House of Commons
Wednesday 8 September 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Ferry Services: Scotland to Europe
Let me start by saying that the Scottish athletes of Team GB have returned triumphant from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games with a record total of 14 medals, surpassing the 13 medals won by Scottish athletes at both the London and Rio Olympics. At the Paralympic games, the Scots of ParalympicsGB won an impressive 21 medals. I congratulate every athlete who competed. I also congratulate the Scottish football team on their victory in Vienna last night.
I regularly discuss a wide range of topics with Cabinet colleagues, including transport and the Union connectivity review. There are of course merits to any direct ferry services from Scotland. I understand that discussions for a new service to mainland Europe have been taking place for some time.
I endorse the comments of the Secretary of State on the Olympic and Paralympic teams, and the tartan army result last night; I am absolutely delighted with second place in the group at the moment, but let us go on to be first and get qualification.
The Secretary of State will be aware of recent dismal export figures in the wake of Brexit, the need to reduce lorry miles to help us get to net zero and the current HGV driver crisis that make up the hat-trick of events that would seem to make the need for a ferry service from Scotland to mainland Europe almost self-evident. However, there are barriers, including the commitment of Border Force to provide the resources and personnel to support that new route. Next week, we celebrate London International Shipping Week—
I think the hon. Gentleman is requesting a meeting, and I would be happy to meet him. As he knows, the ferry service between Rosyth and Zeebrugge ran from 2002 to 2018, but from 2010 was not a passenger service. We would want any service that comes forward to be economically viable.
Misuse of Drugs Act and Health Outcomes
The recent drug deaths in Scotland are an absolute tragedy. The majority of the levers to tackle drug misuse are devolved to the Scottish Government, including health, education, housing and the criminal justice system. We are keen to work with the Scottish Government to tackle this tragic issue and to share lessons throughout the United Kingdom.
There is not a unanimous view on the efficacy of drug consumption rooms. The Minister for Crime and Policing, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), recently had discussions with his counterpart in the Scottish Government and it was made clear that we are open to any new evidence about drug consumption rooms, but they are not the single solution to the problem. This requires a holistic approach. We are very happy to work with the Scottish Government to explore all the different options.
There is plenty of evidence on the efficacy of drug consumption rooms. I am sure that my colleagues who have worked on the issue would be happy to discuss it with the Minister. Portugal faced some of the highest rates of drug deaths in Europe at the turn of the century, but it radically reversed the situation through decriminalisation and a public health approach. The Scottish Government have used their powers to commit to the public health approach. The question for the Minister is whether his Government will use their reserved powers to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act and enable the measures that worked in Portugal, such as drug consumption rooms, to happen. The Scottish Government have done their bit. Will his Government do theirs?
I have discussed the specific matter of drug consumption rooms at some length with the hon. and learned Lady’s colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), so I am well aware of the arguments for them, but there are arguments against them. As I said in response to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), we are happy to look at new evidence. In England and Wales, we have Project ADDER, which is showing some promising early signs of being effective in combating drug misuse. I strongly urge the hon. and learned Lady’s colleagues in the Scottish Government to take up our offer to extend that to Scotland.
In the last year for which figures are available, 1,339 lives were lost in Scotland as a result of drug misuse, the worst number since records began in 1996, yet we got no solutions from the SNP or from Nicola Sturgeon in her programme for government yesterday. Scottish Conservatives have put forward plans for a right to recovery Bill. Does the Minister agree that the Scottish Government should engage with us to bring forward these proposals?
The Scottish Affairs Committee conducted the most extensive inquiry ever undertaken into drug use in Scotland, taking evidence from practically everybody with an interest and a stake in this issue. We concluded that we need every tool in the kitbag to address the scale of this problem, from an increased resources position to adopting evidence-based solutions with best practice from international examples that have worked, such as drug consumption facilities and decriminalisation. Why did the UK Government reject nearly all of our conclusions and recommendations?
I understand that the report from that Committee, which I think was done in 2018, was not a unanimous one and the Committee divided on it, which illustrates the fact that there is not the unanimity of view on the proposals to which the hon. Gentleman refers. As I say, we keep an open mind on this as regards fresh evidence that shows that policies work. My colleagues in the Home Office have discussed this with their counterparts in the Scottish Government and those discussions will continue.
