for Dominic Cummings. How can the Minister justify siphoning off many tens of thousands of pounds from covid recovery work to fund this highly political research, which is obviously designed to inform the no campaign in the next independence referendum?
I hesitate to correct the hon. Gentleman, but Lady Justice O’Farrell did not find that I had operated with any form of bias—apparent, actual or otherwise. That is a misreading of the court judgment.
The Scottish Government have received more than £180 million from the UK Government in covid recovery funds and it is not yet the case that the Scottish Government have published how a penny of that money is being spent, so before asking for greater transparency from this Government, I think it would be appropriate if the hon. Gentleman were to ask his colleagues in the Scottish Government to publish accounts for every single penny that has been received and how it has been spent so that we can be assured—as I am sure will be the case—that the Scottish Government have used their resources appropriately to fight covid.
The question was about the Minister’s actions, not about anyone else. It would be better if he paid attention to his own work. Given that we already know attitudes, and that, over time, support for independence has risen considerably and support for the Union has declined, is it not more than passing strange that the Minister was so desperate to hand Public First these contracts without competitive tender, were there not to be a second independence referendum? But, more importantly, given that the contract was not restricted to immediately required work, is it not hugely suspicious that such subterfuge was used to funnel taxpayers’ money so quickly to Public First, effectively using taxpayers’ cash as a bottomless Unionist slush fund?
A bottomless Unionist slush fund sounds like a great thing, but unfortunately it does not exist. I am afraid that I refer the hon. Gentleman again to the judgment. The contract was not awarded by me and it is not the case that I was found to have acted with any actual or apparent bias, because I did not award the contract. I recommend that he has a close look at what Lady Justice O’Farrell actually concluded.
Civil Service: Skills and Training
As we set out in the declaration on Government reform last month, we are deeply committed to investing in training across the whole civil service, as we have to do better at providing public servants with the skills they need to serve others and tackle future challenges. Our new Government Skills and Curriculum Unit is in the process of establishing a campus for Government skills and will be focusing on creating a cross-civil service induction, a data masterclass for senior civil servants and transforming the fast stream so that it remains among the best graduate schemes in the world.
Clearly, there is a time and a place for employing contractors and other consultants, but does my hon. Friend agree that alongside that we have to provide better training for civil servants and better recruitment of individuals with the skills that are needed by the civil service so that they can be retained within the civil service as a preference to its spending considerable sums of money on outside consultants and communication firms?
I thank my hon. Friend for his important and incisive question. The civil service, as he acknowledges, has historically used contractors to provide specialist skills and to manage short-term requirements. We really want to drive that down by improving our own capability. We are developing a pipeline of secondments into major organisations through a new secondments unit. We are building an in-house consultancy, we are creating a civilian reserve, and we are working with the Civil Service Commission to review how we attract entrants with specific high-demand skills, particularly scientists and engineers.
Levelling Up Agenda
Levelling up is at the heart of the Government’s covid recovery agenda, and I am in daily contact with Cabinet colleagues. Through the levelling up fund, we have already committed £4.8 billion of support for local projects that will spur regional growth and improve the lives of local people across the whole United Kingdom. Later this year we will publish a levelling up White Paper.
If you are in a low-paid job in our country, you are still more likely to be a woman than a man. That is no good for a country that values aspiration, no good for productivity and no good for our economy. Given the focus at the G7 on equal opportunity for women at work, will the Government’s White Paper on levelling up recognise this problem and focus on levelling up for women throughout the United Kingdom?
As a distinguished former Equalities Minister and former Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right: more must be done as part of levelling in order to ensure that women have the opportunities that they deserve and are paid fairly, and that we make use of everyone’s talents across the whole United Kingdom.
The Tees valley is already beginning to see the Government’s levelling up agenda in action through its plans for the northern economic campus in Darlington, the UK’s largest freeport in Redcar, and the continued work in collaboration between the UK Government and Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen. When will we start to see the civil service jobs relocated to the Tees valley, and does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be wrong to cut train services between Teesside and London at a time when our area is growing again?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention Ben Houchen, the Gareth Southgate of local government. It is appropriate that, as the Treasury and the Department for International Trade are recruiting new roles in Darlington and there is more investment in Teesside, we must make sure that we have proper connectivity, including first-class rail travel as well as improved digital connectivity.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his earlier answer. The Government’s levelling up agenda is laudable, and in Clacton some progress has been made. I am doing the best I can to inform residents in the area of what the Government are doing. There is a feeling of being left behind locally, however, so what are the Government doing to communicate more widely what they have been and will be doing for the people of Clacton and other left-behind communities? Will my right hon. Friend come back to the sunshine coast and join me to raise awareness of the Government’s important work?
I absolutely will. There is nothing left behind about Clacton and Frinton and the communities that my hon. Friend so ably represents, and I look forward to visiting them. I understand that there is a fantastic local community theatre that he has played a part in championing, among many other local endeavours. Levelling up is about culture as well as connectivity. I look forward to coming to Clacton and making sure that it is firmly on the map and at the centre of our levelling up plans.
My right hon Friend is absolutely right. He is a brilliant advocate for south-east London and for business. I look forward to working with him to ensure that there is improved connectivity and that London, which has suffered particularly badly as a result of the pandemic, is at the heart of our plans for economic recovery.
Labour believes that it should be an explicit priority of this Government that when it comes to public procurement we should be buying more from British companies. In the Government’s document, “National Infrastructure and Construction Procurement Pipeline 2020/21”, the procurement contracts in the pipeline are worth £37 billion. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster tell the House how much of this was awarded to British companies? If not, what does that say about the Government’s priorities for British business?
I am delighted beyond words that the hon. Lady believes that we should procure more, buy more and invest more in Britain. All that is now possible as a result of our departure from the European Union and our liberation from its procurement rules. The procurement Green Paper brought forward by my noble Friend Lord Agnew will ensure that more UK businesses—more Scottish businesses, Welsh businesses and Ulster businesses—get Government pounds to do even better for all our citizens.
Public Bodies: Transparency in Service Delivery
Accounting officer system statements already set out which public bodies a Department is responsible for, and their spending is set out in each Department’s annual report and accounts. Public bodies data is also published in the public bodies directory. The recent declaration on Government reform reasserts our commitment to transparency in government. The declaration includes specific commitments on public bodies, including increasing the effectiveness of departmental sponsorship of arm’s length bodies.
As legislators, we have an important and indeed necessary relationship with upholding the spirit and the letter of the law. However, in my experience hon. Members seem more likely to be sacked for their attempts to uphold such a principle. What message does the continued opacity, prevarication and law-breaking of this Government’s most senior Ministers and advisers give to our children, public bodies and industry, or does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster simply have no shame over his own unlawful conduct?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I appreciate your comments on language in this House. I am afraid I disagree with the hon. Member’s characterisation of this Government. As the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has already set out, there is a nuanced judgment from the Public First case in particular which does not agree with the way the hon. Member has characterised how the Government conduct themselves.
It would appear that my lack of donations to the Conservative party makes my chances of becoming a Government non-executive director rather slim, but my question to the Minister today is this: how many non-executive directors currently in post on those Government Department boards to scrutinise Ministers were appointed by Ministers? Will the Minister commit to overhauling that current system for appointing non-executive directors, so that these roles stop just being cushy jobs for friends of Ministers who are being paid over £1,000 a day each of taxpayers’ money?
I can speak for the Cabinet Office non-executive directors. We have a fantastic team that is drawn from across party political affiliations. She will be aware that we have Baroness Stuart, who is a former Labour Member. We also have people with no political affiliation whatever, including people such as Anand Aithal. We have Henry de Zoete, and we have Lord Hogan-Howe, who is a former Metropolitan Police Commissioner. They were appointed because of their merit, not because of their party political affiliation.
I think that made my point for me, thank you.
Last month, an Information Tribunal said that there is
“a profound lack of transparency about the operation”
of the freedom of information clearing house. Can the Minister confirm categorically that every single freedom of information request received has been treated in exactly the same way, with no different approach for certain journalists or campaigners?
CCTV Cameras: Ministerial Offices
The placement of security cameras in Departments is a matter for each individual Department.
This issue came to light because of a bit of kiss and tell, and I am not really interested in that, but it does bring out the question of just exactly who has access to this sort of surveillance and the security of Government. When can we expect some sort of a response from the Government to explain just exactly what has been going on?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important and serious issue. The permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office and the head of the Government Security Group are looking at precisely this question because, as the hon. Gentleman quite rightly points out, it has a bearing on the security of Government business, and indeed on the possibility of malicious actors, abroad or elsewhere, who may wish to use information garnered in that way to work against the interests of all our citizens.
Civil Contingency Plans: Preparedness for a Future Pandemic
We regularly assess contingency plans and preparedness for major risks, including pandemics. In December 2020, we updated the national risk register to include new risks. We are currently reviewing the Government’s national risk assessment methodology with external partners ahead of refreshing the internal national security risk assessment early next year.
Exercise Cygnus, carried out in 2016, found:
“The UK’s preparedness and response, in terms of its plans, policies and capability, is currently not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic”.
Key recommendations from the exercise on surge capacity, school closures and protecting care homes were not acted on, which ultimately led to the Government’s chaotic handling of covid-19. Given that the warning signs had been identified in this report, why did the Government handle the pandemic so woefully, and what is being done now to prevent this from ever happening again?
The flaw with Exercise Cygnus was with regard to the risk methodology that sat behind it, and I have given evidence to a number of Select Committees on that basis. The hon. Member will know that we have rectified that now by changing the methodology, so rather than just focus on high-risk situations that would have an incredible detrimental impact and are likely to happen, we also look at situations that would have such an impact but are less likely to happen. It is not just pandemics we have to prepare for; it is a whole raft of possible events. I think that methodology and the new risk register put us in a much stronger position.
Discussions with the Welsh Government: Ministerial Responsibility
Cabinet Office Ministers regularly engage with the Welsh Government and all the devolved Administrations as part of the Government’s continued collaborative working arrangements. I have had recent discussions with Welsh Government Ministers on subjects such as covid-19, the G7 summit and, of course, elections. Since 2021, all ministerial engagements between the Governments of the United Kingdom are published in quarterly reports.
The Welsh Government recently proposed the most radical constitutional change for the whole of the United Kingdom, seeking to change our Union of four nations to a federal structure. Can my right hon. Friend tell me whether he was part of those discussions in any way, in view of the impact they would have for every part of the United Kingdom? Does he share my dismay that the Welsh Government are focusing on constitutional change during a covid pandemic when our focus must be on recovering healthcare, improving education standards and creating jobs? Does he agree that our Union of four nations and constitutional stability offer the best prospect of delivering those outcomes?
Yes, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have the highest regard for the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, and I enjoy working with him. I do not doubt his commitment to public service, but we do disagree on this question. I think my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Welsh Government’s focus, as the UK Government’s focus is, should be wholly on the covid crisis and on economic recovery at this time.
