House of Commons
Wednesday 21 July 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Before we come to questions, I wish to make a short statement.
I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on sub judice matters to extend the waiver granted for last week’s proceedings to allow full reference to the challenge to the Northern Ireland protocol and to allow limited reference to active legal proceedings and open inquests in relation to historic troubles-related deaths. As before, reference to those cases should be limited to the context and to the events which led to these cases. But Members should not refer to the detail of the cases nor to the names of those involved in them.
All hon. Members should also be mindful of matters that may be subject to future legal proceedings and should exercise caution in making reference to individual cases.
This waiver will also apply to the statement on the Northern Ireland protocol, which will follow.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Last week, in this Chamber, I set out proposals for addressing the legacy of the troubles, which will focus on reconciliation, delivering better outcomes for victims, and ending the cycle of investigations that is not working for anyone. These proposals will be considered as part of the ongoing talks process with the Northern Ireland parties, the Irish Government and representatives across Northern Ireland society, further to which we will bring forward legislation.
The Secretary of State denies that these proposals would create a moral equivalence between our veterans and the paramilitaries, but the reality would mean a legal equivalence. Does he accept that many who served during the troubles will feel a deep unease about a blanket amnesty? Can he outline how our veterans community will be consulted over the coming months?
As the hon. Gentleman rightly acknowledges, there is no moral equivalence here. Obviously there is a legal equivalence going back to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, but there is a distinct legal difference between what he outlines and the statute of limitations that we are looking at. I assure him that not only have we been engaging with veterans groups but we will continue to do so across Northern Ireland and Great Britain, not least through the offices of the Veterans Commissioner, whom we appointed in Northern Ireland. That work will continue, as it already has been this week.
I am sure the Secretary of State was closely following yesterday’s debate on his proposals in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The motion that was passed specifically talks about the process set out in the Stormont House agreement. Could he set out for the House, in a little detail, why that process is not working either for veterans or for victims?
My right hon. Friend is right. I saw some of the comments made in yesterday’s debate and, as I said last week, we recognise the strength of feeling and the concerns that people have. There is, understandably, a range of views on legacy, as it is a complex and sensitive issue. We are committed to further discussions, as I have already said, and we remain committed to many of the key principles laid out in the Stormont House agreement.
To come to the core of my right hon. Friend’s question, the Stormont House agreement was in 2014. We are seven years on, and it has not been deliverable in its current format. Parts of it that were to be delivered by the Executive, such as an oral history by 2016, have not been delivered. We need to move on and get those things working.
We also need to acknowledge the reality that even the investigative body, the Historical Investigations Unit that was envisaged, would take, by a conservative estimate, between 10 and 20 years to complete its workload. On that timescale, many families would be timed out of any prospect of information or justice. We need to be honest about the reality of where we are today.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, in order for any legacy policy proposal to be sustainable and effective, victims must be at the heart of the process? Can he outline what engagement he has had with victims across the UK, including the families of the Birmingham pub bombing victims?
I agree with the hon. Lady that we want to make sure that the outcomes we come to on legacy are able to deliver for victims and the families of victims, particularly those families who want information and understanding, truth and accountability. We are working through that at the moment.
There is a wide range of engagement, both through my Department and through me personally, with a whole range of groups, not just the Northern Ireland parties but the victims’ groups, too. I am always happy to engage with and meet victims’ groups. We have been engaging with them this week, as we did last week and the week before, and we will continue to do so across the whole UK in the weeks ahead.
I am grateful for that answer, and I am grateful that the Secretary of State agrees that victims need to be at the heart of the process. Why have reports suggested that paramilitaries, the victim makers, were made aware of the Government’s plans for an amnesty before the victims were?
Northern Ireland’s largest cross-community victims group, WAVE, wrote to the Prime Minister opposing any de facto amnesty. Does the Secretary of State recognise that reconciliation is something for individuals and communities to achieve, rather than for the Government to try to impose, and that whatever mechanisms the Secretary of State is successful in bringing forward to promote truth and reconciliation they cannot be allowed to impede the process of justice where there is sufficient evidence and a public interest in pursuing outstanding prosecutions?
WAVE is a strong body representing victims, although the hon. Gentleman’s comment about it being the largest might be challenged by some of the other victims groups. I think they all have an important voice to be heard, whether we are talking about SEFF—the South East Fermanagh Foundation—WAVE or the many others out there. However, I accept his point about reconciliation. We are very keen to work with people, and we will be doing so in the weeks ahead, across civic society, victims groups and veterans groups, and wider society in Northern Ireland to ensure that we are finding a pathway through to see the society of Northern Ireland being able to fully reconcile. There are too many areas where we have not seen that developed in the years that have gone past since the Good Friday/Belfast agreement.
I have said in this House before that I think this is one of the things that unites many of us: we need to see more in areas such as integrated education. It is simply not acceptable in the modern day that so many people in Northern Ireland do not meet a Protestant or a Catholic until they go to work or university. If we want to see an area and a society coming together, education is a key area to work on.
No one wants to move forward more than victims and survivors, but they cannot do that until killers allow them to by telling the truth. However, these proposals protect those vested interests and not victims’ interests.
Fresh forensic evidence has just been found in the investigation into the IRA murder of Tom Oliver, giving a lie to the claim that investigations cannot be advanced. For victims of state violence too, the experience is one of information suppressed and not shared, so I ask: what steps have been taken to ensure that relevant state papers are being prepared for release? Will multi-decade papers on sensitive events be released, if the Government’s aim really is to aid reconciliation through truth?
Actually, the hon. Lady in a way has highlighted the point I was making last week; I think there is a way to do information recovery to get to truth and accountability. Operation Kenova, which is behind the evidence that she outlined, has shown over the past five years that, despite not having prosecutions, for many victims and families it has been able to help them understand and get to the truth. This is another example of that; they have managed to get some evidence to be able to get to what may well be the truth.
But I would just caution the hon. Lady to look carefully at the statement from Operation Kenova about exactly what it has found; Operation Kenova has not yet had any prosecutions. But it is right that we continue to get information. We are clear that we want to make sure that we are getting information to people, and potentially in a way that we have not seen before, to really be able to get to the bottom of what happened and for people to have a true understanding of what happened at that time.
Michael Gallagher, who lost his son in the Omagh bombing, this week said, “Please don’t take away the only hope victims have of ever seeing justice.” I know that the Secretary of State will be struck by what has been said by the victims of terrorism—mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters who have lost loved ones through the troubles. Although I know it is not his wish to see any moral or legal equivalence between vexatious claims against our armed services and those who perpetrated terrorism in our society, he must accept that an unintended consequence of the proposals before the House now is that they will do exactly that: they will aid and abet criminals and allow many on-the-runs to continue to be free. So I ask the Secretary of State: how will he ensure that he will not extinguish the only light and hope that the victims have that they will one day see justice for their loved ones? How will he ensure that for people like Michael Gallagher that hope will not be extinguished?
The hon. Gentleman gives a powerful example of the sensitivity and complexity of this issue. I have met victims with similar scenarios and some very harrowing cases, where we can see why people want to be able to get to the truth and the accountability that comes with that.
We also need to recognise, as I outlined last week, the reality of where we are today, following the decisions, which I think were correct—I am not criticising them at all; they were absolutely the right decisions—to see peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland with the Good Friday/Belfast agreement and, in particular, the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, which came with it, let alone what then followed, particularly with decommissioning and, as we have seen recently, quite rightly, arguably in effect a statute of limitations on 40,000 crimes coming out of Stormont House. We need to understand where we are and be up front with people about the diminishing reality of the possibility of getting prosecutions and what impact that is having on the criminal justice system and the ability to get to truth and accountability. But that is exactly what we want to be working through with groups across Northern Ireland, including victims groups, having absolutely in our heart an understanding of the trauma that people can face in these situations.
Protecting Veterans from Prosecution
The Government have always been clear that they will deliver on their commitments in Northern Ireland to veterans, as part of a wider package to address legacy issues in Northern Ireland that focuses on reconciliation. As part of that work, I continue to hold regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues, including the Prime Minister, as well as with Northern Ireland parties, the Irish Government and society across Northern Ireland, with a view to bringing forward legislation.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer thus far. I welcome the decision of the courts basically to discharge many of the elderly and vulnerable people, particularly the veterans, who were accused of crimes in Northern Ireland. However, many elderly and vulnerable veterans still have hanging over them the threat of prosecution, so will my right hon. Friend expedite his discussions and bring forward legislation urgently to ensure that those people who served our armed forces in Northern Ireland and risked their lives on a daily basis are not threatened with prosecution literally 50 years after the event?
My hon. Friend outlines one of the challenges we see. It cannot be right that, as in the situations we have seen this year, people have to wait 50 years to get information and get to the truth. We are clear that we want to get legislation brought forward. We are working intensively across parties and with partners in Northern Ireland so that we can bring forward legislation that delivers reconciliation and information recovery for Northern Ireland and ends the cycle of investigations for our veterans across the armed forces, the majority of whom served with great honour and put themselves at risk to protect other people’s lives.
I trust that the Secretary of State is aware of the immense hurt, the volume of tears that have been shed and the retraumatised victims in the wake of his statement last week, and has reflected on both its content and the way this matter has been handled so far. One issue that victims have raised is the fear that now, without the threat of justice, terrorists or former terrorists will go out and almost glorify some of the atrocities in which they have been involved, with no sanction, while the victims remain voiceless. How does the Secretary of State respond to that fear?
The hon. Gentleman and his party have been and are strong supporters of the Stormont House agreement, which itself effectively created a statute of limitations on some 40,000 crimes—everything except for murder—following the changes made in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 to the justice options for people after the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. The reality is that we need to ensure that, which is why it is important we are clear that there is no moral equivalence. People who went out to do harm to others were acting in a way that was unspeakably horrendous. So many people put their lives at risk to protect others throughout that period. It is important that we continue to do that, which is why is it important that we have an information-recovery process that gets the truth and gets accountability, so that we avoid the very problem the hon. Gentleman outlined. To an extent, this has been happening because of the problems of the criminal justice system not seeing justice for people in the past few years.
Northern Ireland Protocol
The Secretary of State meets colleagues regularly to discuss matters related to Northern Ireland, including the implementation of the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol. It is imperative that the protocol is operated in a pragmatic and proportionate way to ensure that it impacts as little as possible on the people of Northern Ireland. The UK is working hard and in good faith to find solutions. We need to find a way forward—a new balance of arrangements adapted to the practical reality of what we have seen since January and based on the common interests that we share.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his answer. We must make the protocol work for the people of Northern Ireland, but we should not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should press the European Union to take a more common-sense approach, so that we can find practical solutions to the issues the people of Northern Ireland face?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The Northern Ireland protocol is a delicate balance designed to support the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and maintain Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, while protecting the EU single market. It must respect the needs of all Northern Ireland’s people and bear as lightly as possible on the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, that has not been our experience since January this year, and we have seen the costs of doing business and the cost to consumers going up. That is why we want to engage with the EU on this issue.
We warned that the protocol would create a border in the Irish sea, and now, as reality bites, six supermarket retailers, which cover three quarters of the grocery market in Northern Ireland, have written jointly to the UK Government and the European Commission highlighting import issues, higher costs, and fewer options for consumers. Instead of the Minister and Lord Frost rubbishing the deal that they signed and blaming the EU, what will the UK Government do to resolve these trade issues?
The UK Government have already done a great deal through the movement assistance scheme, which was introduced to support and assist traders with new requirements, including meeting the costs of more than 7,000 export health certificates and 2,000 phytosanitary certificates. There is also the Trader Support Service, with more than £200 million of funding, which educates traders on the new customs processes. We have invested in new digital assistance schemes to digitise the process for agrifood movements. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we should engage in good faith to improve the working of the protocol and make sure that it delivers on what was intended without the implications on everyday life for people in Northern Ireland.
Does the Minister agree that goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland within the UK internal market should not be subjected to EU-imposed checks? What steps will he take to protect the economic integrity of the UK?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. It was always clear that the protocol was a delicate balance designed to support the peace process in the agreement; if it is to work, it must operate in a pragmatic and proportionate way, balancing its objective to support the peace process. It needs to respect the needs of all Northern Ireland’s people—respecting the fact that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom and that it needs to bear as lightly as possible on the everyday life of Northern Ireland. That means, as he said, that goods that are not at risk of going into the European Union should not be facing checks and should not be facing that disruption. This is one of the issues in which we want to engage, but, of course, I do not want to pre-empt the Secretary of State’s statement later today.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he also agree that any new arrangements entered into with the EU that involve Northern Ireland must respect the principle of consent that is at the heart of the Belfast agreement? That means that any new arrangements must protect the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.