My hon. Friend may be aware of the sterling work done by my friend—albeit not an hon. Friend—the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, on the misuse of drugs and controlling it. To what degree does the Scottish Office liaise with the regions of England to communicate with Scotland about best practice?
The Minister says that there is no consensus as to drug consumption rooms, but, as has already been said, every country that has trialled safe consumption rooms has a positive story to tell about them. The other thing that he failed to mention is that the legislation that makes drug use a crime often traps vulnerable people in a vicious cycle of poverty and crime. With that in mind, will this Government finally commit to reviewing the 50-year-old legislation that is the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971?
As I said to the hon. Lady’s colleagues, we constantly discuss these matters with our counterparts in Scotland. We have made very serious offers, as I say, to extend Project ADDER, which looks at drugs misuse in a holistic way. There is evidence to show that that is working. I strongly urge the Scottish Government to take up that offer. Particularly on drug consumption rooms, as I say, if there is new evidence there, we will consider it.
In what world do you get to claim to be taking an issue seriously while in the same breath commit to change absolutely nothing? If the logical arguments will not convince, then maybe the financial ones will. Crimes linked to drugs in Scotland cost £750 million a year to investigate and prosecute. Experts tell us that that money could be better spent. If the experts, the Scottish Government and even the Scottish Conservatives can now agree that health needs to be the main approach, why not the Minister?
I think the hon. Lady takes a very partisan view on this. We have put forward some very concrete suggestions. I remind her that the vast majority of powers in this area lie with the Scottish Government, and her Government have been in power for 14 years, so perhaps they should spend a little bit more effort focusing on tackling some of these social issues rather than obsessing about independence, which no one wants.
Strength of the Union
My assessment continues to be that the United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union that the world has ever seen. It is the foundation on which all our citizens and businesses are able to thrive. The United Kingdom Government are committed to protecting and promoting the strengths of our United Kingdom.
The helping hand of the Union has left Scotland with no oil fund. It sees our renewables projects pay the highest grid charging levies in the entirety of Europe. In 2015, we saw the scrapping of plans for a carbon capture and underground storage plant in Peterhead, so I am simply seeking reassurance from the Secretary of State that the Acorn project will be one of two clusters to receive backing from his Government next month.
How is the Union strengthened by the increasingly divergent franchises on these islands? Scotland’s Parliament was elected in May with an electorate including 16 and 17-year-olds, refugees and EU nationals, while his Government’s Trumpian Elections Bill wants to suppress and restrict voter turnout. Surely that only increases the legitimacy and mandate of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, and makes this place even more detached from voters in Scotland.
“Shameful” and “disgrace” are words that Nicola Sturgeon likes to bandy at her opponents, but they truly apply to her announcement yesterday that while Scotland continues to have some of the worst covid rates in Europe, she is diverting resources into another divisive independence referendum. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the focus of this Government will be to work constructively across the United Kingdom to defeat covid, save jobs and restore our economy?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our focus is on rebuilding our economy. Our focus is on restoring our NHS. I think most right-minded Scots would agree that using civil service resources to design a prospectus for independence is the wrong thing to be doing at this time.
Over the summer, new data published by the SNP Scottish Government showed the Union dividend to be worth £2,210 a person in Scotland. Does the Minister agree that those figures simply confirm the benefit of Scotland remaining at the heart of a strong United Kingdom?
I absolutely would agree with my hon. Friend. I would add that the recent “Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland” reports in August showed that the deficit last year for the Scottish budget was £36.3 billion. That is more than the Scottish Government spend on education, housing, transport, culture and health.
We know that for the past two years, the Government have been spending taxpayers’ money researching public opinion in Scotland on the state of the Union. For two years, I have been trying to get answers as to what that research says. For two years, the Cabinet Office has refused, including appealing to the court of law and bringing in outside consultants to fund its case. Is it not time, if the Secretary of State believes so much that the Union is such a wonderful thing, for him to tell us what he has found out about what Scottish people think about the state of the Union and publish this research?
Will the Secretary of State update the House on the scale of the additional financial resource that Scotland received as a result of the covid pandemic? Does he agree that it is the strength of the UK balance sheet that allows the UK Government to support every part of the United Kingdom in times of crisis?
May I join the Secretary of State in congratulating our Olympians and Paralympians on their wonderful medals haul in Tokyo? May I also congratulate the Scottish football team on a marvellous result last night? However, he knows, as all Scots do, that it is the hope that kills you, so let us not celebrate too much.