Road Map out of Lockdown: the Immunosuppressed
The Department continues to work with the Health Secretary on these issues. When we set out the details of step 4 regarding those who are immunosuppressed, there will be new guidance that GPs will be able to use when working with those patients.
My constituent Sue Gresham is a tireless campaigner for all those who are immunosuppressed, and she has raised this many times. It was highlighted just last week that those with blood cancer feel there is little information being given about the efficacy of the vaccine being lower for the immunosuppressed. It would be very reassuring if my right hon. Friend could tell me that the Government will write urgently to everyone in the UK whose medical condition requires immuno-suppression to advise that they may not be protected and what precautions they can take themselves as we unlock.
I thank my hon. Friend’s constituent for all the work she has done on these matters. I can say to my hon. Friend that we are in a much better position because of the work that we have previously done on shielding and gathering data on people who might need further protections. In addition to the new guidance I announced for GPs, there is obviously work going on with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, particularly focused on that group to ensure that they are a priority for receiving booster injections.
Civil Service: Jobs Outside London
The Government are committed to relocating 22,000 civil service roles from London by the end of the decade. Our “Places for Growth” portfolio is a vehicle to ensure that between now and 2030 the civil service becomes better connected with the people and communities it serves. A number of Departments have already made announcements about relocation, and further announcements will be made in due course.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Whether because of the 750 civil service jobs in the Treasury, the 500 senior civil servants from the Department for International Trade or the 100 Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy officials, the Westminster-on-Tees new economic campus is set to be a busy place. Does he agree that moving civil service jobs outside London is vital to ensuring that communities across the country are reflected in national policy decisions?
“100%”, as they say on “Love Island”. My hon. Friend is completely right. We must ensure that we make use of the fantastic local talent that there is in the north-east and County Durham so that people whose voices have not been heard loudly enough in the corridors of power are properly represented.
I welcome the moves to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), but the new joint administration just up the road in County Durham has been left high and dry with a £50 million county hall bequeathed to it by the previous Labour administration. To prevent it from becoming an enormous white elephant—a totem to Labour’s hubris in its administration of County Durham for over 100 years—will my right hon. Friend commit to working with the new joint administration in Durham County Council to explore all the possibilities that this new facility might have?
I absolutely will. It is horrific that so much public money has been misused by the former Labour administration in Durham County Council and that the people of that county have been so poorly served. I will of course absolutely investigate that, but I should say that if it was a choice between Durham and Consett for the relocation of Government jobs, I would choose Consett every time.
Small Business: Government Contracts
The UK spends £290 billion on public procurement each year. Now that we have left the EU transition period we want to make it simpler, quicker and cheaper for small and medium-sized enterprises and social enterprises to bid for Government contracts, as set out in our ambitious procurement Green Paper. We have already introduced a policy that will allow below-threshold contracts to be reserved for smaller UK suppliers, and we hope that our new approach to social value will secure wider public benefit, allowing us to contract with firms that deliver more apprenticeships, local growth opportunities and environmental benefits.
I agree with my hon. Friend. We want a much greater variety of companies, including those in Crawley, to deliver Government contracts from every corner of our country, not just because it benefits local economies and communities but because it helps us to diversify our risk, create a more resilient supply base and deliver some of our critical priorities. We are going to be requiring contracts to be divided into smaller lots, publishing contract pipelines more transparently, and improving our guidance to small businesses that are looking to bid.
Voter ID: Levels of Enfranchisement
Voter fraud is a crime that we cannot allow room for, and we must stamp out any potential for it to take place in elections. Strengthening the integrity of our system will give the public confidence that our elections remain secure well into the future, and everybody who is eligible to vote will be able to continue doing so.
At the last general election, 14 million people who registered to vote did not do so, and the Electoral Commission estimates that 9 million eligible citizens were not registered to vote. Do the Government believe that higher turnouts of eligible voters in elections is a good sign for democracy? If so, why are Ministers putting their energy into making voting harder by introducing voter ID?
Yes, I do agree that turnout is incredibly important—and what is more, this policy will not affect it. The evidence of that is in the record from Northern Ireland, which Labour Members appear to be forgetting. The measures will tackle electoral abuse effectively without disadvantaging honest voters. The Government have no intention of taking away people’s democratic right to vote. Mr Speaker,
“If we believed that thousands of voters would not be able to vote because of this measure, we would not be introducing it at this time.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 April 2003; Vol. 646, c. 1248.]
Those are not my words but those of a Labour Minister in 2003, introducing photo ID in Northern Ireland.
If the Minister, in spite of all the data, is determined that our elections would be made more secure by voter ID, does she not accept that the Government should provide ID free to all citizens of voting age, or is she quite content to price some people out of democracy?
The hon. Lady is a long-standing Member of this House and I am looking forward to debating with her enormously, but she simply has not read the papers. What she proposes is exactly what we are doing. I would like to make it absolutely clear here at the Dispatch Box that there will be a free local voter card. It will be free, it will be local, and it make sure that anybody who does not have photographic identification can still vote. I welcome that.
The Minister has previously advised me and the House that polling staff will be given appropriate training on checking photo IDs of individuals who wear headscarves or face coverings. Although the Government have apparently guaranteed the use of privacy screens at polling stations to facilitate private ID checks, many voters will not feel comfortable at the prospect of having to show their face or hair to a polling clerk of the opposite sex, and indeed may not vote. Will the Minister confirm whether her plans include provisions to ensure that there are both male and female staff all day at every one of the 35,500 polling stations across the country, to ensure that voters are not placed in an inappropriate position? How much would she expect that to cost?
The hon. Lady picks up on a very important point. We intend to do this properly. We are making sure that there is the right provision of training in polling stations, as she has already acknowledged, and with that, the right provision of communication to help voters be aware of this very reasonable and proportionate new requirement. All that is detailed in the documents that we put before the House this week. I look forward to debates on this subject, because we are being very honest and straightforward in our approach. We have put the documents there, we have done the research, we have done the pilots, we have done the modelling, we have done the evaluation and we have done the equality impact assessment. All that together will show how this policy is the right thing to do, and the elections integrity Bill protects our democracy, keeping it secure, modern, fair and transparent, as we would all expect it to be.
Covid-19: Ministerial Correspondence
As the Prime Minister has already confirmed, the public inquiry into covid-19 will be established under the Inquiries Act 2005, with formal powers to compel the production of relevant material and to take evidence in public under oath. The Government will, of course, co-operate with the inquiry fully.
Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster confirm whether using private email accounts to discuss sensitive Government business is in breach of the Freedom of Information Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Data Protection Act or the Public Records Act, which make requirements on the use of Government information? Will he guarantee today that all Ministers’ private email accounts will be available to the public inquiry into the Government’s mishandling of the covid pandemic?
Verify continues to work well and it supports 18 services. More than 8 million Verify accounts have been created, with over 2.6 million added since the start of the pandemic as citizens access critical online services. Building on the lessons and experience of Verify, and as we announced in last year’s spending review, the Government Digital Service is collaborating with other Departments to develop a new login and identity assurance system that will make it much easier for more people to use online services safely. While the new system is being developed, users and connected services will continue to rely on gov.uk Verify, so that means that the Government have decided to extend the current service until April 2022.
It has actually been a shambles—a huge waste of public money, an absolute Conservative failure. In the light of the recent report from the so-called regulatory reform taskforce sponsored by No. 10, which recommends reducing the protections for citizens under the GDPR, will the Minister assure the House that there will be no use of personal data for any purpose other than that which it has been explicitly given?
How we use citizens’ data is going to be absolutely critical to building trust in the new system that we are building. That new system will reuse parts of Verify, but we must have an open conversation about what we will do to protect people’s data. There will not be any data lakes, for instance, and we will be building a new Government data exchange that will look at these areas very carefully, because, as I say, any new system has to be based on trust between Government and citizen, and that will be key to its success.
Ministerial Code: Enforcement
Ministers are personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves in the light of the code, and for justifying their actions and conduct to Parliament and the public. The Prime Minister is the ultimate judge of the standards required and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards.
Sadly, the Government have shown time and again that they cannot be trusted to work within the system as it stands. Will the Government commit to placing the ministerial code on a statutory footing and give the adviser on Ministers’ interests powers to instigate his own investigations?
We think it is the right thing, in the context of our constitution, that the ministerial code and its enforcement and expectations sit with the Prime Minister, because he is, appropriately, the appointer of the Executive and is accountable to the sovereign for that. That is the constitutional set-up that we are talking about, so we think it is the right thing for the code to reflect that and therefore not be based on a statutory system. I add that the Prime Minister appointed Lord Geidt recently as the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests and spoke with him about the second point that the hon. Lady raised—whether there might be initiation for that adviser. The Prime Minister has set out his response to the recommendation that there might be the ability to advise the PM on the initiation of investigations.
My Department, along with the Leader of the House, has been reviewing the English votes for English laws procedure. The procedure has been suspended since April 2020 and, having reflected on the procedure, the Government believe that it has not served our Parliament well and that removing it would simplify the legislative process. It is a fundamental principle that all constituent parts of the United Kingdom should be equally represented in Parliament. Any changes, of course, would be for the House to decide and we will bring forward a motion in due course.
I would reassure them by saying that all Government business is transacted through civil service colleagues, and that in order to ensure that a single penny of taxpayers’ money is spent, or that a single decision is taken, that might infringe, or enhance anyone’s liberty, it has to go through the process of review, legislation and action, which civil servants and Ministers do together in a way that is always clear, transparent and publicly accountable.
In the inquiry by the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs into the collapse of Greensill Capital, many of our witnesses so far have prayed in aid the advice given to them by Sue Gray, who at the time was director general for propriety and ethics at the Cabinet Office. She was invited to attend our Committee on Tuesday; her office initially accepted that invitation, but I am told that she has now declined it on the advice of those more senior at the Cabinet Office. It is vital that the Committee be able to hear from Ms Gray, given that she was mentioned so many times by others. May I therefore ask my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to ensure that she will attend on Tuesday as planned?
My hon. Friend chairs the Committee brilliantly, but there are rules—the Osmotherly rules. They stress that serving civil servants act only in accordance with the wishes of Ministers and therefore it is rarely appropriate for them to appear to be questioned in the way that my hon. Friend would like. So I am ready, willing and able to appear in front of the Committee, but it is my view that it would be inappropriate for a serving civil servant to appear in the way that my hon. Friend requests.
Football is indeed coming home, but I also think that the chickens are coming home to roost for this Government. The Government’s spokesperson said last week that
“there was no high priority lane for testing suppliers…and there was no separate ‘fast track process’”.
Can the Minister for the Cabinet Office tell me what exactly the role was of the consultant to the testing procurement programme who described his role as
“to lead VIP stakeholder engagement with…Lord…Bethell”,
who is still somehow a Minister. If there is no fast track, why did the right hon. Gentleman’s own procurement director order officials to mark bids that came from Ministers’ email addresses as “fast track”?