Yes, I wholeheartedly agree that it is essential that we recognise that the Belfast agreement itself recognised Northern Ireland’s place in the UK by the consent of its people, and that the principle of consent is absolutely central to that.
The Government are working hard and in good faith to find solutions. We have provided many papers to the EU, and we welcome indications that it is looking at further solutions. We are working to find solutions, and the Government will set out further detail on their approach to the protocol later today. I do not want to pre-empt that, but I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on the principle.
The Government have enormous sympathy for those who suffered appalling abuse while resident in the institutions covered by the report published in January. Although this is a devolved issue and therefore the responsibility of the Executive, the Government understand that work on an independent investigation promised to victims is under way. We will continue to work closely with the Executive to ensure that the victims of today receive the help and support they need to address the trauma of the past.
The report carried out by the University of Ulster and Queen’s University shone a bright light on the truly heart-wrenching abuse suffered by women and girls over six decades in Northern Ireland. What confidence can the Minister give to those victims, some of whom might be watching, that politicians across these islands will do everything that we can to address the staggering injustice that they suffered?
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the report. The UK Government understand the importance of ensuring that those individuals who suffered appalling abuse while resident in certain institutions in Northern Ireland receive the recognition and answers that they deserve. That is why, for example, in the absence of the Executive, the Government delivered the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Act 2019 to help secure a redress scheme for victims of other specific institutions. We understand that work on the independent investigation promised by the Executive is under way, with an expert panel appointed in March to establish the terms of reference. While it is right that we wait for the findings of that investigation, the UK Government are committed to working closely with the Executive to help victims and their families get the help and support that they need.
We know that girls as young as 12 were sent to the mother and baby homes and the Magdalene Laundries in Northern Ireland and that the research report revealed the painful neglect and abuse suffered by many. While an expert panel discuss the next steps, what confidence can Ministers provide that the lived experience of victims will be heard loud and clear in the months and years ahead, and that whatever support is necessary is provided from Westminster?
The Government acknowledge the shocking findings of the report published in January around the considerable cross-border movement of women and, as the hon. Gentleman said, children. The Government understand that the Executive have begun work on their independent investigation, with the expert panel appointed in March. We will work with them to ensure that this issue is followed up effectively, but we want to await the outcome of their work in the devolved space.
I thank the Minister for his response. Given the long-lasting impacts that mother and baby homes have had on victims and their families, and still to this day the incredible sense of injustice, can he ensure that all investigations and examinations into the mother and baby homes will include consultation with survivors of the homes, who have experienced real hurt and trauma? Will the Minister clarify that no further action, which is truly critical for closure, should be taken without their full involvement and permission?
The hon. Gentleman rightly recognises the importance of ensuring that victims and survivors are fully involved in any investigative or review processes in order to best ensure that they get the acknowledgement, support and answers that they deserve. Further to the points that I have made previously, I also understand that the Victims and Survivors Service is continuing to work with victims and survivors to identify the support and services they need, with a dedicated website and phone line to enable victims and survivors of the institutions to participate in the co-design process. As I said, we are prepared to work with the Executive on this issue.
In total, more than 14,000 women in Northern Ireland went through these so-called mother and baby homes. As other colleagues have said, a recent landmark report has revealed a shocking culture of neglect and abuse suffered by those vulnerable women over six decades. We know that an expert and widely respected panel is co-designing the next stage of the inquiry into the scandal, so does the Minister agree that the inquiry must be effective, robust and, crucially, meet the needs of victims who have had to wait far too long to receive justice?
I absolutely agree. As the hon. Lady said, a well-respected panel is working on this issue. We want to ensure that any support that we can provide is available and that the work is taken forward in the devolved space. What has been identified in the report is truly shocking. It is important that the panel makes progress swiftly, and we certainly stand ready to support it.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
I speak with ministerial colleagues regularly about the great potential for Northern Ireland tourism, although not specifically about heritage sites. However, I assure my hon. Friend that the UK Government are a signatory to the world heritage convention and have committed to upholding our commitment to that. Northern Ireland is, of course, home to one of the world’s most famous world heritage sites: the Giant’s Causeway and the Causeway coast, which I have had the pleasure of visiting. Those grand and impressive basalt columns are an incredible sight. I encourage all Members to see these wonders in person.
Northern Ireland is a jewel in the crown of our United Kingdom, boasting stunning land- scapes of great natural and ecological value, and heritage sites of cultural, historical and social significance—from the Derry walls and the Giant’s Causeway to Titanic Quarter and the mountains of Mourne. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to protect and promote Northern Ireland’s heritage sites and areas of outstanding natural beauty? Additionally, what support is he giving to the Northern Ireland Executive and relevant heritage bodies and organisations to do so?
Although tourism is a devolved matter, the Government continue to use every possible opportunity to promote Northern Ireland as a world-class tourist destination, and my hon. Friend is doing an excellent job of that himself. I am delighted to say that I have visited many of the places that he mentioned. I was very pleased to be over in Northern Ireland yesterday, meeting local business owners in Bangor to hear about their High Street Heroes Northern Ireland campaign, which celebrates the local independent retailers who are another fantastic part of Northern Ireland’s offer.
Economic Support: Covid-19
Levels of support in Northern Ireland are similar to elsewhere in the UK, reflecting the common challenge that public health restrictions have posed to businesses. Government interventions such as the job retention scheme and the enterprise scheme operate UK-wide, and have together protected around one in four jobs. Support is devolved in some areas. The Executive received an additional £5 billion of Barnett funding for covid, funding a range of interventions including business rates holidays and small business grants—all providing crucial support to businesses.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer and for his support for the tourism sector. I am pleased to say that I have been to the Giant’s Causeway—and the most wonderful place it was. Of course, there is another way to support tourism in Northern Ireland. Treasury and Deloitte estimates show that over a 10-year period, VAT at 5% would deliver £4.6 billion in revenue to the Treasury. As my hon. Friend says, tourism is a key sector in Northern Ireland. In that light, does he agree that maintaining the current, very competitive 5% VAT rate for hospitality beyond the pandemic could create new jobs, add tremendous value and prove to be a powerful UK dividend for businesses in Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend makes a point that I have certainly heard from a number of businesses in Northern Ireland. The Government have taken unprecedented measures to support the UK economy through the pandemic, including a temporary VAT reduction to 5% for the tourism and hospitality sectors, extended until 30 September. To further help businesses to recover and transition back to the standard rate, an interim rate of 12.5% will apply until 31 March 2022. Raising £130 billion in 2019-20, VAT is an important source of revenue and vital for funding public services such as health, education and defence. The reduced rate is expensive, costing over £7 billion so far, so a permanently reduced or zero rate would further increase costs to UK taxpayers.
Before we move on to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to inform the House that it has been just over 60 years since the first ever PMQs, which took place on 18 July 1961. On that day, the Speaker at the time was Sir Harry Hylton-Foster, who was the last Speaker to die in post—I hope not to reintroduce that. He introduced PMQs by informing the House that the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, was
“willing to try this experiment for the remainder of the Session, if that be the wish of the House”.—[Official Report, 18 July 1961; Vol. 644, c. 1052.]
After 60 years and 12 Prime Ministers, PMQs has become one of the most high-profile events of the parliamentary week and is watched by constituents across the country and followers of UK politics all around the world. I think we can say that the experiment has been a success—depending on who was answering.
Today, as we mark its 60th anniversary, the Prime Minister will join the questions via video link, for obvious reasons, demonstrating that Prime Minister’s questions—and the House—can adapt when we need to. I am sure that in this final PMQs before the summer recess we will have robust but orderly exchanges, and hopefully shortish questions and answers.
Finally, before we get under way, I would like to point out that British Sign Language interpretation of Prime Minister’s questions is available to watch on parliamentlive.tv.
Please, everyone have a good recess after tomorrow.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I am delighted to be joining the House in the 60th anniversary edition of Prime Minister’s Question Time, which, as you have rightly just pointed out, was an innovation introduced under Harold Macmillan. I look forward to answering colleagues’ questions today.
Before the House rises for summer recess tomorrow, I know that everyone will want to join me in thanking parliamentary and constituency staff, and the dedicated House of Commons staff, for their hard work over the last year. I hope very much that everyone has a restful break.
This morning I had meetings—virtual meetings, I should say—with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my virtual duties in this House, I shall have further such virtual meetings later today.
I echo the Prime Minister’s thanks to all our staff for their hard work this last year.
I very much welcome the Government’s levelling-up agenda to ensure that opportunity and economic freedoms are enjoyed by every person across our four nations. Hastings and Rye is being held back, prevented from achieving its potential largely or partly due to a lack of transport infrastructure. Will my right hon. Friend promise to consider the business case for the HS1 extension from Ashford through to Hastings, Bexhill and Eastbourne, and commit to the funding necessary?
My hon. Friend is a fantastic advocate for the people of Hastings and Rye, and she has made the case to me before for the improvement to transport that she recommends. I know that this particular extension is being reviewed by the Department for Transport right now, and a decision will be made in due course. I am told that I simply cannot anticipate that, but what I can say is that this is the Government and the party that is absolutely determined to level up across our country with better infrastructure, superb innovation, and better skills across the whole of the UK.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and all the House of Commons staff, for everything you have done to keep Parliament open and safe.
Can I wish the Prime Minister—the Chequers one—well in his isolation? With half a million people self-isolating, I think we were all a bit surprised that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Cabinet Office Minister were all randomly chosen for a “get out of isolation free” card, but it is good that the Prime Minister finally recused himself, even if it took a public outcry, for the Communities Secretary to be humiliated on live TV, and a trip to a country estate.
If someone is pinged by the NHS app, as millions will be over coming weeks, should they isolate—yes or no?
Yes is the answer to that, and I think that everybody understands the inconvenience of being pinged. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman rightly says, here I am—I wish I was with Members in the Commons Chamber today. I apologise to everybody in business up and down the land and in all kinds of services, public sector or otherwise, who is experiencing inconvenience. We will be switching, as the House knows, to a system based on contact testing, rather than contact isolation, but until then I must remind everybody that isolation is a vital tool in our defence against the disease. You are five times more likely to catch it if you have been in contact with someone who has it. Even if you have been vaccinated, you can still pass it on, although that risk is reduced. The overwhelming argument is for getting a jab. Everybody should get a jab.
The Prime Minister says that everyone understands the Government’s position as to what they should do if they are pinged by the NHS app. That is a very interesting answer, because the Government are all over the place on this. Yesterday, his Business Minister, Lord Grimstone, said that the app was an “advisory tool” only. Another Government Minister—I kid you not—said yesterday that the app is just
“to allow you to make informed decisions.”
What on earth does that mean? Of course, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor spent the weekend trying to dodge isolation altogether. The British people are trying to follow the rules, but how can they do so when his Ministers keep making them up as they go along?
No. If I may, Mr Speaker, I will laboriously repeat the answer that I gave earlier to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, just to get it into his head yet again. Isolation is a very important part of our armoury against covid. We are going forward, as everyone knows, to a new system on 16 August based on testing, but in the meantime, when you are advised to isolate to protect others and to protect your family against the spread of disease, you should do so.
Even more important than the isolation campaign is, of course, the vaccination campaign. Some 3 million people of the 18-to-30 group are still to get one. I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s time would be more usefully employed, if I may so, in encouraging everybody to get vaccinated.
Everything may be calm from the Prime Minister’s country retreat, but back here the truth is that we are heading for a summer of chaos. [Interruption.] There is a lot of noise, Mr Speaker; I hope they have all got their NHS app on. We are heading for a summer of chaos. One million children were out of school last week—1 million—and a huge number of businesses are closing because so many staff are self-isolating.
Let me turn to the question of exemptions. Yesterday, the messages coming out of No. 10 about which businesses and workers might be exempt from isolation changed hour by hour. First, there was going to be a list, then there wasn’t. Then the Prime Minister’s spokesperson said:
“We’re not seeking to draw lines specifically around who or who is not exempt.”
I have read that, and I have reread it several times, and I haven’t a clue what it means. The Road Haulage Association hit the nail on the head when it said that the plan was
“thought up on the hoof without proper organisation or thought”.
I know that the Prime Minister likes to govern by three-word slogans, and I think “on the hoof” might work pretty well. This is the last chance before recess. [Interruption.] For millions of workers, this matters.