Our shared social security system is vital to underpinning our Union, but by the next Scotland questions the Government will have made the largest ever overnight cut to social security for those in work by removing the £20 from universal credit. Citizens Advice Scotland says that more than half those people are worried about being able to buy food. At the same time, the Government have broken another promise and want to increase national insurance with the highest tax rise in 40 years. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that about 150,000 working families on low incomes in Scotland will pay an average of £100 extra in tax while losing £1,000. What advice does the Secretary of State give those families on low incomes on where they should cut £1,100 from their family budgets?
The uplift in universal credit was always intended to be temporary—it was to help claimants through the economic shock and financial disruption of the pandemic—and we now have the kickstart programme and a multibillion-pound plan for jobs. I understand it is difficult to break a manifesto promise, and the Prime Minister was clear that he was doing that in raising national insurance, but he also had a manifesto promise to address social care, which, since Tony Blair said he would address it in 1997, has not been done.
There is no money going into social care, but we will leave that for a different time. Last week, Labour’s shadow team visited Orkney and its European Marine Energy Centre. It has facilities such as the most powerful tidal turbine in the world, which results in its having excess energy that it cannot get back to the mainland. At the same time, the Scottish and UK Governments are backing the Cambo oilfield. With COP26 coming to Scotland, should the Secretary of State not lead by example, refuse Cambo and reform the outdated transmission charge regime while providing funding for a new large-capacity interconnector between Orkney and Shetland and the mainland? That would bring huge benefits and innovation to the islands and power large parts of Scotland from renewable resources.
On Cambo, all our North sea oil licences are factored into the 2050 net zero plan. Discussions are ongoing on the interconnector. It is partly devolved, with Ofgem and others involved. However, leaving that to one side, I take the overall view that there will be multiple uses for oil and gas for years to come—people must understand that—and we may as well get oil domestically rather than import it.
Transport Connections: Scotland and Rest of UK
I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues who are as excited as I am to ensure that we strengthen transport connections across the United Kingdom. We recognise the importance of transport and how it is vital to economic growth, job creation and social cohesion. That is why the Union connectivity review was commissioned. I look forward to the publication of the final report later this year.
The family, business and cultural links between Harrogate and Knaresborough and Scotland are growing, but, for them to grow further, they will need better connectivity. The east coast main line is at the heart of that. Will my right hon. Friend therefore welcome the investments being made in that line and highlight its importance in the Union connectivity review that he just mentioned?
Yes. The Government are determined to level up every corner of the United Kingdom, bringing communities across the country closer together. We recognise that infrastructure projects are important to growing our economy, because wherever we create connectivity, we create economic growth.
Fine words. So by which year will the high-speed rail line be extended to the Scottish border?
Which high-speed rail line does the hon. Member have in mind—High Speed 2 going north or Galashiels coming south? He should wait for the outcome of the connectivity review—which I must say the SNP did not engage in. Not only that; the SNP Government’s Transport Minister, rather irresponsibly, told his civil servant officials that they could not engage with Sir Peter Hendy or give him any data. When we then offered £20 million for feasibility studies, they declined it.
Public Inquiry: Handling of Covid-19 in Scotland
An inquiry into the devolved aspects of the covid-19 response was an SNP manifesto commitment, and the Scottish Government have now set out their next steps. The UK Government have committed to a statutory inquiry into all key aspects of the UK’s response to the pandemic. As the Prime Minister has stated, we will consult the devolved Administrations before finalising the scope of that inquiry.
Throughout the pandemic, one of the most dangerous impacts has been not just that of the virus itself, but the impact it has had on our NHS in preventing life-saving operations from taking place. In Scotland, the situation has been made even worse through the Scottish SNP Government’s under-investment in the NHS, with over 450,000 people languishing on waiting lists prior to the pandemic, and that figure has now risen to more than 600,000. Will the Minister work to ensure that the covid public inquiry in Scotland will look into other aspects of the NHS?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight that the impacts of the pandemic are felt in many areas and in other parts of the health service, and there is a need to catch up with that backlog of missed operations and treatments. I am absolutely delighted that, yesterday, the Prime Minister set out very real progress and steps to make that happen, with additional spending in the NHS right across the United Kingdom.