There were lots of interesting questions there. The first thing that I should say is that Lord Bethell is doing a fantastic job in the Department of Health and Social Care. I think that it is quite wrong for the right hon. Lady to cast aspersions on his dedicated public service and the work that he has done as Minister for Innovation.
The second thing that I should say is that every single procurement decision went through an eight-stage process in order to ensure that every single piece of personal protective equipment, or everything—[Interruption.] Useful commentary there from the Alan Hansen of politics, but the truth is that actually we have always been in compliance with the rules, unlike the Scottish Government. Audit Scotland has pointed out to the Scottish Government that they need to do better, and indeed they must.
I listened to the Minister’s answer, and I can tell him that Lord Bethell is no Sterling. The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson stated last week that no Ministers had used private emails to conduct Government business. Surely the Minister now accepts that that is untrue. Will he tell us when the Prime Minister will correct the record?
I listened to the Minister’s response to my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe). We have already submitted freedom of information requests to seek the publication of emails, but will the Minister agree now to publish every such email about Government contracts? Can he make a guarantee to the House today for bereaved families—including my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), who made a very passionate speech at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday—that every single one of those emails is secured for the public inquiry?
The right hon. Lady quite rightly refers to the very powerful question from the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), and I think all of us deeply sympathise with the family loss that he has had to endure, as so many others have had to. It is precisely because we take these things seriously that we took steps to ensure that we could source personal protective equipment as quickly as possible. Of course, we did so in a way that was entirely consistent with good procurement practice. We used the measures that were used by the Labour Government in Wales and by the SNP Government in Scotland to ensure that we could get things to the frontline as effectively as possible and in accordance with fair procedure.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we reflect on how public-spirited individuals such as Alan Halsall and Darren Grimes were treated, I think it was quite right for the new head of the Electoral Commission to issue an apology. The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission is a means by which parties across this House can ensure that the Electoral Commission does its important job, and the Elections Bill will ensure that the Speaker’s Committee and others play an important role in making sure that the Electoral Commission does its job properly.
The hon. Lady raises an important question. Action is being taken by the Transport Secretary, and the issue was discussed earlier this week at Cabinet. I am also working with Lord Frost to ensure that we can have free-flowing freight and that we get the goods that we need to consumers in a timely fashion.
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely correct. In a former life he was a distinguished leader of West Sussex County Council and, as such, he knows how important it is to the delivery of public services to ensure that one has appropriate metrics, one shares data and that one uses digital innovation to improve service delivery. I look forward to working with him to improve Government delivery in just that way.
It is not my job to monitor the personal emails of all my colleagues. If I did, I suspect—[Interruption.] Well, it might be quite interesting, actually; quite entertaining. The key thing is you cannot conduct Government business from private email to private email. The only way you can conduct Government business is through civil servants.
And indeed Peterlee. My hon. Friend makes a very important point. As we heard earlier from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham, it is a pity that the Labour administration in County Durham have squandered County Durham taxpayers’ money in the way that they have, but the point that my hon. Friend makes about the Advanced Research and Invention Agency’s potential location in the north-east and in Durham is a very good one, and I will discuss it with the Business Secretary.
We are only following what the Labour party does. It was the Labour party that introduced the requirement for voter ID in Northern Ireland, as the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) pointed out earlier. It is also the case that one can vote in internal Labour elections only by using voter ID. I do not know whether there is an internal Labour election coming up soon. The shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), will be better informed on that question than me—[Interruption.] Sorry! Anyway, to vote in a Labour election, you need voter ID.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We do not currently have plans to do that, but she makes a fair point. As everyone knows, for the remaining hereditary peerages in the House of Lords, when an hereditary peer in any one of the party or Cross-Bench groups passes away, there is a by-election among those who are eligible, but at the moment in nearly every case the franchise and candidacy is restricted to men. That is something we should definitely look at.
The hon. Lady raises an important point. There is much that we need to do to ensure the more effective inclusion in civic life of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller individuals. First, we must start with making sure that they receive a higher quality of education than is currently the case. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children are among those with the worst educational outcomes and we need to address that in order to make sure that they play their full part in public life. But there is absolutely no evidence that the requirement for voter ID will do anything to discriminate against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller individuals.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. When I was in the north-east and the Western Isles recently, I heard individuals and businesses crying out for economic support. When I explained that the UK Government had given significant sums to the Scottish Government in the covid crisis to deal with the emergency, the question was, “How has it been spent?” Because there has been no accountability and no transparency on the part of the Scottish Government. We have no idea how that money has been spent and the Scottish Parliament does not yet have the powers necessary to get that information. However, Her Majesty’s Treasury can ask tough questions and require information to be shared, and unless the Scottish Government are more transparent, I will have to consider how I can work with Ministers and with my hon. Friend to make sure that Scottish taxpayers know where their money has gone.
No. This Government are committed to devolution. Like the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, we believe in a United Kingdom that gets the best of both worlds: a strong Westminster Government working with strong devolved institutions. Of course, I recognise that, in the spirit of providing the Scottish people with a choice, the hon. Gentleman decided to leave the Scottish National party in order to set up, with Mr Salmond, the Alba party. One reason he did so is that he believed that the Scottish Government were doing a poor job, that they were not making the case effectively for independence and, indeed, that the way in which they were discharging their responsibilities actually corroded the case for independence. On the final point, the hon. Gentleman and I are as one.
Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster outline what collective approach has been taken by BEIS and the Cabinet Office to address some of the issues affecting small businesses with regard to the import of hundreds of products to Northern Ireland? I know that he has a particular interest in this issue. Businesses are being prevented from trading normally, as things were pre-31 December 2020; they are under stress and it has reduced their income. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree to grant funding for a loss of income, as business have been impacted through no fault of their own?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As a result of the particular interpretation of the Northern Ireland protocol on which some in the European Commission have insisted, businesses in Strangford and elsewhere have faced additional costs. We have already devoted money through the trader support service and other means to support businesses, but I will talk to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Treasury and Lord Frost to see what we can do to ensure that businesses in Strangford and elsewhere in Northern Ireland are not further disadvantaged.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 12 July will include:
Monday 12 July—Second Reading of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.
Tuesday 13 July—Remaining stages of the Armed Forces Bill, followed by a motion to approve the draft Health and Social Care Act 2008 (Regulated Activities) (Amendment) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2021, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to terrorism, followed by a motion relating to English votes for English laws, followed by a motion relating to the appointment of the chairman of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.
Wednesday 14 July—Second Reading of the Health and Care Bill.
Thursday 15 July—Debate on a motion relating to the Northern Ireland protocol, followed by a debate on a motion relating to the Peking Winter Olympics and Chinese Government sanctions. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 16 July—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 19 July will include:
Monday 19 July—Second Reading of the Nationality and Borders Bill (day 1).
Tuesday 20 July—Conclusion of the Second Reading of the Nationality and Borders Bill (day 2).
Wednesday 21 July—Second Reading of the Building Safety Bill.
Thursday 22 July—Debate on a motion relating to the fifth report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee entitled “A public inquiry into the Government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic”, followed by matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee and the Liaison Committee.
At the conclusion of business on Thursday 22 July, the House will rise for the summer recess and return on Monday 6 September.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business and look forward to our debate on ending all EVEL next week.
Gareth Southgate inspires his players to be the best they can be and to do it for their country. He backs them in their campaigning for social and racial justice, even under criticism. He instils relentless focus on hard work. He inspires them to be gracious in victory, as well as to learn from experience. He has rightly identified these values as patriotism. I would love us all to learn from the Gareth Southgate model of patriotic leadership. We all congratulate England on their amazing success last night. We cheer them on for Sunday and, yes, it will probably be just my parents listening to me on “Westminster Hour” on Sunday evening. Caring about the world’s poorest is a British value. People’s support for an England team proud of its belief in social justice shows that that is true, so will the Government honour them and grant a proper debate and a vote on international aid-?
Caring about the NHS is a British value, and people showed that as they marked its birthday this week. Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) spoke movingly for so many who have had the pain of not being with a loved at the end of life because of covid rules. Will the Leader of the House ask the Health Secretary to reward the dedicated NHS and care staff, who stepped up for their country to care for people’s loved ones, with a pay rise that we know they deserve?
Building a better world for our children is also a British value. British people care deeply about protecting animals, nature and the planet. Yet despite recent warnings, such as the devastating heatwaves in the Pacific north-west, the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan to deal with climate change, announced seven months ago, appears to be just talk and is nowhere on the Order Paper or in the forthcoming business. He talked of home insulation, so when we will have a replacement for the Government’s failed green homes grant? He talked of his plan creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. How many jobs has it created so far? The Climate Change Committee says:
“This defining year for the UK’s climate credentials has been marred by uncertainty and delay”.
“With every month of inaction, it is harder for the UK to get on track.”
The Leader of the House said a few years ago that he would rather his constituents had cheap energy than windmills. Is it possible that his failure to notice the value of wind energy is connected in any way to any investments that his company may or may not have in fossil fuels? Does he understand that an ambitious heat and building strategy, which was due last year, would make his constituents’ homes warmer and cheaper? The committee said:
“Only five of 34 sectors assessed have shown notable progress in the past two years, and no sector is yet scoring highly”,
and that we should be
“learning from the COVID-19 response.”
That Government said to the Environmental Audit Committee that they want to do that, but how can they do it if they refuse even to examine the covid-19 response? When will the British public get our public inquiry?
Shining leadership is another proud British value exemplified by Gareth Southgate. The UK will be in a unique position this year when world leaders come to Glasgow to discuss climate change. We have the chance to shine. If the UK showcases strong policies to cut emissions and improve lives, it could set the standard globally, but if the Government are unable to follow through on their own commitments, they are letting us down and other countries may falter.
Fairness is also a defining British value. There is a motion from Labour on the Order Paper to sort out the unfair loophole that allows the MP found to have sexually harassed staff to avoid recall from his constituents. Everyone knows this needs sorting. I know the news is reporting that he has been warned to stay away, but there is nothing to stop him returning and staff have concerns. Things can be done retrospectively and quickly when the Government want, as they showed this week with the Building Safety Bill and the regulations for late pub licensing, so why should the people of Delyn be denied their right to the value of democracy because of a technicality that we know we will fix?
As I said last week, the Prime Minister consistently does not do his homework. Yesterday, he could not answer vital questions from the Leader of the Opposition and later at the Liaison Committee about critical covid data. Will the Leader of the House ask the Prime Minister to be frank with the British public and show his working for such life-changing decisions?
In contrast to the Prime Minister, Gareth Southgate and the England team value hard work, discipline and preparation, and the British people seem to appreciate those qualities. For the sake of our country and the wonderful people who live and work here, I hope the Prime Minister spends some time over the next few days studying at the Gareth Southgate school of leadership. The British people will be asking themselves who they want to lead them. Do they want someone who works hard and has a relentless focus on embodying British values, or do they want the current Prime Minister? I know what I think, and I am pretty sure the British people will be telling us that soon.