I think this is pretty feeble stuff from the right hon. and learned Gentleman on what is going to be a glorious 60th anniversary edition of PMQs. I have given him the answer in a letter that he had earlier on about the businesses and the sectors of industry that we think it would be sensible now to exempt. But he cannot have it both ways. He attacks the self-isolation system, but as far as I understand the position of the right hon. and learned Gentleman when it comes to the road map, he actually now, this week, opposes going forward with step 4, as we did on Monday. He wants to keep this country, as far as I understand his position, in lockdown. Now, which is it? He cannot have it both ways. He cannot simultaneously attack—
I am very happy to. I will repeat it. I will say it as many times as you like, Mr Speaker.
I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition is guilty of failing to listen to what I said just now, and it is perfectly obvious that, as I said to him in a letter earlier on, there are some businesses and some parts of our economy that of course need exemptions from the isolation regime because they need to be able to carry on, and for the most part, obviously, people will have to follow the rules. We are changing it on 16 August, by which time we will have vaccinated many more people.
I understand people’s frustrations, but this is one of the few real tools that we have in our armoury against the virus. I really think that in attacking the isolation system, which is what I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman is doing, he is being totally inconsistent with his earlier announcement, which seemed to be that we should stay in lockdown. If I understand the position of the Labour party now, which is different from last week, it does not want to go ahead with step 4. I think I am right in that.
The Prime Minister talks about inconsistency—two hours and 38 minutes to do a massive U-turn on Sunday morning, and then what have we seen in the last few days? He says I did not listen to his answer. I did listen, and I still think he is making it up. We had a completely unclear announcement on Monday about exemptions. We had contradictory statements all day yesterday. Now we seem to be back to the confused policy of Monday. How on earth are businesses meant to plan when the Prime Minister keeps chopping and changing like this?
I have to say that, even after 15 months of these exchanges, I cannot believe that the Prime Minister does not see the irony of him spending freedom day locked in isolation and announcing plans for a vaccine ID card. I remember when he used to say he would eat an ID card if he ever had to produce one, and now he is introducing them. When it comes to creating confusion, the Prime Minister is a super-spreader, so let me try to get some clarity. Why is it okay for someone to go to a nightclub for the next six weeks without proof of a vaccine or a test, and then from September it will only be okay to get into a nightclub if they have a vaccine ID card?
The Labour leader traditionally has a choice in a national crisis, and that is whether to get behind the Government and to offer constructive opposition, or to try endlessly to oppose for the sake of it and to try to score cheap political points. Everybody can see that we have to wait until the end of September—by which time, this is only fair to the younger generation, they will all have been offered two jabs—before we consider something like asking people to be double-jabbed before they go into a nightclub. That is blindingly obvious to everybody. It is common sense, and I think most people in this country understand it. Most people in this country want to see the younger generation encouraged to get vaccinations. That is what, with great respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, he should be doing, rather than trying endlessly to score what I think are vacuous political points.
The Prime Minister keeps asking me if I will support his chaos: no, and I want to bring the Prime Minister back to one of our earlier exchanges in this House. On 26 May I asked the Prime Minister if he had ever
“used the words ‘Covid is only killing 80-year-olds’ or words to that effect”.—[Official Report, 26 May 2021; Vol. 696, c. 367.]
On that day the Prime Minister pointedly did not deny using those words, and now we have the proof that he did. We have all now seen the Prime Minister’s text message: “The median age” of covid fatalities
“is 82…That is above life expectancy”,
and we have the Prime Minister’s conclusion in the same text:
“So get Covid and live longer.”
I remind the Prime Minister that more than 83,000 people aged 80 or over lost their lives to this virus, every one leaving behind a grieving family and loved ones. So will the Prime Minister now apologise for using those words?
Nothing I can say from this Dispatch Box—or this virtual Dispatch Box, I should say—and nothing I can do can make up for the loss and suffering that people have endured throughout this pandemic, and there will of course be a public inquiry into what has happened, but I would just remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman when he goes back over the decision-making processes that we had in those very difficult and dark times that there are incredibly tough balancing decisions that we have to take: we have to balance the catastrophe of the disease against the suffering caused by lockdowns—the impacts on mental health, the loss of life chances for young people. What has changed since we were thinking in those ways is of course that we have rolled out vaccines faster than any other country in Europe: 96% of people over 50 will now have had a vaccine, and 68% of people have had two jabs. What we are trying to say to the country today—the single most important, serious message—is, “If you have not yet had your second jab, please come along and get it, and if you’re over 50 and still have not had a second jab or over 40, please come and get it as well.” And we must never forget that if we had followed the advice of the right hon. and learned Gentleman we would have stayed in the European Medicines Agency and would never have had the vaccine roll-out at all.
I think we might have to check that the line to Chequers is working, because the Prime Minister’s answers bear no resemblance to the questions I am asking him. He has given us a list of what he cannot do; what he can do—quite straightforwardly, virtually or otherwise—is say sorry.
The trouble is that nobody believes a word the Prime Minister says any more. He promised he had a plan for social care, but he has ducked it for two years. He promised not to raise tax, but now he is planning a jobs tax. He promised he would not cut the Army or the aid budget; he has cut both. He also promised that Monday would be freedom day; he said 18 times from the Dispatch Box that it would be irreversible, but the truth is that he has let a new variant into the country, he has let cases soar, and he has left us with the highest death toll in Europe and one of the worst-hit economies of any major economy. Last week a million kids were off school, businesses are closing, and millions will spend their summer self-isolating. But don’t worry, Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister has got it all under control, because this morning we read that he has a new three-word slogan: keep life moving—you couldn’t make it up. Isn’t it clear that there are only three words this Prime Minister needs to focus on: get a grip?
Let us look at the position as it was at the end of last year, and as we come to the end of this parliamentary term let us be absolutely clear that it is thanks to the vaccine roll-out—which, by the way, I never tire of repeating, would have been impossible if we had followed the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s advice—that 9 million people have now come off furlough, unemployment is 2 million lower than predicted, job vacancies are 10% higher than before the pandemic began, and business insolvencies are lower than before the pandemic began.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman wants three-word slogans; I will give him a three-word slogan. Our three-word slogan is “get a jab”—and by the way, we are also helping people to get a job. We are turning jabs, jabs, jabs into jobs, jobs, jobs. That is the agenda of this Government. By taking sensible, cautious decisions and rolling out the vaccines in the way that we have, we have been able to get this country moving and to keep it moving.
I have listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman very carefully this morning. I have absolutely no idea what he proposes to do instead, except keep us all in some sort of perpetual lockdown and limbo. He has no answer to the question, “If not now, when?” He has no plan, he has no ideas and he has no hope, while we in this Government are getting on with getting our country through the pandemic and delivering on the people’s priorities.
The levelling-up fund is a very welcome investment in Montgomeryshire. It is a game changer for our county council and critical investment at this critical time. Specifically, we would like to reopen the Montgomery canal—that is our levelling-up bid. Sadly, it was disconnected from the UK network some decades ago and it is being kept alive by a terrific team of volunteers. Will the Prime Minister use the weight of his office and, like the Secretary of State for Wales, jump on the boat, get this investment over the waterline and deliver this levelling-up bid in mid-Wales?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the campaign he is running for what sounds like an absolutely beautiful plan to reopen the Montgomery canal. He will not have long to wait for the decision on that scheme, but I can assure him that Wales is receiving thumping quantities of the UK’s levelling-up fund already; 5% of total UK allocations in the first round will be in Wales. I thank him for the lobbying that he has put in today.
Of course, while they are talking about levelling up on the Government Benches, we in Scotland are looking at settling up for the people of Scotland.
I hope the Prime Minister will be reflecting on the judgment from the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman yesterday, which judged that there was “maladministration” in dealing with the 1950s WASPI women—the Women Against State Pension Inequality. It is about time that the Government delivered justice for those involved.
Last night, we heard from the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff that, on 15 October, the Prime Minister did not believe that the NHS would be overwhelmed and thought that the over-80s should be sacrificed to the whims of the deadly virus. The Prime Minister wrote those words while our NHS was facing the darkest moments in its history. While doctors and nurses were fighting to contain the pandemic, the Prime Minister was actively pushing for the virus to be allowed to run rampant through towns and cities. The Prime Minister was willing, in his own words, to allow the bodies to “pile high”.
On 15 October 2020, 60,000 people had already died. How can anyone have put faith and trust in a Prime Minister who actually typed the words
“get COVID and live longer”?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman grossly mischaracterises the substance of those discussions —what I said. I have made points in the House of Commons already—in the Chamber—about the language that I am alleged to have used. But I think what everybody in this country understands is that the decisions that we had to take at that time were incredibly difficult. Of course, this in no way detracts from the grief and suffering of those who have lost loved ones to covid and whose families have been hit by the consequences of that disease, but as I said earlier to the Labour leader, we have to balance very, very difficult harms on either side. There are no good ways through; a lockdown also causes immense suffering and loss of life chances, and damage to health and mental health.
The right hon. Gentleman knows very well that, in due course, there will be a chance to look at all this in a full public inquiry, but I must tell the House that I am content that we followed the scientific guidance and we did whatever we could to save life and to minimise suffering, and of course to protect our wonderful NHS.
My goodness, is that it? Is that it, Prime Minister? The reality is that the Prime Minister wrote these words himself. The over-80s were expendable. A Prime Minister is charged with protecting society, not putting folk at risk of an early death. Such a glib attitude towards human life is indefensible. The Prime Minister is simply not fit for office.
The clear pattern throughout this pandemic is that it is one rule for them and another rule for the rest of us. The reality is that the only way to get to the full truth over the UK Government’s disastrous handling of the pandemic is for this cabal to be made to answer under oath. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, in the interests of public health and confidence, the covid inquiry will begin immediately, and will he commit to appearing at the inquiry himself under oath before any general election is called?
I appreciate why it is so important for this country to have a full public inquiry and that is why I made the announcement to the House that we would. I also think it is right that it should go ahead as soon as is reasonable. I do not think that right now, in the middle of a third wave when we are seeing many of the key people involved in fighting the pandemic very heavily occupied, it is right to ask them to devote a lot of their time to a public inquiry of the kind that I think we would all want to see. That is why I think it is right that it should start in the spring, when I am pretty confident, and so are the rest of the scientific community, that we will really be in a much, much better position and able to go ahead. That is the time to begin the public inquiry, but that does not mean that we are not continuing to learn lessons all the time.
Yes, and I am thankful to my right hon. Friend for the personal tutorial he gave me, using a laptop, in the opportunities provided by this type of technology and the massive increase in the cognitive powers of kids that is now made possible by these types of technology. We are looking at supporting schools across the whole of the UK with this kind of advance as we continue to level up.
In light of the judicial ruling in the High Court that the Northern Ireland protocol repeals article 6 of the Act of Union, which allows for unimpeded trade within the United Kingdom and between the constituent parts of the UK, what does the Prime Minister intend to do to fully restore the Act of Union for Northern Ireland and remove the Irish sea border?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. This is my first opportunity publicly to congratulate him on becoming leader of the Democratic Unionist party. I look forward to working with him and with the whole of the Executive in Northern Ireland for the people in Northern Ireland. As we have made clear and as we will be setting out today, we want to sort out the issues in the protocol. We think there are practical steps we can take to do that. As far as the court case is concerned, nothing in the protocol affects the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom or Northern Ireland’s place within it.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Many of the hospitals that I have been round recently are doing incredible work at getting back to pre-covid levels of service. I understand that NHS partners are working hard to explore options for restoring maternity services at County Hospital.
Together, the Chairs of the Committees dealing with social security in the Scottish Parliament, the Senedd and the Northern Ireland Assembly and I have made a call that the £20 a week cut in universal credit due in October should not go ahead. A new Joseph Rowntree Foundation Report shows that if it does go ahead, out-of-work families with children will have an income way below what the general public regard as the minimum necessary for an acceptable standard of living. Instead of cutting down, will the Prime Minister not follow his own policy, level up and leave the £20 a week in place?
What we want to do is level up across the whole of the UK by increasing access to high-wage, high-skilled jobs and by getting people off benefits and into work. That really is the big difference between the right hon. Member’s party and the party that I lead. We want to help people into work, but I am afraid that, as so often, Labour wants to keep them on welfare. I do not think that is the right way forward. We want to see higher wages, which is why we have increased the living wage by record amounts, and we are working to ensure that this is a jobs-led recovery. All the signs at the moment are that that is succeeding, but of course it depends on people getting those jabs when they are asked to.