I am very sorry to tell the House that Scotland now has one of the highest covid rates in all of Europe, with eight out of 20 hotspots across Europe being in Scotland, according to the World Health Organisation. Instead of learning the lessons of the last year, the SNP Government have wasted the summer months with the virus spiralling out of control. While the covid rate soars, the First Minister announced this week that Scottish civil servants will be tasked with drawing up arguments for Scottish independence. In the Minister’s discussions with the Scottish Government, has he discussed the issue of Scottish civil servants being diverted from crucial covid-19 response work to plans for another independence referendum, and can he confirm that this will form part of the covid-19 inquiry into the Scottish Government’s failures?
I am very happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman. Whether it is on learning the lessons from covid and making sure that our public services can catch up or whether it is on tackling drug abuse and a whole range of other public service and social issues, that should be the primary focus of the Scottish Government, not obsessing with another divisive referendum.
Free Trade Agreements: Opportunities for Scotland
This Government have already struck trade deals with more than 68 countries as well as the EU worth £744 billion a year. This will create new markets for Scotland’s exporters, including our world-leading food and drinks sector. The Department for International Trade team based in Edinburgh is also helping Scottish businesses thrive and grow internationally. Last week, I was delighted to meet the new DIT director for Scotland heading up this team, and I look forward to planning further engagement with her and her team.
Scotland’s businesses will be among the main beneficiaries of the trade deals we have already secured around the world, with our historic agreement with Japan boosting trading opportunities for over 500 Scottish businesses alone. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that we will now be able to use our new status as an independent trading nation to promote the very best that Scottish industries have to offer to the world?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend: he is absolutely right. This Government are working hard to strike new trade deals around the world that will benefit key business sectors and consumers across Scotland and across the whole of the UK. We are opening new opportunities for iconic Scottish and British industries to thrive overseas.
As the Government negotiate new free trade deals around the world as global Britain, and the new agreement with Australia removes the 5% tariff on the export of whisky to Australia hot on the heels of the tariff-free period of five years with the United States, does my hon. Friend agree that the advantage to Scotland of negotiating together with the United Kingdom for free trade deals makes the case for the United Kingdom to be together as one country?
On that final point, I could not agree more. It is hugely welcome to see the removal of the 5% tariff on Scotch whisky in the agreement in principle between the UK and Australia. That will help Scottish whisky distillers to continue to expand exports to Australia, which have almost doubled over the last decade, making Australia our eighth largest market by value.
With all these free trade deals, I wonder whether the Minister can detail what the losses are to the seafood industry through Brexit, and what compensation it has received through the UK Government. What are the current losses to the hospitality industry because it cannot access EU labour, and what are the total losses to the Scottish Food and Drink Federation because of shortages caused by the HGV lorry driver crisis?
I did not quite catch all of that, but I did catch the words “fishing” and “HGV drivers”. On fishing, I would not be surprised if I talk to many more people in the fishing industry than the hon. Gentleman does, and I will take my advice on the situation in the fishing industry from them, rather than from Opposition Members, or indeed Twitter and the rest of social media. On HGV drivers, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already said, we recognise this issue. This is not a Brexit issue, otherwise we would not be seeing the exact same problem right across Europe, and in fact right across the world. The UK Government have already put measures in place to help increase, improve and speed up the recruitment of HGV drivers in this country.
The Prime Minister was asked—
In the run-up to the last election, the Prime Minister said that “clearly it is wrong” that hundreds of thousands of people are forced to rely on food banks to survive. Research released by the Trussell Trust today shows that one in six people fear that they will almost certainly have to use a food bank in just four weeks’ time as a result of the Government’s decision to axe the £20 uplift to universal credit. That is more than 500 families and 1,000 children being forced into food poverty in my constituency of Birkenhead alone. Will the Prime Minister concede that the cut to universal credit is wrong, and will he change course?
Of course I am very grateful to everybody who helps with food banks, and they do a fantastic job. What this Government have done throughout the pandemic is to put the most protection for those who need it most across society, and I am proud of what we have done by uplifting the living wage, and proud of the arm that we put around the whole of the British people.
Not only has the price of batteries fallen vertiginously, as has the cost of solar power, but I can tell my hon. Friend and the people of Thanet South that they have huge opportunities. The cost of wind power in this country has fallen by 70% just in the last 10 years. What I think the people of Thanet want to see, and I am sure my hon. Friend exemplifies it, is a spirit of Promethean technological optimism.