Everyone, I think, is rejoicing at the football success. I think the line to take is from Mr Barnes:
“You’ve got to hold and give
But do it at the right time
You can be slow or fast
But you must get to the line”.
May I reassure you, Mr Speaker, that
“We ain’t no hooligans
This ain’t a football song
Three lions on my chest
I know we can’t go wrong”?
As another John—John Dryden—put it:
“For they conquer who believe they can.”
I think, for the record, that Dryden was translating Virgil in those comments, but the point is exactly the same: it is indeed the excellent leadership of Mr Southgate that led to such a good triumph yesterday against Denmark. Let us hope for the same on Sunday. I say to right hon. and hon. Members that they can always listen to the “Westminster Hour” on playback, and they can enjoy listening to the hon. Lady’s dulcet tones on that unmissable and particularly well-hosted programme.
Let me come to the hon. Lady’s points. I think everyone was impressed and moved by what the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) said yesterday. It was a very powerful intervention, and it is what the nation has endured for the past 15 months. It is a reminder of why it has been endured: it was to protect lives. Fortunately, the vaccine is now protecting lives, which allows us to reopen, but that does not begin to lift the sorrow from the families who have been affected, and the hon. Gentleman was right to raise that in the House yesterday.
The NHS is recognised across the country, and the award of the George Cross was a symbolic recognition of that. Of course, pay is a difficult issue because we have spent as a nation £407 billion on protecting the economy, so it is about trying to ensure that the recognition is there within the resources that we have as a country and the amount that taxpayers have.
The hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) mentioned the Government’s efforts on the environment. The Environment Bill is still in the House of Lords. The Bill was passed in the Commons and carried over into this Session in the Lords, where every line and detail are now being debated—their lordships were debating it last night, I think, while others were watching the football; carrying on diligently, doing their bit for the nation. The Bill, which will come back to us, is a really important piece of legislation that will have a fundamental effect in helping us to meet our commitment to net zero.
The Government can be very proud of what we have done so far. The hon. Lady quoted me as saying a few years ago that I wanted cheap energy rather than windmills, but now we are getting both, which is much better. That is a huge success for the British people. Since 1990, we have driven down emissions by 44%—the fastest reduction of any G7 country—and grown our economy by 78%. What we want is economic growth and cleaner growth. What we do not want is to trash the economy and live in a cave. We want prosperity for the British people, and that is what we are getting. The hon. Lady says she wants environmentally friendly jobs, and so do I, and we are getting them, from Nissan and Vauxhall, because we are doing it successfully and in an economically intelligent way.
The Prime Minister has set out a 10-point plan on how we achieve net zero, how we ensure that the economy grows and how we become more environmentally friendly. Point 2 of the plan is on the opportunities of hydrogen, to allow clean energy with water the only emission. That is fantastic, because then we can all get back into our motorcars, as what comes out the end will be clean. It will be good for the motorist and good for the environment, and I think that is very exciting.
As regards the inquiry into covid, that has been promised by the end of the Session, as the Prime Minister has made clear. We are actually having a debate on a report produced by one of our most distinguished Select Committees, announced in Backbench Business time, before the summer recess.
As regards fairness and the Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts), I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the motion that she has tabled. The first two thirds of it, of course, are the motion that I asked to be shared with her for discussion at the House of Commons Commission, and of course for discussion with the employees of the House and Sir Stephen Irwin. It is very important that this is done on a consensual basis, and I think that the motion is a helpful contribution to the debate.
Of course, it is open to the Opposition to bring forward their motion on an Opposition day. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady says that they have not had one, but they have actually had three of four Opposition days since this issue arose. They decide to bring forward the motion at the point at which they are waiting for one, but they will get more, as there is a commitment to Opposition days in the Standing Orders. I think it is a helpful contribution to the debate. It is very important to maintain the independence of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, but the motion put forward originated with the Clerks of this House and is a useful contribution to the debate.
As regards the PM and statistics, some of us will recall a former Prime Minister who used to reel off statistics from this great Dispatch Box—it was not then covered with Perspex—so let me model myself on that great lady and remind the hon. Lady of some of the statistics on what has happened over the past year: £407 billion of taxpayers’ money supporting the economy, families and businesses; 14.5 million jobs and people helped through the furlough and self-employment schemes, at a cost of £91.1 billion to the taxpayer; protecting the most vulnerable with £8 billion for the welfare system; protecting thousands of businesses with over £100 billion of support; extending the furlough and self-employment schemes until the end of September; restart grants of up to £18,000 for retain, hospitality, leisure and personal care businesses. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady just sits there chuntering, because she does not want to hear the facts, and the facts are that the figures stack up and the Government have done an amazing amount to keep the economy going.
Is it not wonderful that the entire country is today talking about football, and not about covid or Brexit? My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is a great and distinguished democrat, and a stalwart supporter of the rights of this House and of Parliament, so can he explain why, having announced the business today, he is sending the House off for the summer recess without a vote on the 0.7% commitment? For how much longer will he continue to disrespect this House and run away from a vote on the matter, and to disobey your specific injunction, Mr Speaker, at 3.30 pm on Monday 14 June?
Mr Speaker, it is even better than that. We had an opportunity for a vote, which my right hon. Friend passed up. He is a very experienced parliamentarian. He has been here much longer than I have. He is well aware that estimates are in fact the foundation of the power of the House of Commons to approve the expenditure of the Government. Estimates are votable. The failure to pass an estimate would have been a major problem for the Government, who would have had to bring back a new estimate. The fact that my right hon. Friend has not studied Erskine May carefully enough, and has therefore missed his opportunity, is not my problem but his.
It would be churlish not to recognise the great sporting success of the last 24 hours. I am sure the whole House would like to congratulate Surrey for finishing seven not out to deny Hampshire victory—I am sure that is much more up the Leader of the House’s street.
Football may or may not be coming home in the next few days, but I will certainly be going home when business questions concludes. There is one place where there has been a massive defeat, and that is on the Government’s English votes for English laws procedure. We will finally bury that appalling, time-wasting mess next week. I do not know whether it was dividing the membership of this House into two different and distinct classes of Member or the ridiculous attempts to have some sort of quasi-English Parliament squat here in the national Parliament of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that convinced the Government to back down, but it is a massive victory for the Scottish National party; our campaign of ridicule and disparagement of the whole nonsense has won. We do not often get victories in this place, but we will be celebrating next Tuesday.
I support the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). The House simply must have the opportunity to vote on this Government’s overseas aid cuts before the recess. All that rubbish about estimates is not good enough. It has to be a dedicated vote. It is not often that Members of Opposition parties say that the Government must uphold their manifesto commitments, but that is what they must do, and we must have that vote before the recess.
We rise in a couple of weeks, and all the provisions for virtual participation and proxy voting will fall. Infections and hospitalisations are rising exponentially with the Johnson variant, and we do not know where we will be in September. What provision will the Leader of the House put in place for if this House needs to review its arrangements and requires some of the facilities that we have come to rely on over the past year?
It is always a pleasure to hear from the hon. Gentleman when he is not feeling churlish. I hate to think what he would sound like when he is feeling churlish.
As regards plans for this House, such plans can always be made swiftly if necessary. On EVEL, I am delighted to suggest it is a victory for the SNP, but is also a victory for people of my way of thinking about our constitution. This is important—within this House, we are the Parliament of the whole of the United Kingdom. That is why on occasions, though not as a general practice of course, laws will be passed without legislative consent motions, as with powers that came back from the European Union—in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, for example—where the Scottish Parliament was not willing to agree legislative consent motions. That is part of an overall package of the restoration of powers to the United Kingdom Parliament from the European Union, and we are the nation’s Parliament. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman recognises that.
As regards the 0.7%, I point out that we remain one of the world’s largest donors at 0.5%. That is an impost on British taxpayers, and it is Her Majesty’s Government being charitable on behalf of British taxpayers. I will go back to my constitutional lecture, because I think people are simply failing to understand the importance of estimates, which are fundamental to the powers of this House. The ability to approve expenditure is what historically gave this House its power over the Executive, and the ability to vote down an estimate is one that is rarely used because of its very profound consequence. What I ask the House and those who support the hon. Gentleman is, if they feel as strongly about the issue as they say, why did they not use the tool available to them?
Let me go into this in a little more detail. Had the estimate been voted down, the Foreign Office and overseas aid would have run out of money after the initial estimate, which was done earlier in the year, had expired. A proportionate amount of money is agreed before the beginning of the financial year and would then run out if the final estimate were not to be approved. In that event, the Government have to come forward with a new estimate and it would have to be an estimate that they thought they could get through the House. As a matter of simple constitutional fact, had the House chosen to vote on the estimates, it would have left the Government in a position where they would have had bring forward a new motion for overseas aid expenditure in the Foreign Office. Otherwise, all our embassies would have run out of money. They would not have been able to pay their water bills. It is a failure of those who stand up and chunter about this not to use the tools to hand. It is really not my fault if they have not studied “Erskine May” carefully enough.
My right hon. Friend recommended reading “Erskine May”. I happen to have the 25th edition of “Erskine May” with me. Of course, what it makes clear is quite how difficult it is to amend an estimate, so much so that the last time that one was successfully amended was one century ago; he may remember—it was 1921. It makes it very clear that the Crown’s prerogative on the monopoly of financial initiative means that the only thing we can do in this House, unless the Crown acts differently, is to cut the bill, not increase it.
My right hon. Friend’s argument to the House is that we should do away with all the aid in order to get more aid. I am not quite sure that the public—or, indeed, the ambassadors, with their redundancy notices—would have quite understood that. It is rather sad that the Government are playing such games with this very, very important issue.
My right hon. Friend is a kindly man and he will know that, unlike most of the debates he is asked for, every day that goes by without this debate means that more people go without aid, particularly in places such as Yemen, where there is a famine right now. In the words of the United Nations Secretary-General, the ex-Prime Minister of Portugal, António Guterres, under famine conditions
“cutting aid is a death sentence.”
Can we please have this debate as soon as possible, so that we can change the Government’s policy for the better?
The problem with pre-prepared questions is that they miss out what has been said before, so I will reiterate it: had the estimate been voted down, not amended—I did not mention amending—the Government would have had to come forward with a new estimate by early August, otherwise the money would run out. It is a very straightforward mechanism that my right hon. Friend failed to use. That is rather surprising, when he is such an experienced parliamentarian. He has been in the House much longer than I have, as has my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell).
Our overseas aid budget must be what we as a nation can afford. We had our largest peacetime deficit in the last financial year because of the covid crisis. We cannot afford to be as generous as we once were, but we must ensure that the money we spend is spent as wisely as possible and on the alleviation of disasters, which is a fundamentally important part of our overseas aid budget.