That is spot on—my hon. Friend is completely right. The question for those who attack the current policy is: if not now, when? We looked at the data this morning with the chief medical officer, and he pointed out the extraordinary difference between the number of people in the older generations being hospitalised now and in previous waves. Thanks to the vaccine roll-out, we have radically changed the way the disease affects our society. It is that change that is enabling us to make the progress that we are. As he says, if not now, when?
The Government claim that fires in schools are very rare and are mostly confined to one room or cause little or no damage. The fire last month at Asmall Primary School in my constituency spread far beyond the original site and severely damaged three rooms. That has had a devastating effect on the school, and the pupils now face 18 months of disruption to their education. Will the Prime Minister commit to a mandate that all new build schools and major refurbishments are installed with sprinklers so that schools do not suffer the same fate as Asmall Primary in Ormskirk?
I thank the hon. Lady very much and I thank the fire service for its outstanding response to the fire at Asmall Primary School. I am sorry for the disruption that children are experiencing. We cannot be complacent about fires at all, let alone fires in schools, and the Department for Education is consulting on guidance to improve fire safety in schools further. I encourage her to make representations in that consultation.
One of my constituents recently attempted to sell a house, only for the surveyor and estate agent to inform him that they require an external wall system certificate. However, under the current Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors guidance, an EWS1 form should not be expected for properties and buildings under 18 metres high, which includes my constituent’s property in Cambuslang. Will the Prime Minister clarify whether the UK Government intend to take any steps to ensure that lenders and others adhere to RICS guidance on EWS1 forms and will he meet me to discuss how I can assist my constituent?
The hon. Lady makes an extremely important point. That is why my right hon. Friend the Housing Secretary will make a statement to the House shortly. We must be clear that the risk from fire to life in homes is very, very low and leaseholders should not be trapped in their properties, unable to buy or sell, because their properties have been unfairly maligned in that way. Lenders and valuers should not be asking for EWS1 forms on buildings below 18 metres. The Housing Secretary will set out later more about how we propose to ensure that that does not happen.
Dame Vera Lynn did so much for our nation and now a fitting memorial is planned on the white cliffs of Dover to ensure that this national icon continues to be celebrated for decades to come. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Dame Vera was a great inspiration to women, showing the difference we can make and contributing throughout the whole of her life to our national life? Will he extend his support to this important Dame Vera Lynn national memorial project?
Yes, Mr Speaker, I think this is a pretty safe bet for everybody. We all remember and love the songs of Dame Vera Lynn. She brought the whole country together at a pretty dark time and is a great, great inspiration for many, many people. I thank my hon. Friend for the campaign that she is leading for a fitting memorial and I am very happy to support it.
I thank the hon. Lady very much; I hope the House will forgive me if I say that I did not catch every word of what she said, but I believe that she was referring to the tragic deaths of those who were claiming benefits. I am certainly determined to make sure that she gets a full account of what we are doing to put this right and that she meets the relevant Minister as soon as that can be arranged.
Last week, I met one of Truro’s daffodil farmers. There is real concern in the industry that they will not be able to have their daffodil pickers in the fields this January. I know that the DWP is working with the Duchy College and is hoping to run a local sector-based work academy, but this is a complex issue requiring a long-term solution. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend would meet me and other Cornish MPs to see how we could resolve this in the long term.
I am only too happy to meet my hon. Friend at any time. I can assure her that we want to find the workforce to pick the flowers—the beautiful Cornish daffodils—that should not be “born to blush unseen”, if I remember the quote right. They should be properly picked. In addition to developing the local labour force, and making sure that we line up younger people and people across Cornwall with the opportunities that there are, she must not forget that, thanks to the EU settlement scheme, there are 6 million EU nationals still entitled to live and work in this country, who have taken advantage of that scheme. Never let it be said that we have done an injustice to that group.
I do not think that I have heard such total cobblers in all my life, except possibly from the Leader of the Opposition. That is not what the Bill does. On the contrary, it gives local people the power to protect.
If I understood the hon. Lady correctly, it was a pub called the Britannia that she wanted to protect. We are bringing forward measures to allow local people to protect such places of vital local importance. When it comes to development, the power remains vested firmly with local people, to make sure that they protect their green spaces and the green belt, and they have development only in the places where they, the local people, want it.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend is not surprised that people are keen to move to my North Devon constituency, but we, like much of the south-west, are experiencing severe housing shortages. Local government need urgent help and support now. Might he consider, as part of planning reforms, binding covenants being applied to a proportion of new-build housing, so it is used as a primary residence and not a holiday let or second home, and that existing homes must register for a change of use if they become a holiday let, to ensure vibrant coastal communities do not become winter ghost towns?
My hon. Friend is a massively effective advocate for the people of North Devon. She has made these points to me before, and I know that she is right. As she knows, we have put higher rates of stamp duty on the buying of additional property, such as second homes, but we also have to make sure that young people growing up around our country—contrary to the instincts of the previous Labour speaker, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith)—have the chance of home ownership in the place where they live. That is what our first home scheme will help to do, with a new discount of at least 30% prioritised for first-time buyers.
The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong, because everybody who is self-isolating is entitled, in addition to the equivalent of the living wage at statutory sick pay, to help, in extreme circumstances, from their local councils and to a £500 payment to help them with self-isolation. It remains absolutely vital that everybody does it.
Given the global pandemic, public criticism of my right hon. Friend’s extraordinary leadership should be dismissed. He put the lives of my constituents first, and has had to adapt to the lessons that covid-19 has taught us. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the handing of tuberculosis by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Will he meet me to discuss the current TB strategy and how we can improve it?
I am always delighted to meet my hon. Friend. I listened to him and learned from him about bovine TB and badgers. We think that the badger cull has led to a reduction in the disease, but no one wants to continue, and I am sure that he does not, with the cull of a protected species—beautiful mammals— indefinitely, so it is a good thing that we are accelerating other elements of our strategy, particularly vaccination. I think that is the right way forward, and we should begin, if we can, to phase out badger culling in this country.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to focus on the needs of children in the pandemic and the paramount importance of keeping them in school. We will do everything we can to ensure that we are able to get schools back in September—I have every confidence that we will be able to—but that will be greatly assisted, as I never tire of repeating this afternoon, if everybody goes and gets their second jab, or first jab.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on missing children, I know that every year, 180,000 people are reported to the police as missing across our constituencies in the United Kingdom. I am sure that the Prime Minister and everyone in the House find that completely unacceptable. The Home Office’s strategy on missing people has not been reviewed since 2011, so will the Prime Minister please urgently get the strategy reviewed and updated? Along with that, will he meet the Missing People charity, the Children’s Society and me to look at this important issue affecting our society?
I thank my hon. Friend, and I would just remind him that 95% of missing person incidents are resolved without anyone coming to harm, or without the missing individual coming to harm. I thank him for the work that he does on this issue, because it matters a great deal to the remaining 5%, which is an unacceptably high level of suffering. I am certainly determined that we should continue to work with all the relevant agencies, police and social services to improve our response. I am very happy to take up his offer and ensure that he gets the meeting that he needs.
I will now stand down your stand-in, Prime Minister. May I just say to everyone that when we get back we have to get through more questions and get back on time? Let us work for one another.
I am suspending the House for a few minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.
Northern Ireland Protocol
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the Government’s approach to the Northern Ireland protocol. The statement is being made simultaneously in the other place by my noble Friend Lord Frost, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office.
The Northern Ireland protocol was designed to achieve a delicate balance between a number of different aims. It reflected a truly extraordinary compromise by the Government in 2019, driven by our steadfast commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions. Just over a year later we concluded the trade and co-operation agreement, the broadest and most far-reaching agreement of its kind that has ever been struck. Together, these offered the building blocks of a strong, constructive partnership between the UK and the EU as sovereign equals. However, we have not yet been able to unlock the potential of that new partnership in full.
The impact of the current protocol is at the heart of that. There is no doubt that we have tried to operate the protocol in good faith. We worked throughout 2020 to finalise the areas left open by the protocol text itself—without, of course, knowing what the real-world impacts on the ground would be, as is the case with negotiations. We are planning already to invest, and are in the process of investing about £500 million in delivering systems and support service. We have worked with businesses to help their preparations for the new trading arrangements.
But as we have sought to operate the protocol, it is clear that its burdens have been the source of considerable and ongoing disruption to lives and livelihoods. We have seen reductions in supermarket product lines, we have seen more than 200 suppliers decide they will no longer sell to Northern Ireland, and we have seen difficulties not just on the famous chilled meats but on medicines, pets, movement of live animals, seeds and plants.
Nowhere is this more visible that in the fact that the Northern Ireland protocol means that Northern Ireland accounts for 20% of all EU documentary checks on products of animal origin, despite a population of only 1.8 million people. What is worse, these burdens will get worse, not improve over time, as the grace periods expire, leaving businesses facing ever more unsustainable burdens.
These impacts risk being felt in the fabric of our Union, too. All dimensions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement need to be respected, Northern Ireland’s integral place in our United Kingdom just as much as the north-south dimension, yet there is a growing sense in Northern Ireland that we have not found this balance. That is seen in a difficult ongoing political climate, in protests and regrettable instances of disorder, and in strains within a power-sharing Executive already dealing with an unprecedented pandemic.
We have worked with the EU to try to address these challenges. Some avenues for progress have been identified in certain areas, but overall these discussions have not got to the heart of the problem. Put simply, we cannot go on as we are. We have therefore had to consider all our options. In particular, we have looked carefully at the safeguards provided by article 16 of the protocol. They exist to deal with significant societal and economic difficulties, as well as trade diversion, and there has been significant disruption to east-west trade, a significant increase in trade on the island of Ireland as companies change supply chains, and considerable disruption to everyday life.
There has also been societal instability, seen most regrettably in the disorder across Northern Ireland at Easter. Indeed, what could be seen as a false but raw perception in the Unionist community of separation from the rest of the United Kingdom has had profound political consequences.
These are very serious effects, which have put people, businesses and the institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement under strain. It is plainly clear that the circumstances exist to justify the use of article 16. Nevertheless, we have concluded that this is not the right moment to do so. Instead, we see an opportunity to proceed differently, to find a new path and to seek to agree with the EU, through negotiations, a new balance in our arrangements covering Northern Ireland, to the benefit of all.
It is in that spirit that today’s Command Paper outlines the new balance we wish to find. It is a balance that needs to ensure goods can circulate much more freely within the UK customs territory, while ensuring that full processes are applied to goods destined for the EU. It is a balance that needs to enable all in Northern Ireland to continue to have normal access to goods from the rest of the UK by allowing goods meeting both UK and EU standards to circulate. And it is a balance that needs to normalise the basis of the protocol’s governance, so that the relationship between us and the EU is no longer policed by the EU institutions and the Court of Justice. We should return to a normal treaty framework, similar to other international agreements, that is more conducive to the sense of genuine and equitable partnership that we seek.
We also recognise our share of responsibility in helping the EU protect its single market. We are willing to explore exceptional arrangements on data sharing and co-operation, and penalties in legislation to deter those looking to move non-compliant products from Northern Ireland to Ireland.
I repeat that all of this is entirely consistent with maintaining an open border, without infrastructure or checks, between Ireland and Northern Ireland. These proposals will require significant change to the Northern Ireland protocol, and we do not shy away from that. We believe such change is necessary to deal with the situation we now face. We look to open a discussion on these proposals urgently. At the same time, we must provide certainty and stability for businesses as we do so, so we believe we should also quickly agree a standstill period, including maintaining the operation of the grace periods that are in force and freezing existing legal actions and processes, to ensure there is room to negotiate and to provide a genuine signal of good intent on finding ways forward.
The difficulties that we have in operating the Northern Ireland protocol are now the main obstacle to building a relationship with the EU that reflects our strong common interests and values. Instead of that, we are seeing a relationship that has been punctuated with legal challenges and characterised by disagreement and mistrust. We do not want that pattern to be set, not least because it does not support stability in Northern Ireland. It is now time to work to establish a new balance in which both the UK and the EU can invest to provide a platform for peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland and allow us to set out on a new path of partnership with the EU. We have today set out an approach that we believe can do just that. We urge the EU to look at it with fresh eyes and work with us to seize this opportunity and put our relations on a better footing. We stand ready to deliver the brighter future that is within reach. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
Almost two years ago, this Prime Minister negotiated every dot and comma of the Northern Ireland protocol. He said that it would mean no checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He described it as an “ingenious solution” and that it was
“in perfect conformity with the Good Friday agreement.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2019; Vol. 666, c. 583.]
