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.