As always, I am grateful to be called, Mr Speaker. I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business up to the recess and for protecting the time for the Backbench Business Committee debate this afternoon. I hope that he can ensure that we have some time for Backbench Business debates in the first week back following the summer recess; we would be very grateful if he could facilitate that.
Can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport prior to the summer recess about what his Department will be doing to address the huge shortage in heavy goods vehicle drivers in the road haulage industry? I have been contacted by representatives of the road haulage industry in my constituency of Gateshead who have really pressing concerns about the current situation and the implications for the industry and, more importantly, for the reopening of the economy over the next few months.
Mr Speaker, you might know that I chair the all-party parliamentary group for football supporters. Being a Newcastle United fan, I have come to expect nothing, so anything we get is a bonus, but congratulations to England; getting to the final is a great achievement. They are in the final—go on and win it.
I seem to remember that the late Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Hume, was a supporter of Newcastle as well, so I imagine there is some heavenly support for the hon. Gentleman’s team currently.
I hear the hon. Gentleman’s appeal for Backbench Business time. We always do our best, on behalf of the Government, to facilitate that. As regards the HGV driver shortage, the Government are aware of it and steps have been taken to implement several long-term solutions across Government, including the development of a large goods vehicle driver apprenticeship programme by the Department for Transport and the Department for Education aimed at addressing long-term driver skills shortages and improved labour supply. There is consideration of extending delivery hours, but the food industry is very well versed in dealing with delivery requirements and necessities. There is a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport coming up, but I think, Mr Speaker, you may get a bit worried if goes from overseas travel on to—
Returning to the issue of overseas aid and the target, is it not the case that the Government are doing one of two things? Either they are seeking to change that statutory target without parliamentary approval, in which case, although I would be the last person to ask the Government to disclose their own legal advice, they will have to explain why legal opinions that say that is unlawful are wrong, as I for one, do not believe they are; or alternatively, they are making use of provisions in the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015, which set that target in statute, that allow it to be missed in exceptional circumstances.
Those are two different things and I am not clear, from the pronouncements of various Ministers, which of the two is Government policy. Surely my right hon. Friend accepts that the House is entitled to absolute clarity on which of the two it is. If the Government are really proposing to change primary legislation, is it not incumbent on them to seek parliamentary support for that, rather than expect Parliament to use a device such as estimates in order to discuss it? If, on the other hand, the Government are missing the target but not changing it, then we need a statement to explore how compliance with the target will be restored.
The Leader of the House referred to distinguished Select Committees, but when the Future Relationship with the European Union Committee wrote to him about its untimely and premature demise, our plea fell on deaf ears. The same applies to international aid: not only no vote but no Committee. At a time when we have a diminishing percentage of a shrinking pot, surely scrutiny now is needed more than ever. Gaza is in ruins and we have a global pandemic. As a Back Bencher, the right hon. Gentleman was an assiduous Committee member. Can he prove that accountability still matters and that with his new lofty position the power has not just gone to his head?
The overseas aid Committee has been retained, so I am slightly puzzled that the hon. Lady thinks it has been abolished. It was kept, under its very distinguished Chairman. As regards the Brexit Select Committee, Brexit happened and therefore its purpose had come to an end. I am glad to say, however, that there is an excellent Committee that does its role—much better, actually, than the Brexit Committee ever did it—which is the European Scrutiny Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash).
While I am absolutely delighted that football and the summer Adjournment debate are coming home, will my right hon. Friend please find time for a debate on what appears to be the inappropriate application of “do not resuscitate” orders by certain hospitals without the express consent of the patient and their loved ones. I do understand that during the height of the pandemic those orders were made on an individual needs basis, but on such a sensitive subject everyone involved should be consulted.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is quite wrong for “do not attempt CPR” decisions to be applied in a blanket fashion to any group of people. Those decisions should be made only when the person involved and their carers and families have been consulted. We do not want to see efforts to introduce euthanasia by the backdoor by not reviving people who ought to be revived. I will of course pass on my hon. Friend’s concerns to my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary.
Our high streets have been struggling for many years now, and covid has accelerated the challenges they face. There was another example of that last week when, sadly, Neston post office closed its doors for the last time. I understand that there is interest from some potential new operators, but experience has shown us that it can take many, many months for those interests to come to fruition. For a town of Neston’s size to have no post office for any period of time is simply unacceptable, so can we have a debate please on what we can do to have more statutory obligations on the Post Office to ensure that vital public services are not left from towns for any length of time?
The Government certainly recognise the difficulties that town centres are facing, hence the towns fund, which is £2 billion of funding offering town deals to 86 places across England, which includes accelerated funding provided to places last year. The towns fund will mainly spend taxpayers’ money of £25 million in each town, although in exceptional circumstances more is available. The ability to go to the post office or to banks and other essential services is of course of great importance. The Post Office has to ensure that it provides as much service as possible within the budget that it has got.
In the east midlands, we have a huge amount of potential but have been consistently at the bottom of the tables for public and private sector investment. I sense your concern about that, Mr Speaker, and I know you wish to see us playing a key part in the Government’s levelling up agenda, so you will be pleased to hear that we have all sorts of plans in place from our freeport development corporation, to plans around HS2, fusion energy and bids to the towns fund and the levelling up fund. Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate these key priorities in the House ahead of the levelling up White Paper and spending review in the autumn?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his determined representation of his county and his constituency. He has raised this issue with a much higher level; he recently met the Prime Minister to discuss the east midlands freeport and HS2 and how it might benefit his area, so his campaigning is proving very effective and his voice is being heard throughout the land, and particularly in Downing Street. The Prime Minister will publish the landmark levelling up White Paper later this year, which will include our plans for strengthening local accountable leadership. In total, we have committed nearly £3.5 billion of taxpayers’ money for councils and businesses in the east midlands, so may I suggest to my hon. Friend that he might want to raise this matter further, either in a Westminster Hall debate or at the end-of-term Adjournment debate?
The Leader of the House may recall that I am my wife’s carer. A year ago, at the height of the pandemic, I found myself in an extremely difficult situation in terms of carrying out my parliamentary duties, voting, making speeches and contributions and so on. I want to go on the record in thanking the Leader of the House and everyone else who managed to sort this out. It has been of great benefit, and me and my family are truly grateful.
May I ask the Leader of the House to cast his eye to September and what may or may not happen in terms of how the House conducts its business? Could I ask him to give earnest consideration to consulting people like me in my situation, disabled people and people who might have a health condition as to how we might enable all of us to participate as much as possible, if the capricious covid virus does something we do not expect in the months ahead?
I am touched by the hon. Gentleman’s thanks. I am not sure I deserve them as fully as he has given them, but I am none the less very grateful. I am always open to listening to hon. and right hon. Members who have suggestions about how the House is operating and what we may or may not need to do in future in relation to covid, as I know are the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) and indeed you, Mr Speaker. We are obviously hoping that everything will be back to normal and that is the basis on which plans are being made, but man proposes and God disposes.
May we have a debate in Government time to discuss the proposed May ’22 train timetable changes, which cut the number of Darlington to London trains by a third? Delaying this timetable change would allow a proper assessment of the impact not only of coronavirus on the trains, but of the massive Government investment going into Teesside with our new freeport and Treasury North. Crucially, a delay would provide more time to develop the business case to introduce a direct Redcar to London service, which I am sure the Leader of the House agrees would be a great addition to the network.
I am sure that having a Redcar service coming straight to London—a fast service—would benefit the nation and lift spirits. As I believe the Prime Minister said, Redcar has become “Bluecar”. That is probably Thomas the Tank Engine, who I seem to remember is the blue train.
I completely understand the difficulties that train timetable alterations create. Obviously, there has been great pressure on the train timetables during the course of the pandemic, and the losses that the railways are making have required some changes, but I will take up my hon. Friend’s point with the Secretary of State for Transport.
I think everyone can see the rank hypocrisy in the UK Government, who seek to deny a future referendum on Scottish independence, simultaneously and unlawfully misdirecting money towards carrying out opinion polling on Scottish attitudes to the Union that was intended to go to the public health efforts against covid. Why, if now is not the time, was that polling activity undertaken? Will the Leader of the House use his good offices to prevail upon his colleagues to place the outcomes and findings of that research in the Library, so that the public might better understand exactly what it was that they got for their money?
When important communications have to be sent to the country at large around something such as covid, it is important to understand how people feel and how they will respond to the messages. The hon. Gentleman raises the question of Governments listening. I recall that the Shetland Islands last September asked whether it could look at ways of having more independence, possibly including becoming a Crown dependency. As Lord President of the Council, I am particularly interested in that question of its becoming a Crown dependency, because that activity would then come through the Privy Council. Of course, the Shetland Islands would be one of the richest sets of islands almost anywhere in the world if it were able to have the oil revenues that would accrue to it. I wonder what the Scottish Government are doing in response to the Shetland Islands. They are so keen always to have votes and so on; perhaps they will have a vote on independence for Shetland.
First, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of whether football is finally coming home? Secondly, does he agree that levelling up and the cities for growth agenda must not be limited to cities alone, and will he visit Melton Mowbray to see where I am campaigning for a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs office to open in the rural capital of food? If DEFRA cannot open an office in a rural town and prove that we care for our rural areas, then what Department will?
I think, as England could win against New Zealand in the 50-over world championship, there is hope for all our sporting heroes, and therefore let us be cautiously optimistic about what will happen on Sunday. But it is possibly unwise of a non-expert in this area to make a forecast—not that we think much of experts as a general rule, but we will leave that to one side.
As regards the levelling up agenda, of course it must not be limited to cities alone. I represent a rural constituency, and I feel it is really important that the whole of our country is levelled up. That is the point of levelling up. As regards DEFRA moving to my hon. Friend’s constituency and improving, therefore, the consumption of pork pies, which I believe are a great delicacy from Melton Mowbray—I am grateful for the opportunity to visit—I think she is right to campaign for that. I encourage her to do so, but I cannot promise what the answer will be from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
Another business questions and still no movement on the Government’s plans to eradicate the practice of fire and rehire. Continuing the football theme, it is like Ministers taking the ball into the corner to run down the clock until we get to recess, without actually having to do anything. It is months now since the Government received the ACAS report, so can we have a statement before recess outlining the Government’s position and what they plan to do to stop this scourge and this inhuman practice?
We did have a statement in response to the ACAS report on fire and rehire, the complexities of that report and the way in which it would best be implemented, and the Government’s clear recognition that fire and rehire as a tactic is a bad practice. But there may be circumstances where the best protection of jobs involves an element of it, and therefore the straightforward banning of it altogether would not necessarily improve employment opportunities.
In recent weeks, I have met several of my local parish and town councils, and they have all led on a rise in antisocial behaviours that is affecting their communities and residents. Some residents are living in fear, and more often than not it is a small group of people, sometimes even one family, causing chaos for those around them. I know that I have the full support of the new police and crime commissioner in Derbyshire, but may we have a debate in Government time on the powers that our police, district councils, county councils and, indeed, parish councils have in respect of residents who cause so much trouble for other residents, and their powers to make sure that communities do not suffer the blight of antisocial behaviour?