He was not alone. Lord Frost said that he was “pleased and proud” to secure this “excellent deal” for the UK. The Secretary of State wrote that it would allow all businesses
“to trade unhindered across the UK.”
Today, not for the first time, the Secretary of State is back before Parliament to renege on those promises and to discredit the deal that his Government were authors of and cheerleaders for, claiming that they could not possibly have known what the real-world impacts on the ground would be. The country will be asking once again: is this bad faith or incompetence. Whichever it is, the shambolic approach, the dishonesty, the recklessness and the utter ineptitude have come at a real cost. It has destroyed trust in the UK Government, an essential component of the Belfast Good Friday agreement. It has fanned the flames of instability and, as ever, in the middle of this are the communities and businesses of Northern Ireland that have been repeatedly failed.
Today, ahead of another difficult summer, a resolution is further away than ever. Today, businesses and communities needed reassurance. They needed to see the Secretary of State announce to the House an agreement on a sustainable way forward that will fix the problems that the Prime Minister created. Instead, they have more political brinkmanship, and more threats to tear up the protocol with nothing to take its place. Communities are tired of these games from a Government they have totally lost trust in. They just want to see sustainable solutions. All of us want to see serious proposals that lower the barriers down the Irish sea and protect the economic integrity of the United Kingdom.
Can the Secretary of State outline whether the proposals have any hope of gaining support? Can he tell the House what conversations he has had with his counterparts that lead him to believe that this approach will be successful? How did the Taoiseach respond to his call with the Prime Minister yesterday, given that the Government’s strategy so far has left Anglo-Irish relations at an all-time low? How is he intending to bring the people of Northern Ireland and their representatives into these discussions so that they have a direct relationship with the EU? That is clearly necessary, given that this Government have demonstrated that they have no understanding of Northern Ireland and the delicate balance of identities that must be protected.
Does the Secretary of State accept that these proposals bring us right back to square one of the Brexit debates, rehashing arguments around alternative arrangements that have long been rejected, and returning the debate to the border north-south on the island of Ireland? What is the timeframe for these talks? The Command Paper is entirely silent on how they will proceed and whether there is any agreement from the EU that they should.
This ongoing stand-off is having consequences not just for Northern Ireland, but for our relationships with current and future trading partners. The eyes of many Governments around the world are on the noble Lord Frost and the Secretary of State this afternoon. President Biden and Prime Minister Ardern are among many who want to know that the UK will abide by international law, by the agreements that they signed, and be a partner that they can trust. These endless games are shredding our international reputation and undermining our ability to secure trade deals that are in the best interest of the UK.
As we have acknowledged many times in this House, peace in Northern Ireland is still fragile. Advancing the peace process has always required responsibility, honesty and leadership—qualities that are in short supply in this Government. Too often in recent years, the Prime Minister has put his own interests over and above the interests of Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland are sick to death of being put in the middle of these games. Another Brexit groundhog day; another stand-off with the EU. It is time to get real, show some responsibility, and find a genuinely sustainable way forward.
I was kind of waiting for the point at which the hon. Lady would actually stand up for the United Kingdom and the people of Northern Ireland in getting a solution. I remind her that she may want to think about joining the UK Government in making the point to the EU that it also has a responsibility—which it has previously accepted but needs to deliver on—in terms of the people of Northern Ireland. In January, there was an agreement to work at pace; we are now in July and the issues remain unresolved. We saw the EU’s attempt to trigger article 16 in a way that for many detrimentally affected the sense of feeling around the institutions of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. We are still dealing with the fallout from that action—that is just a reality of where we are.
We want the EU to engage with our proposals. We have sought the EU’s engagement with our proposals in good faith in the dozen or more papers that we have put to it about ways to move forward. The reality of where we are now is that instead of having a continual, piecemeal approach to dealing with things as we go along and coming up against the grace periods that cause disruption for businesses and communities, we think it is right to take an approach that deals with the problem—not just the symptoms but the underlying problem that we need to see corrected—in the round. I suggest that the Opposition would do better to defend the people of Northern Ireland and the UK than to continue to defend the actions the EU takes to undermine the strength of the integral market of the people of the United Kingdom.
We do have good relationships, and I have good relationships, as does the Prime Minister, with our counterparts in Ireland—the Taoiseach, the Foreign Minister and the Tánaiste—and we continue to develop on those. It is a bit rich of the hon. Lady to talk to us about understanding Northern Ireland when not only do prominent members of her own party—including the former shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott)—claim that Labour is not even a Unionist party, but Labour does not even stand candidates in Northern Ireland.
We will continue to do what is right for the United Kingdom. We want to work with our partners in the EU. When people get a chance to read through the Command Paper, they will see that we are not taking the opportunity to trigger article 16, because we want to work in partnership and find a solution to all the problems that works for people in Northern Ireland. When we even have the Chief Rabbi and the president of the Board of Deputies coming together to make clear the substantial problems of the Jewish community in Northern Ireland, that should make it clear that the protocol is a problem for communities right across Northern Ireland. We have a duty to resolve it, not play politics with it.
On the arrangements that have just been announced, I greatly welcome the realistic and reasonable approach of the Prime Minister, Lord Frost and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Does my right hon. Friend agree, that given the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, as set out in the protocol, the EU must understand that the UK, having recently and democratically left the EU, rejects the EU’s legalistic intransigence but will continue to negotiate in the short term, on the clear understanding that our national interest requires equal reasonableness and realism from the EU, or the Government will take the necessary steps that my right hon. Friend just outlined —and that they mean what they say?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we do want to take that approach. The reality is that in practice the outworkings of the protocol are having a detrimental effect. One of the key things in the opening part of the protocol itself is the determination that we would not disrupt the everyday lives of people in their communities. Regardless of people’s constitutional view of Northern Ireland, the protocol is having an impact, which is why the First Minister has also pointed to issues in the protocol that she wants to see resolved. Obviously, people across the communities are having issues as well. We need to get this resolved for all the people of Northern Ireland, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to do so in a realistic why, recognising the challenges on the ground, and to deal with it as partners with the EU in a way that can deliver for the people of Northern Ireland, with the understanding that, of course, Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
Let us not lose sight of the fact that a protocol setting the terms of trade has only been made necessary because of an EU withdrawal agreement that the Prime Minister—irrespective of its entirely foreseeable impact on Northern Ireland—defined the parameters of himself and then signed up to freely. Everybody knows that article 16 exists, but the continued threats from the UK Government to deploy it have worn so thin as to be utterly transparent in every sense, and can be doing little to help increase the trust and confidence necessary for the Government to achieve their stated objectives.
Let us also be clear that if we move from the current agreement, there will have to be another put in place that is likely to differ in substance, to use a phrase, only in limited and specific ways from that which it will be replacing. If the UK Government wish to return to the freest possible conditions for the movement of goods between GB and Northern Ireland, consistent with their international obligations, they could sign up right now to a dynamic deal on food and animal welfare standards.
A pragmatic renegotiation of the protocol in the light of experience, and in the light of everything that has come from the nature of Brexit, would clearly be desirable in order to remove not just the barriers that exist but also the symbolism that these trade frictions are causing that are being felt so keenly in Northern Ireland at the present moment. In that regard, will the Secretary of State ensure that the Government, in contrast to their approach to Brexit to date, set the tone of all their discussions with the EU in good faith around the negotiating table, rather than through the pages of The Telegraph or the tabloids, and at all times in a manner that builds, rather than undermines, the trust necessary to be able to secure a better deal for the people of Northern Ireland?
As I outlined in my statement, we are actually not using article 16. That is something that the EU attempted to do—I think, mistakenly—earlier this year, which has caused an issue and a sense within the Unionist community that is still an issue today. The hon. Gentleman should sometimes stand up a bit more for the people of Northern Ireland and across the UK as a spokesperson on this issue, rather than just for the EU.
The hon. Gentleman mentions talking to the media. When we are dealing with the EU, it is a bit odd for us to be told by a journalist about a plan for medicines or for chilled meats, when it could be days or weeks later that we formally hear from the EU. We do want to work with the EU, which is why we are proposing, as we have done today in our Command Paper, a way to move forward and work together to resolve the core problems, rather than continually to deal individually with the symptoms that continue to build issues of trust and frustration. Ultimately, that is the best way to get a result for the people of Northern Ireland and to have that strong, positive relationship between the UK and the EU.
As my right hon. Friend has just mentioned, the European Union’s attempts to trigger article 16 earlier this year caused political reverberations that are still being felt in Northern Ireland. With communities across Northern Ireland now divided in their support for the protocol, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is no longer sustainable as it currently stands, and that an internal border that reshapes and undermines our United Kingdom is unacceptable?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I referenced earlier the First Minister’s views on this. The Deputy First Minister has also been very clear that there are issues with the protocol that need to be resolved. I cannot really remember a single person in the business community or the political community in Northern Ireland whom we have spoken to who has not identified that there are at least some issues that need to be resolved, but there might be differences of opinion about how to do that and to what degree. We want to do that by agreement with the European Union and recognising the sovereignty of the integral market of the United Kingdom, and in a way that means that consumers and businesses in Northern Ireland can go about their lives, enjoying their lives in the way that they always have done as citizens of the United Kingdom.
We welcome the acceptance by the Government that the protocol is not working, that it is causing real harm to our economy in Northern Ireland and that it is simply not sustainable. Today’s statement is a welcome, significant and important first step. To be clear, tinkering around the edges simply does not work. I trust that the EU will approach new negotiations in good faith and recognise the need to enter into new arrangements that remove the Irish sea border. For our part, we will apply our seven tests against any outcome of this process.
Will the Secretary of State assure the House that these negotiations will not be dragged out, and, if unsuccessful, that the Government will invoke article 16 to introduce measures that provide for the free movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and which ensure that products complying with British standards are available in Northern Ireland, that the principle of consent is fully respected, and that Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom is properly and legally protected?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a series of important points. We are very clear that, as I said earlier, we want to take this forward and negotiate these issues as a whole, rather than have a piecemeal approach, so we solve the underlying issues that are causing so much disruption for businesses and people in Northern Ireland. That would be a better way forward because we will not have to keep coming back to these things and keep having these issues and challenges around grace periods that just create cliff edges. We have to avoid that, and that is why we are suggesting a stand- still period as well as we go forward.
Ultimately, we must recognise that this is an issue that affects everybody, the whole community of Northern Ireland. Wanting to see these issues resolved has united people across communities, and we think there is a realistic way to do that within the framework of the protocol. We have always recognised, and we are still clear about this, that the single epidemiological unit of the island of Ireland has been there for a very long time— and those checks in one form or another since about the 19th century—but we have got to find a way to do this, and we believe there is a way, that ensures that products moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland to be used and consumed in Northern Ireland can flow in the way they would within any other part of the United Kingdom, while fulfilling our responsibilities to the EU in terms of helping them ensure they can protect their single market.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement today, which is balanced and pragmatic. The Northern Ireland protocol was always a difficult compromise but it was made in good faith to protect the Good Friday agreement, while respecting the EU’s single market and our own single market and Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. As this Command Paper makes clear, it has not managed to do that, so what conversations has my right hon. Friend had with the European Union, do they accept that premise and if they do not accept it and will not engage meaningfully, as the Command Paper and negotiators want, does article 16 remain on the table?
We have always said that we cannot take any options off the table, but we want to work through this in a negotiated way to get a realistic solution that delivers for the people in Northern Ireland. We have been speaking consistently over this year, both Lord Frost and myself, with the Cabinet Office lead on the negotiation on the protocol and with European Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič directly. I think the European Commission does recognise that there are issues that need to be resolved. The challenge we have had is getting agreement on the resolutions.
One of the reasons we took the action we took in March to extend the grace period was that we got to a point where we needed an agreement to be able to ensure we were able to keep food products on the shelves. It was interesting at the time that the EU was complaining not about the process and the issues we were dealing with, but about the fact we had not done it by agreement. That comes back to the point the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) made: to work by agreement, ultimately, we need the EU, our partner, to also come to agree things in the first place. We have not managed to achieve that yet, but I am hopeful that, given where we are now and the proposal we are putting forward, there is a realistic way to do that in the months ahead.
“Northern Ireland is uniquely placed…to prosper from this deal.”
That is a direct quote from the Secretary of State last Christmas eve. Then on new year’s day he said:
“There is no ‘Irish Sea Border’…The government and businesses …are keeping goods flowing freely…between GB and NI.”