What this plan for health and social care does is deal, after decades, with the catastrophic costs faced by millions of people up and down the country, and the risk that they could face the loss of their home, their possessions and their ability to pass on anything to their children. This Government are not only dealing with that problem but understand that in order to deal with the problems of the NHS backlogs, you also have to fix social care. We are taking the tough decisions that the country wants to see. We are putting another £36 billion in. What I would like to know from the leader of the Labour party is: what is he going to do tonight? Silence from mission control and his—[Interruption.]
I noticed that the Prime Minister did not stand by his guarantee that no one will need to sell their house to pay for care. Let me explain why he did not. Under the Prime Minister’s plan, someone with £186,000 including the value of their home—that is not untypical for constituents across the country—who is facing large costs because they have to go into care will have to pay £86,000. That is before living costs. Where does the Prime Minister think they are going to get that £86,000 without selling their home?
As I think everybody understood in the long statement yesterday, this is the first time that the state has come in to deal with the threat of these catastrophic costs, thereby enabling the private sector—the financial services industry—to supply the insurance products that people need to guarantee themselves against the cost of care. What we are doing is lifting the floor—lifting the guarantee—up to £100,000, whereby nobody has to pay anything, across the entire country. We still have to hear from the Opposition what they would do to fix the backlogs in the NHS and fix social care after decades of inertia and inactivity. What would the Leader of the Opposition do?
Order. I say to both sides that I need to hear the question. I also need to hear the answer. If there are some Members who do not want to hear it, I am sure that their constituents want to hear it. It is not good to shout down either side when they are either asking or answering a question. Please, our constituents are interested. I want to hear, and they will want to hear. Keir Starmer.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister’s plan is to impose unfair taxes on working people; my plan is to ensure those with the broadest shoulders pay their fair share. I know Conservative Members do not like that. The truth is that the Prime Minister’s plans do not do what he claims. People will still face huge bills. Many homeowners will need to sell their homes. He is not denying it, when he could have done. The Prime Minister has failed the only test he set for himself for social care. It was in the manifesto—another manifesto promise, Prime Minister.
It is no good shaking your head. And who is going to pay for the cost of this failure? Working people. Under the Prime Minister’s plan, a landlord renting out dozens of properties will not pay a penny more, but their tenants in work will face tax rises of hundreds of pounds a year. A care worker earning the minimum wage does not get a pay rise under this plan, but does get a tax rise. In what world is that fair?
Actually, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed that this is a broad-based and progressive measure. The top 20% of households by income will pay 40 times what the poorest 20% pay; the top 14% will pay half of the entire levy. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about his plan. Well, I have been scouring the records for evidence of the Labour plan, and I have found it. In 2018, the current shadow Minister for Social Care, the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), joined forces with Nick Boles and Norman Lamb to promote a new dedicated health and social care tax based on national insurance. Where is she? I can’t see her in her place, Mr Speaker. She said that this was to be the country’s “Beveridge moment”. Is the Labour party really going to vote against the new Beveridge moment tonight?
Mr Speaker, let me tell you what an ambitious young Member for Henley said in 2002 in this House:
“national insurance increases are regressive”—[Official Report, 17 April 2002; Vol. 383, c. 667.]
I wonder what happened to him. If the Prime Minister is going ahead with this unfair tax, can he at least tell us this: will his plan clear the NHS waiting list backlog by the end of this Parliament—yes or no?
I think the whole House, indeed the whole country, can appreciate that we at least have a plan to fix the backlogs and we at least understand that the only way to fix the long-term underlying problems in the NHS and the problem of delayed discharges is to fix the crisis in social care as well, which Labour failed to address for decades. We are going ahead and doing it. What I have just understood from the right hon. and learned Gentleman—out of that minestrone of nonsense has floated a crouton of fact—is that he is going to vote against the measures tonight. They are going to vote against plans to fix the backlogs and to fix social care. Vote Labour, Mr Speaker, wait longer.
It was a yes/no question. You either clear the backlog or you don’t. The Prime Minister cannot even say that he will do that. So there we have it: working people will pay higher tax, those in need will still lose their homes to pay for care and he cannot even say if the NHS backlog will be cleared. [Interruption.] He gesticulates, but they are all breaking their manifesto promises and putting up taxes for their working constituents for this? Tax rises are not the only way he is making working people worse off. Some 2.5 million working families will face a doubly whammy: a national insurance tax rise and a £1,000 a year universal credit cut. They are getting hit from both sides. Of all the ways to raise public funds, why is the Prime Minister insisting on hammering working people?