Yes, and I sympathise with my hon. Friend, because every one of us has, as a constituency MP, come across instances of antisocial behaviour caused by a very small number of people. My experience is that the powers are there and that our role as Members of Parliament is to co-ordinate the local agencies and get them to use the powers that they have. When those powers are used, very often these problems are solved. I remind my hon. Friend that the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 provides the police, local authorities and other local agencies with a range of tools and powers. Although they can respond quickly and effectively to antisocial behaviour, sometimes it does not register with the relevant authorities early enough, which is why we as MPs play a useful role in bringing the focus of attention to it and encouraging them to use the powers that they have. My hon. Friend may want to raise this issue at Home Office questions on Monday.
The dream of transforming the Northumberland economy and leading the way in the green industrial revolution with 8,000 new local, well-paid, skilled, secure jobs in my constituency of Wansbeck came a step closer this week with the approval of the plans for the Britishvolt gigafactory in Cambois. The plans are to manufacture 300,000 lithium-ion electric car batteries annually. Is it not ironic that my constituency, which was hugely dependent on coal mining, now has this unmissable opportunity to greatly assist the UK in its zero-carbon objectives? As with Ellesmere Port and Nissan, Government assistance will be essential, so can we have a debate in Government time to discuss how and what assistance can be given to ensure that local people are at the front of the queue and will be adequately trained and skilled up and in employment for day one of the planned construction?
The hon. Gentleman is a great parliamentarian. I fear it must have pained him to praise a Conservative Government so much, so I am all the more grateful for the fact that he has done it and for the sincerity with which he did. I am tempted to exceed my remit and simply grant the debate he asked for, because he asked for it so charmingly, but I think I will leave it at a suggestion that it should be a matter for an Adjournment debate. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support and co-operation, which shows that we can work on a cross-party basis to get zero carbon, to improve technology and to improve people’s standard of living. If the two of us can be cross-party, almost anybody can.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend watched the England game yesterday evening and will join me in congratulating the team on their fantastic victory and in wishing them success and luck for the final on Sunday. The team have united the nation and I am sure that our success will spur on a new generation of budding Harry Kanes.
The fan-led review of football governance will consider all parts of our national game. It is important that it also examines how we can continue to nurture young talent. Will my right hon. Friend look to hold a debate in Government time on the review, when it reports its findings?
My hon. Friend is right about the uniting force of success. Football is the most popular game in this country—amazingly, it is more popular than cricket, which always surprises me, but nonetheless it is—and I did indeed watch the game last night, with any number of my children, some of whom were staying up rather later than is perhaps advisable for children of their young years, but never mind.
The fan-led review, an independent review led by our hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), was announced by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on 19 April 2021 and will explore ways of improving the governance, ownership and financial sustainability of clubs in English football, building on the strengths of the football pyramid. May I suggest that, rather than immediately having a debate, my hon. Friend seeks to speak to our hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, because that will be a good way to start the conversation and be involved in the process?
We all want to move safely out of lockdown, but we may now see the emergence of a new vaccine-resistant variant in people who have had one jab who are infected and, indeed, the level of infection from the delta variant may rise to 100,000 cases a day. Will the Government ensure that in the event that Parliament is recalled in the summer, hybrid online facilities for MP participation will continue so that all voters can be safely represented?
Labour spokesmen and Members seem to come on and say that they want the lockdown to end and then they try to stop it ending. There seems to be a great desire not to end the lockdown. I think we want to get on on 19 July and get back to as normal as possible, including in this House. This is really important, but the House has shown in the past that it can act swiftly if necessary.
There is an unprecedented national shortage of building materials, including timber and cement. Across the country, builders are struggling to get the materials they need and the prices are spiralling out of control. Will my right hon. Friend grant a debate on how we ensure that Britain’s builders get the bricks and mortar they need to build back better?
I am aware that there are inflationary pressures in some areas of the economy and I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. The Government are aware of the current shortage of building materials owing to global demand outstripping supply, and material prices are increasing significantly. This is having a particular impact on small and medium-sized enterprises. The Government are working with the Construction Leadership Council’s product availability group to identify and resolve these challenges, but my hon. Friend could raise this at the end-of-term Adjournment debate if he seeks further discussion of it.
I do not think the Leader of the House has really addressed this adequately. If a Member of the House—if the Leader of the House—tests positive for covid-19 on 5 September and is required by the Government to self-isolate for 10 days, how are their voices, the voices of their constituents and the votes of their constituents to be represented in this House?
The Government speak with one voice, so if I were not able to be here, the Deputy Chief Whip—the Treasurer of Her Majesty’s Household, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew)—would appear for me, as he did once before, and, I am sorry to say, he did it extraordinarily well, which rather made me nervous, thinking that he might take this role on a more permanent basis. There are always opportunities for Government Ministers to be replaced by other Ministers, speaking with one voice for the Government.
As for the more general concern, the question is: are we getting to a stage where we live with covid and it is like other diseases, so Members of the House will be affected in the same way as if they had another illness? That is something that we have coped with over hundreds of years. There is a pairing system that works very well. There are means of getting questions raised on one’s behalf, but this has been an exceptional period with exceptional practices because of the widespread, all-encompassing nature of the pandemic. Assuming that that is not going to continue to be the case permanently, we ought to return to normal as soon as possible.
While we all welcome the progress towards getting back to normal, is the Leader of the House aware that the covid emergency did result in some innovations being put in place that were widely welcomed and popular? One in particular was the option given to local councils to hold virtual meetings, which has now lapsed. I know that my right hon. Friend prefers to embrace tradition before innovation, but will he and other Ministers note that there is a widespread desire for this option to be made permanently available? Will the Government therefore respond positively to this suggestion and bring forward legislation on the matter sooner rather than later?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that it would require primary legislation. I am not convinced of the strength of argument for it in ordinary times. I think that meetings are best when held together and there is better democratic accountability when people are together and able to have the informal, as well as the formal, conversations that take place in council meetings. Much the same is true for this House.
On behalf of all the people in Northern Ireland—the vast majority of them anyway—and my constituents in Strangford, I would like to offer my congratulations to the English team. We are very pleased as Northern Ireland supporters, and I am one of those, to let them use our song “Sweet Caroline”, and we rejoice in the singing of it at Wembley or wherever it may be. We will join in singing this anthem on Sunday and look forward to many glorious times if all goes well.
According to Open Doors, Christians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, despite making up more than 95% of the population, are facing soaring violence in that country. In fact, the Democratic Republic of the Congo rose 17 places this year on the Open Doors world watch list of countries where Christians are the most persecuted. The DRC Christian population and churches are said to be at huge risk of violence in the east of the country, where Islamic terrorists groups the Allied Democratic Forces and the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda operate. One million people are displaced internally, and Christians have been targeted with killings, kidnappings, forced labour and torture, while Christian women are particularly vulnerable to rape and sexual slavery. It is an absolute tragedy happening as we sit in this Chamber. Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate or an urgent statement on this matter?
I thank both the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to the attention of the House and Open Doors for the incredible work it does as an organisation. They are both important voices for the rights of persecuted Christians. The UK and Her Majesty’s Government are concerned about violence against all communities, whatever their religion or belief, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The violence is symptomatic of a broader picture of instability in eastern DRC. Her Majesty’s Government continue to urge the DRC Government and the United Nations to work together to protect civilians from continuing violence and to address the root causes of conflict. We are committed to ensuring that the UN peacekeeping mission remains focused on delivering its mandate to protect civilians and that vulnerable communities remain central to the United Nations work in the DRC. The hon. Gentleman is probably more adept at using the House’s procedures than any other Member, so I hardly need remind him that Foreign Office questions are on 20 July, but I will in the meantime pass on his concerns to the Foreign Office.
In September, I will be running the Montane dragon’s back race and attempting to run 230 miles, over twice the ascent of Everest. I am very happy for my right hon. Friend to join me on the world’s toughest mountain race from Conwy castle to Cardiff castle along the spine of Wales. On a serious note, I am doing it for two amazing organisations: for the Wolves Foundation, which does so much work across Wolverhampton, particularly for the most vulnerable; and also for Elysium Memorial, which is raising awareness of veterans suicide—I have personally lost friends I served with. Will my right hon. Friend commit more time in this House to discuss such an important topic?
My hon. Friend is considerably more energetic than I am. I think I would find it hard to do 2.3 miles, let alone 230 miles, and I might need the resuscitation that our hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) raised earlier.
To come to my hon. Friend’s very serious point, I wish him well in his fundraising efforts for both foundations. On the issue of veterans suicide, this is a matter of the greatest responsibility for Government and parliamentarians. We ask people to put their lives on the line for the safety, security and peace of our nation, and we have a duty to them for the rest of their lives for what they have given or have been prepared to sacrifice on behalf of the nation. I am grateful to him for the work he is doing, and I can assure him that it is an issue the Government take with the utmost seriousness.
The proof of the levelling-up pudding is in the eating for a community like Denton and Reddish, my own, which I proudly represent. I have submitted bids to the Government for both the Restoring Your Railway fund to provide important rail links for Reddish South and Denton stations, which are currently served by just one train a week, and the levelling-up fund to restore the old library, fire station and swimming baths complex in Reddish and turn it into a mixed community, leisure and employment growth hub for start-up businesses. As another conduit from Parliament to the Executive, can the Leader of the House please use his good offices to ensure that both these bids get fair consideration from Ministers?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the effort that he is making and for ensuring that all sources available for his community are explored. Again, it shows an element of desire for cross-party working, which I think is beneficial to our public life. I can assure him that all bids will be fairly considered, but I will pass on his comments to the relevant Secretary of State.
Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on Places for Everyone and its relationship to individual councils’ local plans in the Greater Manchester area? Bury Metropolitan Borough Council has not had an updated local plan since 1997 and is ignoring recent Government guidance on the protection of the green belt, which would safeguard precious areas of countryside at Elton reservoir, Tottington and Walshaw in my constituency. Councils such as Bury should be required to have updated local plans before entering into joint development strategies such as Places for Everyone, to ensure a localised planning system that responds to the concerns of local residents.
My hon. Friend makes a really important point about the need to involve residents in the creation of local development plans. I assure him that that principle is at the heart of what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government is achieving. The national policy is clear:
“The planning system should be genuinely plan-led. Succinct and up-to-date plans should provide a positive vision for the future of each area”.
The planning Bill will create a simpler, faster and more modern planning system, ensuring that homes and infrastructure can be delivered more quickly across England.
I would say that not updating a plan since 1997 seems to me an example of bureaucratic treacle—and the treacle should be baked away.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the huge increase in scammers and fraudsters targeting our constituents. Our constituents are advised by the police to contact Action Fraud; Action Fraud cannot investigate, so it goes back to the police anyway. The end result is too often that constituents do not hear any more. I appreciate that there is a volume problem, but can we have a debate about how we can better protect our constituents from these fraudsters?