But then earlier this month he said that
“the current arrangements could corrode the link between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.”
This statement is the second attempt in one week that this Government have made to distance themselves from agreements they have negotiated. Why does the Secretary of State think that any other country, or any person in Northern Ireland, would trust anything that this Government say from this day forward?
The implications and outworkings of the protocol are a frustration and a problem for people across communities, and it would be wrong of us as a Government to not recognise that there are problems with the protocol; the way that it is being implemented on the ground is causing problems for consumers and for businesses. I cannot believe for a moment that the hon. Gentleman would want the Government to sit back and see that continue and see his constituents be detrimentally affected by the way the EU wants this to be implemented. That is why it is important that we find a way forward to deliver this in a way that works for people across all of Northern Ireland.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and today’s White Paper. Is he aware of anybody serious who now doubts that the protocol is failing in its own terms by causing, to use the words from the protocol,
“serious societal and economic difficulties”
and “diversion of trade” which is a threat to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement? The answer is no. Is that what the EU intended when it signed this protocol? Of course not, and that is why all parties, including the EU, should now be able to accept, as the Government now do, that this protocol is not working. So I commend my right hon. Friend for his cautious, reasonable and responsible approach. We are absolutely right to try everything to bring the EU to the negotiating table, but how long have we got before we have to act to safeguard peace, security and political stability in Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend makes an important point and he is right. I think the EU does recognise this, wants to ensure that we get the right outcome for the people of Northern Ireland and does recognise the sensitivities there. That is why it is important that we deal with the core problem underlying all the symptoms that we are seeing. He is also absolutely right about stability in Northern Ireland. When we are seeing people who are party to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement being very clear about the disruption this causes and the threat it is to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, it is right that we listen to that. It is also right that we get to work on this with the European Union, in a spirit of partnership, to find a solution to the core problems. We should bear in mind, as I say, that if we imagine a place where the framework of the protocol is delivering in the way that was always intended, with the free flow of goods, we really do have a huge economic opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland. We need to get to that space in order for it to be something that is sustainable and has the consent of the whole community of Northern Ireland.
This statement is full of bluster and a rewriting of history. It creates more uncertainty and instability. The Government are choosing confrontation rather than adopting the obvious solution on the table, which is a comprehensive veterinary agreement. The Secretary of State should know that the only really sustainable way forward to achieve the necessary flexibilities and mitigations is through agreement with the European Union, either within the protocol or building on the trade and co-operation agreement. Does he recognise that achieving that requires trust to be built and sustained, but all the Government’s actions around the protocol this year have undermined that, including, today, the empty threat around article 16?
I would gently suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks back at the statement I made and has a read of the Command Paper, which is looking to a formal agreement with the EU and to doing this in a way that is reasonable and sensible and deals with the fundamental problems that are affecting his constituents as well. Again, perhaps he should be standing up for his constituents more than he is standing up for the EU at the moment. He seems to be forgetting that it is the EU that said that it would work at pace to resolve these issues, seven months ago; it is the EU that sought to trigger article 16, which caused so many issues for the Unionist community in Northern Ireland; and it is the EU that has not yet come to agreement on a range of issues that we need to resolve for the people of Northern Ireland. It is right, therefore, that we take this opportunity to outline a way in which we can move forward in a positive way that can rebuild the relationship with the EU and fundamentally resolve the core issues that are detrimentally affecting so many of his constituents and people across Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland protocol was pursued and negotiated by this Government less than two years ago, and it is a reflection of the decisions made by them in relation to the nature of Brexit. In the statement, the Government suggest that they have tried to operate the protocol, but they have not yet pursued the option of making supplementary agreements with the EU that would work within the protocol, such as a veterinary agreement, which businesses such as Marks & Spencer support. Given that the Secretary of State has said that the article 16 grounds have been met, how many of the businesses he has consulted agree with him, have asked him to do that and think it is sustainable way forward?
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Will he confirm, for the benefit of the record, that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and should therefore enjoy the benefits of the free trade area within the United Kingdom, as well as integrate with our friends from the European Union, ensuring that the people of Northern Ireland can have the benefits of both elements—the United Kingdom and the European Union—in doing trade deals, but also, more importantly, gain the opportunity, as we negotiate free trade deals around the world, to trade around the world as part of the United Kingdom?
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) referenced a quote of mine about the opportunities for Northern Ireland. If we just imagine the place we can get to where the protocol is working—where we can resolve the issues within the protocol—we really do have a huge economic opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland. That is the vision that we always had for the protocol and that is how it should be working. We need to get to that position.
There is clearly a problem here that needs fixing. As the head of Marks & Spencer made clear today, the full checks that are currently being applied on M&S goods going to the Republic are resulting in some consignments being sent back because they have the wrong colour typeface on the form. Mr Norman has said that a veterinary agreement would be
“by far the best way of delivering a smooth trade flow.”
The Secretary of State just made reference to that. Given that we are, in effect, following EU food standards anyway, because they have not changed since 31 December, is that not the best way forward? I encourage the Secretary of State, if he agrees, not to be too purist about the form of such an agreement, because it would bring huge relief to so many people affected by the current fears and arrangements.
The issues that companies such as Mr Norman’s have found are the very issues we want to resolve as part of the wider package. It is important to note, as we look at the Command Paper, that we want to deal with a wide range of issues. That is my point about dealing with the fundamental problems, rather than going piecemeal through the symptoms. That is why there is a range of options in there, some of which will make a veterinary agreement redundant, because it will not be required in that kind of process, potentially. That is part of the discussion we want to have with the EU to get a resolution to all these issues; it is more than just the food and chilled meats issue.
I welcome the proposal in paragraph 48 of the Command Paper for a light-touch customs regime for goods that are staying in Northern Ireland and not moving on to the Republic, but will the Secretary of State confirm how small businesses could comply with the requirement to provide
“complete transparency of their supply chains”
to the various authorities? I can see how a large supermarket chain could do that, but how could a small trader do that?
My hon. Friend highlights an important point. We are talking to small businesses and, indeed, the wholesale groups that they often work with to make sure that there is a way for them to be able to work through this, and we will continue to work with them as we go forward. There is technology now, similar to the technology that large companies use, that smaller businesses can use—the trader support service is hugely helpful in this—but my hon. Friend highlights one of the core problems: making sure that goods that are moving to Northern Ireland purely to be consumed in Northern Ireland do not have the same kind of rigmarole and checks. I think that I have mentioned before in the House a large supermarket chain that has no stores in Ireland yet has to go through the same checks. That cannot be right and needs to be resolved.
May I, too, say how much I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement? It is absolutely clear that the protocol is having unintended and adverse consequences for daily life in Northern Ireland and it needs to be fixed. Will he please confirm that he and his colleagues have made it clear to the EU that the UK is keen to resolve these issues and will negotiate positively, and that other, more flexible arrangements, such as mutual enforcement, can be put in place that will respect the integrity of the internal markets of both parties without causing the difficulties that we have witnessed since January?
The Secretary of State knows as well as I do that the bulk of commerce and industry in Northern Ireland is getting on with making the protocol work, but a veterinary agreement would solve the problems that have not yet been resolved. Does he not recognise that public diplomacy and unilateralism may please his Back Benchers, but it is dangerous in the context of Northern Ireland? Will he insist to the Prime Minister and the noble Lord Frost that they get back to the negotiating table and do that in private until they come up with an acceptable result?
Again, perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have a look in detail at the statement I gave a short while ago and the Command Paper, because we are specifically setting out that we want to negotiate a solution with the European Union. I would just say to him that we are the party that has put forward a whole series of pages to the EU, which we are waiting for proper engagement on. We have not publicised them; we have not gone to the press about that. We have been doing that because we want to give space for a proper negotiation and the freedom to do that, to get a proper solution for the people of Northern Ireland. I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider getting behind the UK Government to get a positive solution for Northern Ireland.
I warmly welcome the statement for both its timeliness and its content. In the negotiations that the Secretary of State and Lord Frost are plainly keen to have with the European Union, will they look seriously at the option of mutual enforcement, as advocated by none other than the Nobel peace prize winner Lord Trimble, as a way through these challenges? As the Secretary of State reminded the House, the EU invoked article 16 back in January, not us. If the EU continues to be unreasonable despite every effort to persuade it, are we prepared, in extremis, to use article 16 and, if necessary, even to legislate domestically to maintain the integrity of the United Kingdom?
On mutual enforcement, we have sought to draw from ideas such as the suggestion of penalties for moving non-compliant goods to Ireland from Northern Ireland. We think that there is a reasonable evolution from where we are now that is capable of respecting everybody’s objectives and delivering better results, exactly as my right hon. Friend outlined. He is also right that it is important to be clear that we take nothing off the table. We are determined to deliver for the people in Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, and the protocol itself outlines that it will respect the sovereignty of the UK internal market.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests with regards to the legal action being taken against the Government on behalf of commercial entities in Northern Ireland, and I note Mr Speaker’s mention of a wavier on commenting on such matters. Given the seriousness of what the Secretary of State has said and as a result of the Command Paper, the legal team and claimants in that case will consider staying or pausing that commercial action. That is significant and opens up an opportunity for us to get a resolution for commercial entities in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Secretary of State and Government take that in the spirit in which it is meant and understand the seriousness of that.
I must say for the record that I do not care what the Dublin Government think about this—I do not care at all. All these Pavlov dogs from academia and some political parties are salivating at supporting the EU and what it needs, but none of them has put their shoulder to the wheel to try to solve the business problems unfortunately created by the protocol. I hope they will listen carefully to people such as Archie Norman, who has called the protocol a “pettifogging enforcement” of rules that protect nobody in Northern Ireland. He has said that 40% of his business deliveries are being delayed and that a quarter of what he hopes to deliver will be frustrated. The Command Paper says at paragraph 79 that discussions will move forward “at pace”. I hope that the Secretary of State can put some meat on the bone. What does that mean in terms of the timeline? We need to know within a matter of weeks that this will be finally resolved.
We are not looking to set arbitrary timelines. We want to let the EU respond and to negotiate with it, and in the weeks ahead we will all see how that negotiation works through. I note the hon. Member’s comments about the legal case. It is important that we can show people and businesses in Northern Ireland that, among the EU and the UK, diplomacy, democracy and talking can work to deliver positive outcomes. This issue affects people in commerce across Northern Ireland as well as consumers and the whole community, so it is right that we work together to find a solution.
We are clear and have always said that we do not want to see cliff edges, and we have some grace periods coming up. That is why we think it is right to have a standstill agreement so that businesses have certainty and people can see a positive way to move forward to get a result by agreement. However, as I say, we cannot take anything off the table, because we want to ensure that ultimately we get the right result for the people in Northern Ireland.
I welcome the statement, not only because of its contents but because the Government have brought it forward before recess. It is of great credit to the Government that they have made a statement that we can now scrutinise. Further to the previous question, it seems to me that, to get an agreement with the EU on anything, there must be an end date for the negotiations, because the EU run negotiations until the end date and, without one, they will go on forever. Will the Secretary of State have a word with Lord Frost and announce the date on which we will not go on any further with negotiations? Otherwise, I think this will drag on and on.
I take my hon. Friend’s point: this is not something that we can allow to drag on and on. I think our track record shows that we will do what we need to do when the time is right, as we did when we took action in March to give certainty to businesses. We obviously have grace periods coming up, which is why we are recommending a standstill option to give businesses that certainty, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right: this cannot go on. That is why we need to resolve fundamentally the underlying problems, and do so soon.
I was interested to hear the Secretary of State say that he took heed of a party to the agreement warning of disruption. I hope that he will soon begin to listen to other parties to the agreement, as well as to businesses in Northern Ireland. A recent Northern Ireland business survey found that two thirds of companies would like to take advantage of the opportunities of the protocol. Invest Northern Ireland has reported many expressions of interest, and companies such as Arla and Dale Farm have agreed on major investment thanks to our unique dual market access.
Where there are practical issues of course they need to be resolved, but in his statement the Secretary of State referred to the potential of partnership, while in the same breath undermining it with uncertainty. This is no longer about the Government failing to capitalise on the opportunities, although they have abjectly failed to bother to do that. Why are they now actively thwarting those who want to create, privately, jobs and prosperity after decades of economic underperformance?