We are proud of what we have been doing throughout the pandemic to look after working people. We are proud of the extra £9 billion we put in through universal credit. I think people in this House and across the country should know that Labour wants to scrap universal credit all together. We believe in higher wages and better skills, and it is working. That is why we are investing in 13,500 work coaches and £3,000 a year for 11 million adults across this country to train under the lifetime skills guarantee, and it is working. For the first time since 2019, after years and years of stagnation, wages are rising for the lower paid. Labour believes in welfare; we believe in higher wages and higher skills and better jobs.
Higher wages and higher skills, the Prime Minister says. How out of touch he is! [Interruption.] Conservative Members laugh. What do they say to Rosie, because Rosie is the sort of person that this impacts on? Laugh away. A single mother working on the minimum wage in a nursing home, she got in touch with me. She will lose £87 a month due to the universal credit cut—a huge amount to her. She will now also be hit with a national insurance tax rise. She has asked for more shifts and she cannot get them. She is unable to get further help with childcare. What does the Prime Minister—what does the laughter—say to Rosie?
This is a Government who underfunded the NHS for a decade before the pandemic, took £8 billion out of social care before the pandemic, and then wasted billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on dodgy contracts, vanity projects and giveaways to their mates. They cut stamp duty on second home owners, gave super tax deductions for the biggest companies and now they are telling millions of working people that they must cough up more tax. Is this not the same old Tory party, always putting their rich mates and donors before working people?
Very sadly, Mr Speaker, what you are hearing is the same old nonsense from Labour, because they want to scrap universal credit. I have every sympathy for Rosie and I admire her and families up and down the land, but the best thing we can do for them is have a strong and dynamic economy. As I speak, our economy is the fastest growing in the G7, because we have had the fastest vaccine roll-out and the fastest opening up of any comparable country. Never forget that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would have kept us in the European Medicines Agency; he attacked the Vaccine Taskforce; and if we had listened to Captain Hindsight in July, we would not have the fastest growing economy in the G7—we would still be in lockdown. [Interruption.] It is true. If we listened to him today, we would not be trying to fix the NHS backlogs and we would not finally be dealing with social care. This is the Government who take the tough decisions to take this country forward.
Yes, and I thank both my right hon. Friend and the Centre for Brexit Policy for their analysis. It is good that the interim period has been extended, because clearly, the protocol, as it is being applied by our friends in the EU, is not, in my view, protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement as it should in all its aspects. We must sort it out.
Yesterday, without consultation, the Prime Minister announced plans to impose a regressive Tory poll tax on millions of Scottish workers. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that around 2 million families on low incomes will now pay an average of an extra £100 a year because of the Prime Minister’s tax hike. Yet again, the Tories are fleecing Scottish families, hitting low and middle-income workers and penalising the young. A former Tory Work and Pensions Secretary called it a “sham”. A former Tory Chancellor has said this is the poor subsidising the rich. A former Tory Prime Minister has called this “regressive”. Prime Minister, is it not the case that this Tory tax hike is once again balancing the books on the backs of the poor and the young?
The right hon. Gentleman says there was no consultation. Actually, I much enjoy my conversations with representatives of the Scottish Administration. One thing they said to me was that they wanted more funding for the NHS. I am delighted that we are putting another £1.1 billion into the NHS in Scotland, while all they can talk about is another referendum. That is a clear distinction between us and the Scottish nationalist party—about what are the real priorities of the people of this country.
That was no answer to the question, because the facts are that this is a tax hike on the poor and on the young. You should be ashamed of yourself, Prime Minister.
We now know the economic direction of this toxic Tory Government: we are going to see furlough scrapped, universal credit cut and more tax hikes for the low-paid. Let us be in no doubt: this is the return of the Tories’ austerity agenda. It is austerity 2.0. On this Prime Minister’s watch, the United Kingdom now has the worst levels of poverty and inequality anywhere in north-west Europe, and in-work poverty has risen to record levels this century. More Tory austerity cuts will make this even worse.
Scotland deserves better. There is clearly no chance of a fair covid recovery under this Prime Minister and under this Westminster Government. Is it not the case that the only way to protect Scotland from Tory cuts and the regressive tax hikes is for it to become an independent country, with the full powers needed to build a fair, strong and equal recovery for the people of Scotland?