This is an issue that every Member of this House will be concerned about and that will have been raised in all our constituency surgeries. Reports submitted to Action Fraud are considered by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau and evaluated to assess the information available that could assist an investigation. Data matching allows reports from different parts of the country to be linked through analysis. The hope is that that can lead to trends being identified and to action being taken to address these threats. However, I agree that more needs to be done; one often finds that constituents’ cases are not investigated in the way that they would like.
I am sure that, like me, the Leader of the House will have been contacted during the covid pandemic by many constituents who have asthma. Last year, the all-party parliamentary group for respiratory health produced a report and recommendations on asthma outcomes, but does he know that the House has not had a debate on asthma since 2006—and that that was an Adjournment debate? Can we have a debate in Government time on asthma outcomes in the UK, to discuss the recommendations of the report and how we can support our constituents who suffer from asthma?
The hon. Lady raises an important subject that many in this House will be concerned about. I must confess I am surprised that there has not been a debate on it since 2006, although I think it is more an issue for the Backbench Business Committee or for a Westminster Hall debate than for—as she will have heard when I read out the business—a very full Government programme between now and the recess.
Many residents in Kensington work in financial services and other professional services. Does my right hon. Friend agree that financial services are a vital industry, contributing 11% of our total tax take, and that we need to prioritise services when we negotiate future trade agreements? Would he consider a debate on the importance of financial services not only to London but to Scotland, Leeds, Bristol and many other places?
I am extremely well aware of the importance of financial services, as I spent a number of decades working in the investment management field, and I am well aware of the particular importance of Edinburgh as a financial capital. My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue. Financial services are very strong, vibrant and flexible, which is what has led to their success. In reality, their ability to attract business from around the world has had more to do with their efficiency, their competitiveness and the collection of skills that they bring together than with particular agreements with other countries. Although of course we must discuss financial services with foreign nations, actually the City will do best if it is fleet of foot, capable and competitive.
A group of my constituents have reported their employer, Horizon Care Homes Ltd, to the Pensions Regulator for allegedly failing to pay its pension contributions into the Government’s NEST—National Employment Savings Trust—pension scheme. I have contacted the regulator and they have informed me that they are legally unable to give me any information about their investigation, even with my constituent’s consent. This makes it extremely hard for me to assist them. Will the Leader of the House support me in allowing a debate in this Chamber to ensure that MPs can gain appropriate access to the information needed to assist our constituents facing problems with their pensions?
I am going to answer this question slightly tentatively, because I am calling on memory of what I think the law says about giving information to Members. My understanding and memory are that businesses are not obliged to give information to Members, but there is an exemption in the data protection rules that allows them to give information if they choose to do so. So my understanding is that this is a refusal of the organisation to give information under its own procedures, not one by law. Therefore, I would encourage and support the hon. Lady in continuing to put pressure on the organisation not to be obstructive of Members of Parliament doing their job.
I did come across this once on behalf of a constituent of mine, where a particular bank refused to give information, even with the support of the constituent, erroneously quoting data protection rules. If that is the case, I think the hon. Lady is in a strong position with the Pensions Regulator. I think it is their rules, rather than our laws, but I will check this and if I am not correct I will write and put the letter in the Library.
I do not underestimate for a second just how difficult the last 16 months have been for those who have not been able to travel to see their families, for travel and tourism and for the aviation sector itself of course, and no Minister, let alone the Transport Secretary, would ever want to curtail our freedom and ask people not to travel, but protecting public health has rightly been, and will continue to be, the overriding priority of this Government, which is why we introduced some of the toughest border measures in the world.
However, thanks to our brilliant vaccination programme, we are now in a position where we can start to think about how we live with coronavirus, while returning life to a sense of normality. Last week, I said at this Dispatch Box that the Government intended to ease restrictions on fully vaccinated travellers returning from amber list countries. I am now pleased to be able to provide more detail.
As one of the world’s most vaccinated countries, we must use these advantages to restore many of the freedoms that have been necessarily lost over recent months. So I can confirm today that from 19 July UK residents who are fully vaccinated through the UK vaccine roll-out will no longer have to self-isolate when they return to England. They will still be required to take a test three days before returning—the pre-departure test—demonstrating that they are negative before they travel and a PCR test on or before day two, but they will no longer be required to take a day eight test. In essence, this means that, for fully vaccinated travellers, the requirements for green and amber list countries are the same. To be clear, a full vaccination means 14 days have passed since someone’s final dose of the vaccine. It is also important to note that health matters are devolved, so decision making and implementation may differ across UK Administrations. We will continue to work with the devolved Administrations to ensure we achieve our shared objectives of a safe, sustainable and robust return to international travel.
The change I am announcing today will prioritise those vaccinated in the UK. However, as I made clear last week, we want to welcome international visitors back to the UK and are working to extend our approach to vaccinated passengers from important markets and holiday destinations later this summer, such as the United States and the European Union. I will update the House in due course on how we approach vaccinated individuals from other countries.
When I highlighted the potential policy to the House last week, I explained that we needed to take some additional time to look at the evidence on children, who will not, of course, have been able to benefit from vaccines, and how they will be treated. I can tell the House today that children under 18 returning from amber list countries will not have to isolate on their return, nor take a day eight test. Children between the ages of five and 10 will only need to take a day two test. As before, children aged four and under will be exempt from all testing and isolation requirements. I know this was a big concern of families. After working with scientists and public health experts, I am delighted to be able to offer that reassurance today.
The success of our vaccine programme has been aided by those selflessly creating the great benefits for society and for the rest of the world by being part of the clinical trials, without which we would not have this vaccine programme. We committed to ensuring they are not disadvantaged as a result of being part of those trials, and I am delighted to announce that those on approved clinical trials in the UK will also not need to self-isolate, or take the day eight test after arrival from an amber list country. Passengers will need to prove their vaccination status, either through the covid pass, which is available on the main NHS app, not the covid app, or via the accessible letter, which can be obtained by calling 119, for those without access to smartphones. Passengers returning to England will be asked to include their vaccination status on their passenger locator form if they wish to benefit from the exemption to self-isolate. Transport operators and carriers will be required to check a passenger’s proof of being fully vaccinated before they are able to get on the form of transport.
The Government have been working closely with international partners on restarting international travel safely through certification. I am pleased to announce to the House today that more than 30 countries and territories are now recognising vaccine certification as part of entry requirements, and either accepting the proof of vaccination letter or the NHS app. We will continue to increase that number, so that the NHS app becomes the natural default. Passengers should of course check Foreign Office travel advice to understand the latest entry requirements and covid-19 rules at their destination.
We know that travel is important and that many people have not been able to travel for the last year and a half. This is not, of course, just about holidays, eager as we are for time in the sun; it is also about reuniting families who have been apart throughout the pandemic. It is about helping businesses to trade and grow and supporting the aviation sector, which hundreds of thousands of jobs rely on. The Government have backed that industry through £7 billion of support through this pandemic. As they tell me, the support is of course very welcome, but the only way to actually recover is to allow them to fly and for travel to resume again.
That is why I am also pleased to announce that, from 19 July, we will remove the guidance that people should not travel to countries on the amber list. That means that people will be able to travel to amber list countries for leisure and business and to see family. I am sure the whole House will welcome that development and our approach to international travel.
However, I want to be clear that, as we begin to ease restrictions, travel will not be the same as it was in, say, 2019. People should continue to check Foreign Office travel advice and, where possible, travel outside busy weekend times. Importantly, they should expect that their experience at the border will be different, because longer waiting times will be necessitated by the risks, even as we introduce and expand the range of e-gates available to read the passenger locator forms. Public health remains our key priority, which is why we will not make any changes to requirements applying to those arriving from countries on the red list, even where they are fully vaccinated.
The measures I have announced today have been designed in close co-operation with my right hon. Friend the Health and Social Care Secretary, along with medical and scientific experts, to ensure we can continue to minimise the risk of new variants. As many of us know from personal travel experience, the Government will not hesitate to act if required and the data suggests that needs to happen. In other words—to put this on the record—an amber list country could still turn red, necessitating a change in behaviour when people return to the UK. Indeed, if a country goes into red, there will be mandatory hotel quarantine.
The UK has achieved many hard-won gains through our successful vaccination programme and the continued spirit and determination of the British people. We continue to encourage people to take up the vaccine when offered, not only to protect themselves but to restore previous freedoms more safely.
19 July will mark the next step of this cautious reopening of international travel. Thanks to the Government’s incredible success with the vaccine programme, people in England will be able to travel more easily to visit family and friends who they have not seen for a long time, and also get business moving again, kickstarting our economy while keeping the UK safe and supporting a wide range of jobs and industries in the process. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement.
When I questioned the Secretary of State on publishing the data, he said:
“The JCVI and Public Health England do indeed publish their methodology and the data behind it for each of these countries. It is already published.”—[Official Report, 29 June 2021; Vol. 698, c. 141.]
However, the assessment of 15 June has only published limited data on 22 countries and even that very limited data shows absolutely no data on incoming passenger testing and no data for new variant testing for some of the countries that were moved to the green list, including the Balearics.
The debate last time focused on India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, yet none of those countries has had the data published; nor have the countries that are critical to our economy, including the US, Canada and the vast majority of the EU. When the full data is published, will the Secretary of State ensure that it shows a very clear direction of travel for each and every country to instil travel confidence once more? Will he finally allow a full review of the delay in adding India to the red list, alongside Pakistan and Bangladesh, which led to the rapid spread of the Johnson variant, which he knows has delayed the easing of restrictions in the UK?
I also note that, in just a week, the Government have effectively taken our suggestion to scrap the confused amber list, but it is not clear whether some of the countries that are currently on the amber list should be moved to the red list. Can the Secretary of State confirm that a country-by-country assessment was carried out ahead of today’s statement?
As the Secretary of State will know, Labour has been calling for the introduction of an international vaccine passport. He states that an agreement has been reached with 30 countries to accept UK vaccination status. So far, that list has not been published and it is not clear what pre-testing and arrival testing will be needed.
I welcome a common-sense approach that will allow children to travel with their vaccinated parents and carers. Will he confirm that every single one of the 30 countries that he says will now accept NHS vaccination status will allow children to travel without additional restrictions?
The Secretary of State will know that, in addition to the uncertainty around the travel list, the cost of testing is turning away would-be travellers. PCR tests often cost more than £100 a person. The Government could stop the rip-off we are seeing from private testing companies by instead using spare capacity in the NHS testing sites, supported by an updated NHS app, which would confirm testing status alongside vaccination status. We know that testing is a critical element of limiting the spread of covid. Will the Secretary of State take forward these suggestions and finally make meaningful progress?