Let me point out to the hon. Lady that there are two parties to the agreement, the UK and the EU. I can only assume from her suggestion that we should take more notice of other parties that she is joining some others in backing the EU over the people of the United Kingdom and, therefore, the people of Northern Ireland. This is a Government who have invested in Northern Ireland not only the largest financial package of city and growth deals that we have seen around the UK to deliver prosperity and growth, but £400 million in a new deal package which will also bring prosperity and growth, as well as the increase in the spending review in money for the Executive. We will continue to support that economic growth.
I agree with the hon. Lady in that, as I said earlier, I think there is a big opportunity for Northern Ireland as a fundamental, intrinsic part of the UK market with the ability to trade with the EU. That is what the protocol could bring about. There is a huge economic opportunity, but it can only deliver if it is working—if it is acceptable to the whole community of Northern Ireland —and business after business and business representative organisation after business representative organisation have made clear to us that there are problems which need to be resolved. What we are saying today is that rather than maintaining a piecemeal approach that creates continual cliff edges, we want to work with the EU to fix the underlying problems, so that we can see the economic opportunity that the hon. Lady has described delivering for Northern Ireland.
The UK has the ability, the will and the right to invoke article 16, but does my right hon. Friend agree that softer politics is still the way forward, and that working alongside the EU as an equal trading partner rather than an intransigent political hegemony will offer the best outcome for the people of Northern Ireland?
Yes, I hope that the EU will engage in a positive way, because I think that as equal partners and equal sovereign states we are able to conduct a proper negotiation to resolve these core issues. That is in the EU’s interests, because obviously it will ensure that we can deal with its concerns about the single market, but it is also in the wider interest, to ensure that we are protecting not just the Belfast/Good Friday agreement but the sovereign integrity of the UK internal market, which I hope the EU respects as much as we respect its single market.
Unlike representatives of the Alliance party and the SDLP, who seem to think that their job is to be EU representatives in the House rather than to voice the concerns of their constituents who are hurt every day by the Northern Ireland protocol, I welcome the proposals that the Government have presented today, especially those relating to customs, trade barriers, checks on goods, VAT, and the ending of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland. However, in paragraph 71 the Secretary of State still refers to the need for EU law to apply in Northern Ireland. Does he recognise that that is undemocratic and will lead to future conflicts and future trade barriers. Does he accept that the introduction of the mutual enforcement of regulations would do away with the need for EU law to be applied in Northern Ireland and would therefore remove those problems and the undemocratic nature of the existing arrangements?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his wider support and I share his frustration at hearing people who purport to represent UK citizens and Northern Ireland citizens in this Chamber and virtually continuing to support the EU, which is making their lives more difficult. I welcome his support for his constituents. In paragraph 71, we are clear that we think there is potential for more robust arrangements to ensure that, as the rules are developed, they take account of the implications for Northern Ireland and provide a stronger role for those in Northern Ireland. That is an important part of it and he is right to outline that. It is why the consent mechanism is so important as we move forward and why it is important that we recognise that, although the protocol is having an impact detrimentally on people across the whole community of Northern Ireland, for any form of protocol to survive it clearly has to have the consent of the whole community of Northern Ireland. At the moment, it simply does not have that. That is why, in its current format, the protocol as it is working is unsustainable.
We know that the protocol was entered into with the best intentions by both sides, but the simple truth, is it not, is that the EU’s approach to its implementation has been so rigid as to risk considerable harm to Northern Ireland’s economy and society? Does my right hon. Friend agree that what is required now is a far more pragmatic attitude from the EU, whose leaders should recognise that a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland is in the best interests of us all?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I recognise and believe that both vice-president Maroš Šefčovič and the wider EU want an outcome that is good for the people of Northern Ireland, as well as, obviously, protecting and defending their own single market. What we are saying is that to do that let us work together to get a solution that means we can deal with the issues that are fundamentally undermining the protocol, affecting its sustainability and detrimentally affecting the people of Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: for peace, prosperity and sustainability, it is in everybody’s interest to get a positive outcome to the negotiations.
Trade is the way to the peace and prosperity we need to see in Northern Ireland, and it is ready to make the best of both worlds. This issue needs to be resolved very quickly. The Secretary of State chooses his words very carefully. I think this afternoon he has told us that he respects the epidemiological unit of the island of Ireland and that, in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), the agreement being sought will avoid the need for a veterinary agreement and make it redundant. Is the agreement that the Secretary of State is now seeking a single agreement across the island of Ireland and the island of Britain?
The agreement we are seeking is one that recognises that Northern Ireland is fundamentally part of the UK internal market. That means not only the goods which at the moment can move unfettered from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, but getting to a point where goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, to be used and consumed in Northern Ireland, are also able to flow freely. We fully recognise the need to deal with checks and issues for products that are moving into Ireland, and therefore the EU and the single market. We will continue to do that. We think there is a realistic, practical and pragmatic way to do that, so that we avoid all those goods, including from companies that do not even trade within Ireland, having still to go through the same checks as if they were going into the single market. That is just not sustainable. It is not right for businesses and it is not right for consumers in Northern Ireland.
This is a welcome step and we await the response from the EU. Of course, its refusal to recognise the fundamental flaws of the protocol and the intransigent approach of the Dublin Government must change if this process is to succeed. We will wait and see if they have the capability to be flexible. The Prime Minister, in his foreword to the Command Paper, references the protection of the peace process and the Belfast agreement in all its parts as the rationale for the protocol. Does the Secretary of State agree that a fundamental building block is the principle of cross-community consent? Does he agree that whatever the outcome of the negotiations it must have the consent of the Unionist community, which is entirely absent from the current arrangements?
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. The issues with the protocol and the problems it has created for consumers and businesses affect all communities in Northern Ireland, but she is absolutely right that there is a fundamental problem that the Northern Ireland protocol, as it is currently working, does not have the consent of all, in all communities. It has to have that to have stability and the ability to deliver peace and prosperity. That is why it is important to enter the negotiations with the absolute aim of ensuring an outcome that resolves those underlying problems and works for people of all communities in Northern Ireland. She is absolutely right: it has to have the consent of all of them, including, obviously, the Unionist community.
The Act of Union has long been the foundation for Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of course the Good Friday/Belfast agreement has secured consensus on peace within Northern Ireland. By contrast, the protocol has challenged the integrity of the UK. It has seen tensions increase between communities within Northern Ireland, and it has been used to introduce barriers to trade.
I welcome the Command Paper and this statement as a timely and pragmatic response, but can my right hon. Friend confirm that he sees the integrity of the UK as the foundation for our pursuit of opportunities and for a peaceful and prosperous future?
My hon. Friend’s comment is absolutely spot on. The Command Paper is clear that we seek an agreed new balance to meet the commitments in the protocol in a way that fully respects Northern Ireland’s place in the UK market. Obviously, we understand that we have a duty to help maintain the integrity of the EU market, and we take that seriously. We think we can deliver on that, but we also have to be clear about the fundamental integrity of the UK market.
The Secretary of State will know that aerospace is a key industry in my constituency. If we needed a good example of the flaws of the piecemeal approach, the resolution on steel is a great example. When we raised aluminium, the European Union was of the view that we needed a separate and bespoke negotiation to resolve those issues. That crystallises the conundrum that has led to this White Paper.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) have all raised the timescales. I understand the Secretary of State’s reluctance to give arbitrary timescales, but there will be two choices: the European Union will either indicate very quickly that it has no interest in engaging with this process, or it will start to engage.
Will the Secretary of State at least commit not only to put his best efforts into achieving the right outcomes but that he will come to the House, when we return in September, to update us on progress or on the steps that may be necessary at that stage?
The hon. Gentleman perfectly outlines the reason why it is important that we deal with the underlying problem, rather than looking separately at all these different symptoms. Many hon. Members have talked about a veterinary agreement and, as he has outlined, that will not solve the overall problems. He has given a very good example of that, which is why we want to take this approach to find a fundamental resolution to the underlying problems.
On the timeframe, as I have said, we want to work positively with the European Union. We are looking to agree a standstill so that we avoid any cliff edges that the grace periods may create, and that would also give us the space to have these negotiations to get a permanent, fixed, long-term solution. It would be wrong of me to put timeframes on that at the moment.
The hon. Gentleman is right that we will have to see how things work over the next few weeks, and I have no doubt that the opportunities in this House will be abundant for him and others to raise these questions and make these points to me on our return after the recess.
It is always a pleasure to ask the Secretary of State a question, but I am very pleased to have heard today’s statement. I thank him for proposing a possible solution to where we are.
I have been in this Chamber all too often to discuss the Northern Ireland protocol, and here we are again, still trying to find some sort of solution. It has been said that the protocol was put in place to prevent Brexit from disrupting the peace process. However, the enforcement of the protocol in Northern Ireland has done the exact same. The protocol is not sustainable.
I believe very sincerely that there seems to be little willingness from the EU to find a way forward or to find a solution. What steps can the Secretary of State take to ensure an agreement is made to get rid of the protocol? Can he provide an assurance that all options will be considered, including invoking article 16, as he mentioned earlier?
The hon. Gentleman is right. As other colleagues have said today, it is important, and we are very clear, that we are not taking any options off the table. We need to ensure that we have the ability to do what is right for the people of the United Kingdom, and particularly, in the instance of the protocol, for the people of Northern Ireland. We think this is the right way to move forward, in order to find a way to resolve these underlying issues within the protocol, which we are fundamentally implementing for Northern Ireland and for the EU. These are fundamental issues that need to be resolved.
I have always been very clear, as have the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the noble Lord Frost, about our determination to deliver an outcome that is right for the people of Northern Ireland and that is sustainable and has the consent of the entire community of Northern Ireland. That is the only way that this can work in a positive way. We will then get to the stage where Northern Ireland has real opportunity to deliver huge economic growth and jobs in the future, as part of the UK internal market but also working with our friends and partners in the EU, with access to their market as well.
I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), for the late sight of this statement.
Before I start my remarks, I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the noble Lord Stevens, who will shortly be standing down as chief executive of the NHS. I thank him for his dedicated service over the past seven years, especially his stewardship during our battle against this virus and his huge contribution to this nation’s vaccination programme. I am sure that the whole House will join me in thanking him and giving him our best wishes for the future.
With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on our support for the NHS. In the NHS’s proud 73-year history, no year has been as tough as the last. Everyone working across the NHS has achieved incredible things in the face of great difficulty—from building the Nightingale hospitals in just a matter of days to rolling out our life-saving vaccination programme. They have been there for us at the best of times and at the worst of times. As a Government, we have sought to give them what they need at every stage of the pandemic.
Today, I would like to set out for the House some of the support we have been giving. Throughout the pandemic, we have worked to deliver manifesto commitments—50,000 nurses, 40 new hospitals and 50 million more GP appointments—and we are taking every opportunity to invest in our NHS to make sure that patients feel the benefits of the latest treatments and technologies.
Only this week, we announced a new innovative medicines fund to fast-track promising new drugs. This builds on the amazing work of the cancer drugs fund, which has already helped tens of thousands of patients access promising cancer treatments, while we use the data to make sure that they represent good value for the wider NHS. It is estimated that one in 17 people will be affected by a rare disease in their lifetime, and this fund will support the NHS to fast-track access to treatments that could have clinical promise. This new £340 million initiative takes our dedicated funding for fast-tracking promising drugs to £680 million, showing that we will do everything in our power to give patients access to the most cutting-edge therapies.
Doing right by the NHS means making sure that colleagues have the right team around them. This was true when we made our manifesto commitment for 50,000 more nurses by March 2024, and it remains especially true in the face of the challenges brought by the pandemic. I am pleased to report that we have almost 1.2 million staff working in NHS trusts, an increase of over 45,300 compared with a year ago. This includes over 4,000 more doctors and almost 9,000 more nurses, taking us to over 303,000 nurses in total, and we are on track to deliver on our 2024 commitment.
We recognise that, with so much being asked of our NHS staff, many will not yet be feeling the difference of these extra colleagues on the frontline, but I can assure those hardworking nurses that you will feel it soon. Yesterday, I heard from NHS Employers that, for the first time, Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust will have a full complement of nursing staff when the intake of new nursing graduates begins work in September. I know that we all look forward to hearing that kind of news from more and more places across the country.
Finally, I want to update the House on our autism strategy. Our NHS long-term plan set out our commitment to improving the lives of autistic people. Today, we have launched our new autism strategy, which sets out how we will tackle the inequalities and barriers faced by autistic people so that they can live independent and fulfilling lives. I am truly grateful to everyone who has contributed to shaping this strategy, including autistic people and their families, and the all-party parliamentary group on autism in particular. I would like to take a moment to recognise the contribution of Dame Cheryl Gillan, the former Member for Chesham and Amersham, for her incredible advocacy of autistic people, including the inquiries she led in 2017 and 2019. She left an incredible legacy, and we are all so grateful to her for her work.