Well, I do not think that that is the right priority for this country or for the people of Scotland. I will just remind the right hon. Gentleman of the words of the deputy leader of the Scottish Government, who welcomed it when the Labour Government put up NI by 1p to pay for the national health service. He—this is a guy called John Swinney—said:
“I am absolutely delighted that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has now accepted that progressive taxation is required to invest in the health service in Scotland”.—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 18 April 2002; c. 8005.]
I mean, get your story straight! This is more cash for people in Scotland; it is more investment for families in Scotland; it is good for Scotland and good for the whole of the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend is quite right; he is a great advocate for the people of Grantham and Stamford. The Health and Care Bill will ensure that there are integrated healthcare partnerships, bringing together local authorities and local healthcare, but there is more to be done, and that will be done in the forthcoming White Paper.
Yesterday’s social care plan forgot family carers, yet we are the millions wiping bottoms and washing and dressing our loved ones, whether they are elderly or disabled, ill or dying. We carers just want a fair deal, so will the Prime Minister raise the carer’s allowance? Will he guarantee proper breaks for carers? Will he change employment law so that we can balance caring with work? Will he ensure that there are enough professional carers to help, starting with a new visa for carers? We carers have a lifetime of ideas to improve our loved ones’ care, so why does the Prime Minister keep ignoring us and taking carers for granted?
I certainly acknowledge, and I think the whole House acknowledges, the massive debt that we owe to unpaid carers such as the right hon. Gentleman. Up and down the country, we thank them for what they are doing. What the plan means is that there will be a huge injection of support, both from the private sector and from the Government, into caring across the board. I believe that that will support unpaid carers as well, since they will no longer have the anxiety, for instance, that their elderly loved ones could see the loss of all their possessions. What we are also doing for carers is making sure that we invest, now, half a billion pounds in their training, in their profession to make sure that they have the dignity and progression in their jobs that they deserve.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, planning is a devolved matter, but what I can tell him and the House is that we have provided business with over £100 billion of support throughout the pandemic, including 1.5 million bounce back loans to small and medium-sized enterprises such as the one that he describes.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his question. We are working with industry to get more people into HGV driving, which is a great and well-remunerated profession, by, for instance, ramping up vocational test capacity and funding apprenticeships for people training to be lorry drivers. As the House heard earlier, the career structure of HGV drivers is affecting countries throughout the European Union. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman take up his proposals directly with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.
Infrastructure for Businesses: Weymouth
This Government are committed to levelling up the whole country, and Dorset is no exception. I am delighted that the local growth fund in Dorset has contributed £98.4 million to 54 projects since 2015, and I understand that Dorset Council has also made a bid through the levelling-up fund to improve access at Weymouth station.
As a former soldier, I know that time is never wasted on reconnaissance. May I ask my right hon. Friend to come and get some good Dorset sea air, visit Weymouth and see the infrastructure for himself? Until we improve it, we cannot attract the investment, jobs and prosperity that we so desperately need, in an ancient seaside resort that needs a bit of love, attention and Government money.
I think the whole country should be proud of what we have done to welcome people from Afghanistan. Operation Warm Welcome continues, and as I speak, we have already received more than 15,000 people from the Kabul airlift, the biggest exercise that this country has undertaken. However, I am sorry to hear about the particular case that the hon. Lady has raised. May I ask her to send it directly to me, and I will take it up?
I share the indignation and the frustration of my hon. Friend at the cruel behaviour of the gangsters, the criminal masterminds, who are taking money from desperate, frightened people to help them undertake a very, very dangerous journey across the channel. This is a perennial problem, but my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is dealing with it in the best possible way, which is to make sure that they do not leave those French shores. We depend to a large extent on what the French are doing, but clearly, as time goes on and this problem continues, we are going to have to make sure that we use every possible tactic at our disposal to stop what I think is a vile trade and a manipulation of people’s hopes.
I think everybody sympathises with people who are on low incomes, whom we have tried to protect throughout the pandemic. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor brought forward a package that was recognised around the world as being almost uniquely progressive in the way it directed funding and support to the lowest paid and the neediest. That was quite right, but we are also now trying to ensure that we have a high-wage and high-skilled jobs-led recovery, and that is what is happening. I am proud to be a Conservative Prime Minister who is seeing wages for the lowest paid rising at their fastest rate for many years.