When I asked the Secretary of State what action was being taken to open up transatlantic routes, he said that a US-UK working group had met the week before “for the first time”, yet no update has been provided on that today. How many more times has the group met since then? What progress has been made?
The international travel community and the tourism sector needed the Government to really step up, but I am afraid that Ministers have found themselves wanting. Labour is clear that the Government must follow the example of other countries by intervening and bringing forward a sectoral deal to protect jobs. Why have the Government still not brought forward such a deal, when the Chancellor promised it nearly a year ago?
When I visited Heathrow last month, it pointed out that more than a quarter of its cost base goes in fees and levies to Government. If Ministers do not want a holistic support package, can they at least look at the fees that are paid directly to the Government? On Eurostar, why has it not had the same business rates support as aviation, as an international travel operator? There should be a level playing field.
The announcement did not cover mask wearing. It is pretty clear that the Government have been all over the place on mask wearing, despite masks reducing the risk of passing on the virus to other people, especially and critically on public transport. Why does the Secretary of State believe that they should now be the subject of personal choice? Like me, will he commit to continuing to wear his mask on public transport?
The hon. Gentleman mentions the JBC data. The methodology is on the website, as I have mentioned before. I am sure it will continue to publish a full range of analysis as more countries are moved about and we have the next review of the green, red and amber lists on 15 July.
The hon. Gentleman brings up India every time we speak. It does not matter how many times that we explain the fact that we put India on the red list two weeks before it became a variant of concern, and a week ahead of it being a variant of interest, he continues to come to the House and make that point time and again.
He mentions the list of 30 locations that are accepting either the NHS app or an NHS letter. That is already published and available on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office website, which gives me the opportunity to stress that when somebody travels to any location, they will want to use the FCDO website as the bible on the requirements on entry and departure from that country.
I want to update the hon. Gentleman and the House on one late change. Not just children travelling with adults, but all children will be exempt in the same way as somebody who is double-vaccinated.
He mentions the cost of tests. I have come to the Dispatch Box before and agreed that the cost of tests was too high. I am very pleased that, since May, costs have continued to be driven down as more than 400 providers have stepped up to the plate to produce tests. I was looking at the detail this morning. There are tests as inexpensive as a tenner, albeit that those tests are in person, but there are quite a number of tests now for much lower prices than previously.
He asks for an update on the US-UK working group that Biden and the Prime Minister announced. That work is ongoing. Those meetings are taking place each and every week. As I have explained to the House before, there are quite a lot of technicalities to overcome, not least an executive order from the previous US Administration—212(f)—which actually bans travel for anyone who has been in the UK or Europe for the 14 days previous. We are working through those issues with them. They are currently being held at official level.
On support for the industry, it is a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not reflect what the industry itself is saying. I noticed that the Airport Operators Association is saying that this is a significant step forward that it widely welcomes, and that people will be able to get away on a “well-deserved break”. Airlines UK, which represents the airlines, says:
“This is a positive move towards the genuine reopening”
of the sector. Once again, it warmly welcomes this move.
The hon. Gentleman says, “Labour have been clear”, but I have to say that it is anything but clear. What is clear is that there is a division between him and the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds). First, the Opposition wanted quarantine lessened; then they wanted everyone in a hotel; then they wanted it to be done on a case-by-case basis; then they wanted to shut down travel, open up travel, put everyone on the red list and put more countries on the green list. This is not a policy. It is just plain politics.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. This is the first step in opening up Britain for business. However, I note that in his statement he said that people should expect that their experience at the border may be different, with longer waiting times than before. When queues at the border have been a problem in the past, extra staff have been brought in, including from other Government Departments, to support Border Force. Will my right hon. Friend, on behalf of the Government, guarantee that every effort will be made to bring in extra resources and deploy staff in different ways, including changing staff rotas at Border Force, to ensure that there can be a smooth movement of people through our borders and that we do not see inordinately long queues?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s question. She is absolutely right. I have been working with the Home Secretary and Border Force on exactly that issue. I should perhaps be a little more specific about where travellers might expect queues. Quite a lot of the checking will be done upstream—in other words, before people board the aircraft, train or boat, at the location from which they are returning. Queues at check-in abroad may, in fact, be the place where those problems most exist. Many airlines are developing systems to further automate that process, but they will be doing quite a complicated job, checking the passenger locator form against the booked test still required on day two and, of course, vaccine status. I think it is fair to warn people who are travelling this summer that it is a process that we have not had to do before. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that it is important that the borders at this end are as smooth as possible. Indeed, a lot of investment is going into automating all that.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
I share the concerns of the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), about the lack of transparency in the data, and the Secretary of State’s answers on that were simply not good enough. We need to see more data and more quickly than we are at the moment. Although I welcome the thrust of the statement, I think the Secretary of State is being just a little disingenuous when he said the industry tells him that support is welcome and they need to get flying again. In and of itself, that is of course correct, but what he did not say is that that industry is still crying out for further support, because most of the industry has not had grant support, despite being the hardest hit sector in the economy.
I have said a number of times in the last few weeks that Glasgow Airport in my constituency has lost a third of the workforce that is based on site. That is 2,000 jobs gone locally at the airport and well over another 1,000 jobs beyond the airport that are connected to aviation. The Scottish summer season is already well over two weeks old and by the time this policy kicks in for England, teachers in my area will be back in schools three weeks thereafter, so only a very short window remains. The Government must therefore extend furlough for the sector—no ifs, no buts. Although this announcement will help, the number of passengers will still be significantly down, so the need for a sector-specific support package is still very clear.
From the outset, the Scottish Government have said that caution is required regarding international travel and people should think carefully about travelling abroad, as situations can suddenly change. The Scottish Government will continue to work closely with the other home nations and are cautiously supportive of exploring options for the easing of restrictions for fully vaccinated travellers arriving from countries on the amber list, but only if the clinical advice supports it and the systems are in place to ensure the wider safety of the Scottish population.
Rumours have circulated for months about robust Cabinet discussions on international travel, with, among others, the previous Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster often on one side, and the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Transport on the other. One cannot help but note the change of pace in the changes to international travel now that the new Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), is in place. How can plans for an ambitious return of travel be made if the UK Government’s rush to unlock domestically, with 100,000 cases a day and so on, means that other countries close their borders to UK travellers?
Lastly, as has been said, mask wearing on aircraft and, indeed, all public transport is to most of us a no-brainer. As the Secretary of State did not address the shadow Secretary of State’s question, I will ask it again: will mask wearing on aircraft be compulsory? Will the Secretary of State confirm whether he will continue to wear a mask on all public transport?
I should point out that the change of pace is because we now have a situation in which the majority of adults in the UK are fully vaccinated. That was not the case a month ago, when we postponed step 4; it is the case now. I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that I was in fact already discussing the changes with the previous Health Secretary.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that I omitted to mention masks; I should bring the House up to speed. We will still provide, in guidance, information about mask wearing. We know that it is sensible in more enclosed spaces, and personally I will wear a mask where it is appropriate to do so. The airlines have already said that mask wearing is a condition of carriage in, I think, all the cases that I have seen, and where it is a condition of carriage, I will of course always wear one. On the other hand, if we are talking about being in an empty carriage on a long-distance train for many hours, people will use their common sense, which is something that we on the Government Benches absolutely applaud and agree with. We are pleased to be able to get back to a guidance situation.
The hon. Gentleman is a doughty campaigner for Glasgow airport and often challenges me on these matters; I have to say to him that he might want to look a little bit closer to home. It is only very recently—in June—that the Scottish Government banned Scots from travelling to Manchester. As a direct result, easyJet cancelled new routes that would have connected a whole bunch of Scottish airports. No wonder the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association has said that the Scottish Government’s approach to aviation is sacrificing the industry. I am afraid a lot of the answers the hon. Gentleman is looking for are closer to home. Meanwhile, the UK Government have provided £7 billion of support to the sector. I notice that the opening up announced today has so far yet to be reflected by Scottish Government announcements as well. If the hon. Gentleman really wants to help, he can help to move along the policy in Scotland.
Rejoice, rejoice! This is a much-needed shot in the arm for those who have had two shots of the vaccine in their arm, and for an industry and workforce who have been laid low during the pandemic—perhaps more than others—but have always been confident and steadfast in their belief that we can all travel safely again.
In welcoming this announcement, may I ask the Secretary of State also to keep an eye on the testing regime? We know that only 0.4% of those who have come back from amber destinations over the past couple of months have tested positive for covid. Can we perhaps look at the testing costs, which are still a barrier for those travelling? It would be great if, rather than people having to take an expensive PCR test, lateral flow tests could be used instead, and those who do test positive could then take a PCR test. I will look to the Secretary of State to keep on championing those kinds of ideas. Will he also make sure that the Foreign Office advice and website is as up-to-date as he is on this matter?
I thank my hon. Friend, who does a superb job as the Chair of the Select Committee and has been very consistent in his support for the aviation sector. He will be interested to know, as will the whole House, that we will have a further review date on 31 July. That is a checkpoint for the rules themselves. Currently, the scientific evidence is that PCR tests, in addition to being a bit more accurate, are also the ones in respect of which the genomes can be quickly sequenced to look for variants. My hon. Friend’s point about the FCDO and ensuring that all the advice ties together is well understood; we will make sure we work closely on that.
This week, the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary warned of a considerable spike in infections, with perhaps 100,000 positive cases detected every day. That will clearly put pressure on our testing services, but it will also have a chilling effect on inbound travel, as people choose to travel to nations with lower infection rates. What kind of compensation is the Secretary of State looking to bring forward for the travel industry, because many travel companies in my constituency have really struggled over the past year as a result of the lack of Government support? Will he ensure that the support is long term, so that these companies have a bridge into their future?
It is of course true that there is a third wave, given the delta variant. We in the United Kingdom are in the fortunate position of having our exceptional vaccination programme, which will allow us to open up on 19 July—provided that is confirmed on Monday. I have described from the Dispatch Box today how we will allow people who have been vaccinated through the UK vaccination programme to travel to amber list countries and to return, treating those countries as if they were on the green list. On the other side of that, we will work on a second phase to enable people to travel here. I am working closely with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that that can restart as soon as possible. We need to be able to trust other vaccination programmes and verify that those travelling here have had a particular type of test, of course. That is the best way to help travel firms in the hon. Lady’s constituency. I must point out that £7 billion is not a drop in the ocean. A lot of money has been spent supporting the travel sector, and we are proud to have done that, but the best thing will be to get the sector open again.
This announcement is a big step in the right direction and will provide a much-needed boost for the travel sector, so I welcome what the Secretary of State has said. It also provides a meaningful choice of holiday destinations for families looking to go abroad this summer. However, the Secretary of State will be aware—the Chair of the Transport Committee touched on this—that testing requirements remain costly and burdensome, especially for families. He mentioned 31 July, but will he also commit to keeping the testing under regular review, and can he look not only at the cost but at the bureaucracy that goes with it, because that also has an impact on families going on holiday?