Today’s strategy builds on our previous strategy, “Think Autism”, and we have made so much progress since then. We now have diagnostic services in every area of the country and a much better understanding and awareness of autism, but there is much more to do. The life expectancy gap for autistic people is still about 16 years on average compared with the general population, and almost 80% of autistic adults experience mental health problems during their lifetime. The coronavirus pandemic has been tough for many autistic people. Far too many autistic people face unacceptable barriers in every aspect of their lives—in health, employment and also education —so we have worked together with colleagues in the Department for Education to extend the strategy to children and young people as well as adults, reflecting the importance of supporting people all through their lives, from the early years of childhood and through adulthood.
The strategy is fully funded for the first year, and it contains a series of big commitments, including getting down the covid backlog; investing in reducing diagnosis waiting times for children and young people; preventing autistic people from avoidably ending up in in-patient mental health services; improving the quality of in-patient care for autistic people when they are receiving it; funding the development of an autism public understanding initiative so that autistic people can be part of communities without fear or judgment; funding to train education staff so that children and young people can reach their potential; and many more commitments. This landmark strategy will help to give autistic people equal opportunities to flourish in their communities, as well as better access to the support that they need throughout their lives, so that all autistic people have the opportunity to lead fuller and happier lives, as they deserve.
We owe so much to our NHS and the incredible people who work there. They have done so much to support us at this time of national need. As a Government, we will give them what they need, not just through this pandemic but to face the challenges that lie ahead. I commend the statement to the House.
I declare an interest as an A&E frontline doctor who is working in our NHS.
The contempt that the Government have for the House is unacceptable. I had advance sight of the statement only a few minutes ago. Once again, the Government have had to row back on a shoddy, ill-thought-through position, with their 1% pay rise—a real-terms pay cut—rejected by the independent pay body. What do they do? Nothing. Less than an hour ago, there were competing briefings on what the deal was going to be, but it turned out to be nothing. Our NHS staff deserve better than this. They have worked incredibly hard throughout the pandemic, and their personal sacrifice is astounding. Their hard work never stops, and that is not without consequences. Work-related stress has increased by nearly 10%, and mental health is consistently the most reported reason for staff absence in the NHS, accounting for approximately half a million days lost every single month.
Those issues preceded the pandemic, but the increased pressure, intensity and trauma experienced by staff has taken its toll. Reports published in January found that nearly half of frontline NHS staff were suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and severe depression, with many drinking to numb the pain. It is hardly a surprise that a third of staff are considering leaving their job. With vacancies throughout the health service, retaining staff is absolutely vital, especially when the NHS is embarking on a vaccine booster campaign, tackling the coming wave of coronavirus hospitalisations, treating the growing number of long covid cases, and dealing with the ever-mounting backlog.
That is why a fair pay rise and conditions are important. It is not just a moral imperative—it is also about the future functioning of our NHS. By refusing to offer a pay rise, the Government risk workers leaving the health service, creating more vacancies, shortfalls in shifts and increased workloads for the staff who remain. It makes recruitment much harder, with huge gaps in crucial areas such as nursing. It makes the Government’s already insufficient pledge to recruit 50,000 more nurses by 2024 simply impossible. Healthcare staff are rightly angry that they have been treated in this way. We recognise that unions want to consult their members on all proposals, and we support them in that. The fact that even the unions have been kept in the dark is utterly unacceptable.
After the year we have had, there should not be so many unanswered questions, so I ask the Minister: is this really fair on NHS staff who have had to bury their colleagues, as well as their families? Is this really fair on NHS staff who have been sent like “lambs to the slaughter”, without appropriate personal protective equipment for work throughout the pandemic—I am using their words. Is this really fair on NHS staff who are sent to support us and our families, ill-equipped and with inappropriate PPE? Is this fair, when NHS staff nursed our loved ones when they died alone? Is this fair, when staff are exhausted and there is still no end in sight. Minister, this is quite simply an insult of the highest order. After everything our NHS staff have done for us, when will the Government finally make them feel valued and offer them something more than claps?
A statement on the NHS should have concrete plans on how the Government will support the NHS in tackling the summer crisis. If the Minister is so sure that she understands NHS staff and their pressures and workloads, I invite her to do a shift with me on the A&E frontline—she can shadow me for once.
Just before the Minister responds, I will say that Mr Speaker will be annoyed, to say the least, that the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) did not receive the statement from the Minister in time. The Minister did apologise at the beginning of her remarks, so I have noted that apology and we do not have to go any further on that, but I have also noted what the hon. Lady has said.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I reiterate my apology to the hon. Lady for the late sight of the statement and thank her for her invitation to join her, but I will say that I am shocked by some of the language that she uses. I would just say—[Interruption.]
What we say in this Chamber is clearly important and it has ripples beyond the Chamber, so I for one consider the tone of what we say to be extremely important. The hon. Lady spoke about pay for NHS staff. As she knows, the Government asked for recommendations from the NHS pay review bodies. The Government are rightly seriously considering those recommendations, and we will be responding as soon as we possibly can. She also knows that last year the Chancellor committed to NHS staff receiving a pay rise at a time when there is a wider freeze on public sector pay, recognising the extraordinary lengths that NHS staff have gone to during the pandemic.
The hon. Lady talked about the pressures on NHS staff, which she and I know go back a long way, but yes, of course they have been so much greater during the pandemic. We know that NHS staff have gone above and beyond, time and again, during the pandemic to care for patients. Recognising that, and knowing that that has been happening throughout the pandemic, I have worked with NHS England, and particularly the people team there, to put in place all possible support for staff during these difficult times. That includes practical support with some of the day-to-day challenges of working shifts and the extra disruption to people’s lives and home lives during the pandemic, as well as mental health support, including setting up 40 new mental health hubs for staff, which I have heard from staff on the frontline are really making a difference. In fact, some of these things are making the NHS a better place to work for the future, and we should try to continue some of the improvements to mental health support for staff, recognising the importance of this to people who are doing extremely challenging jobs.
I also say to the hon. Lady that we now have record numbers of staff in our NHS. We have over 300,000 nurses, as I said earlier—around 9,000 more nurses than a year ago—and record numbers of doctors, so we have more staff in our NHS. We are also seeing a huge interest in NHS careers. For instance, we have seen a 21% rise in applications to UCAS for nursing degrees this year, which comes on top of a rise last year as well. I welcome the fact that so many people now want to join our NHS to support it, and I am determined that we as a Government will continue to support our NHS workforce in the weeks and months ahead.
May I start by echoing the Minister’s thanks to Lord Stevens, who is about to step down as chief executive of the NHS? One of my proudest achievements as Health Secretary was to secure a £20 billion annual rise in the NHS budget, and that would not have been possible without a close partnership with Lord Stevens. Indeed, he taught me a number of things about how to negotiate with the Treasury. He is someone who believes in the NHS to his fingertips, and he will be missed in all parts of the House, both on the Opposition Benches, but also on this side, where we have long forgiven him for his new Labour origins. We wish him well for the future.
This statement is about the NHS. The biggest pressure facing the NHS, apart from covid patients themselves, is the covid backlog, and I draw to the Minister’s attention the concerns that I and a number of people have as we face these enormous waiting lists. The previous Labour Government had considerable success in bringing down waiting lists, to their credit. They would also say that there were unintended consequences in terms of lapses in parts of the system with the safety and quality of care. Will the Minister, as we once again try to bring down waiting lists, agree that the Government will redouble their focus on safety and quality of care so that we do not have to relearn the lessons of Mid Staffs, Morecambe Bay and a number of other sad tragedies?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I know that in his time as Health Secretary, he did a huge amount to raise the standards of safety and have a greater focus on patient safety in the NHS. That is still clearly making a difference today. He is absolutely right that we need to ensure that we focus on that as we work to bring down the backlogs from the pandemic. It is not only that; I am mindful of making sure that we continue to support our NHS workforce as they, on the one hand, look after patients with covid and, on the other, work to reduce the backlog. That pressure is continuing, but I am determined that as we bring down the backlog, staff will continue to be supported and will, in fact, continue to have time off, annual leave, the breaks they need and the wider support so that we look after our workforce as well as providing the care that patients need.
I have listened to what has been said in the statement, and I was surprised that it did not cover the subject of NHS pay, which had been well trailed in advance. I would have hoped that the UK Government would match the 4% that the Scottish Government have offered NHS workers, backdated to December 2020. The Scottish Government have also secured agreement for a real living wage for social care staff at £9.50 an hour and underwritten the promise with £64.5 million in support. Why is it that this UK Government are unable to match the Scottish Government’s commitments to give NHS and social care staff the pay that they deserve and need?
I thank the hon. Member for outlining the approach in Scotland towards pay. Pay is a devolved matter. As I said earlier to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), we are reviewing the recommendations from the pay review bodies, and we will be making an announcement for pay in England in due course.
I thank the Minister for her updates. On another matter, I am receiving emails from East Devon constituents concerned that their first, second or both jabs have not been registered properly and do not appear on the NHS app. It is putting their holiday plans in doubt. From September, they may not be able to access some venues when covid passports could be introduced, although not with my support. The papers are filled with similar stories from across the country. Not only will covid passports create a two-tier society but it also appears to be a system that is based on sometimes inaccurate data. Is this really a good idea, Minister?
Well, I welcome the fact that so many of my hon. Friend’s constituents have received their vaccination. Where there are problems with the data, I am sure he will know that the vaccines Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) is very assiduous on these specific matters. I will raise with him the examples. It may well be that the Minister will get directly in touch with my hon. Friend and resolve the situation.
I start by echoing the remarks of the Minister and the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) regarding Lord Stevens. He happens to be a constituent of mine, but he has also been a phenomenal chief executive of the NHS and I hope he will be making some well-informed interventions on the Health and Care Bill in the other place.
The statement rightly applauds our NHS staff and says how much we owe them. It says that the Government will give them all that they need. Words and clapping are cheap. Where on earth is the widely reported and trailed pay deal announcement that was expected today? Does the Minister really believe that the 1% pay rise, which is actually a pay cut, is giving NHS doctors and nurses what they need? Is that really a just reward for their sacrifices of the last 18 months?
I hugely welcome the Minister’s statement today, particularly the news about the autism strategy, but as we look beyond the pandemic, there is real concern from charities and patient groups that many patients have missed being diagnosed with some very serious conditions due to lockdown and covid restrictions. GPs have a crucial role in dealing with this issue. Will the Minister set out the steps that her Department is taking to provide an extra 50 million GP appointments a year?
My hon. Friend makes a really important point. We have seen people not come forward for treatment during the pandemic and it is worth reiterating that if anyone is worried about their health, it is really important to seek that help and get a diagnosis or seek treatment. We are working to increase the number of appointments available in primary care. One thing we have also seen during the pandemic is that GPs have increased remote working and virtual appointments. We know that many people need to be able to see a GP in person, but there are also opportunities to combine GPs being able to offer services in person and virtually in a way that is good, hopefully, for GPs and patients.
I thank the Minister for the statement and what she spoke about earlier. I want to ask about the NHS wage increase, which is on my mind. On the TV screens this morning, a nurse gave her story—it was very heartfelt, for those who had the opportunity to hear it—about the difficulties of retaining staff and ensuring that they were able to cope through the process. There is a real need to respond positively on the wage increase. A petition on that has also been handed into Government. I believe in my heart that NHS staff should receive the 3% increase. Does the Minister agree that 3% is enough, given their tireless and admirable efforts in tackling covid-19, and can she confirm that NHS staff will receive the wage increase and that it will be a priority for her and the Government?
The hon. Gentleman is asking me to pre-empt the Government’s response to the recommendations of the pay review body and I am afraid that I am not able to do that at the Dispatch Box today. What I can say is that we are considering its recommendations and we will make an announcement on pay for NHS staff as soon as we can.
I thank the Minister for her update and the announcement on the autism strategy, which is much welcomed. It has been a very tough 16 months for every single worker in the NHS and I salute every one of them around the country, particularly in the Meon Valley, of course. I also praise every volunteer in the vaccine centres that have played such a successful role. I have been keeping in touch with the local NHS bodies and patients about progress towards a new hospital in Hampshire, one of the 40 in our plan. Can my hon. Friend confirm that her Department is engaging with the Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust to move this project forward as soon as possible, as it will benefit my Meon Valley constituents?