This is, I think, the first opportunity for the whole House to thank all those who have played a role in rolling out the superb vaccine programme over the past six months or so, ranging from the whole of the national health service to the military. If I may, I should like to make particular mention of the Order of St John—St John Ambulance—of which I have the honour to be an honorary commander. All parties in the House with an interest in St John will have an opportunity to thank its volunteers personally if they would like to do so at a reception that I am hosting on the Terrace straight after PMQs today. Perhaps you, Mr Speaker—and the Prime Minister and others—will honour us with your presence to thank the thousands of volunteers who have done such superb work over the last six months.
I will indeed join my hon. Friend in thanking St John Ambulance for everything it has done. The volunteers have been fantastic and I have met many of them over the past 18 months who have done an absolutely astonishing job. I do not think that I can come to his reception, but I am sure it will be very well attended. May I also take this opportunity to urge everybody in the country who has not yet had a vaccination and who is eligible for one to get it as soon as they can?
I think the whole House will recognise that the Education Secretary has done a heroic job in dealing with very difficult circumstances in which we had to close schools during the pandemic. Never forget that the job of teachers and parents up and down the land would have been made much easier if Labour, and the Labour leadership in particular, had had the guts—and if the hon. Gentleman had had the guts—to say that schools were safe.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that our constituents, including mine in Hertford and Stortford, should come forward and see their GP if they have concerns about their health, and that his statement yesterday should give them assurance and confidence that this Government are there for the NHS and that the NHS will be there for them in their time of need?
Yes. That is why we are putting in another £36 billion under the measures we are putting forward tonight, and I am absolutely astonished that the party of Nye Bevan has confirmed today that it is not going to vote for that. We want GPs to be seeing the right people at the right time, and we want to fix the waiting lists. That is the objective of the measures that we are bringing forward.
I am of course sorry to hear about the troubles that the hon. Lady’s constituent is experiencing, but I remind her that under the EU settlement scheme we have helped almost 6 million people to settle in this country, which is double the number that was expected at the time of the Brexit referendum. That is a tribute to the compassion of this country and its willingness to help those who come here and make their lives here.
St Francis tower in Ipswich has been a beneficiary of the building safety fund. However, Oander and Block Management, which manage the building, have shrink wrapped the entire tower and it will be on the building for up to 12 months. Many desperate tenants are living in darkness for 12 months, and bars have been put on the windows so that they can barely be opened.
Does the Prime Minister agree that, yes, this vital work needs to take place but that we need balance and that we need to do this quickly for the lives and mental health of the desperate people in that tower right now?
No. As I have said, households in the top 20% of income pay 40 times more than the poorest. And pay for nurses is exactly what this measure funds, which is why it is so astonishing that the hon. Gentleman and his party are determined to vote against it tonight.
This Friday my private Member’s Bill, the Asylum Seekers (Return to Safe Countries) Bill, will have its Second Reading. The intention is that an asylum seeker who comes to this country from a safe country will be returned to that country. The Bill would end the problem of people coming across the channel. Will the Prime Minister urge his colleagues to vote for the Bill on Friday?
We have introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill, which will make it no longer possible for the law to treat somebody who has come here illegally in the same way as someone who has come here legally. It is high time that distinction was made, and that people understand there is a price to pay if they come to this country in an illegal fashion.
Covid Vaccine Passports
Our vaccination programme has given this nation a wall of protection against this deadly virus. Data from Public Health England estimates that two doses of a covid-19 vaccine offers protection of around 96% against hospitalisation and that our jabs have prevented over 100,000 deaths, over 143,000 hospitalisations and around 24 million infections. It is this protection that allowed us to carefully ease restrictions over the past few months. However, we must do so in a way that is mindful of the benefits that both doses of the vaccine can bring.
On 19 July, the Prime Minister announced that
“by the end of September—when all over 18s will have had the chance to be double jabbed—we are planning to make full vaccination the condition of entry to nightclubs and other venues where large crowds gather. Proof of a negative test will no longer be sufficient.”
We will be confirming more details in due course.[Official Report, 9 September 2021, Vol. 700, c. 4MC.]
This approach is designed to reduce transmission and serious illness. It is in line with the approach we have taken on international travel, where different rules apply depending on whether someone has had both jabs.
I would like to end by urging people to come forward to get the jab. Some 88% of people have had one jab and more than 80% of people aged 16 and over have now had the protection of both doses. It is the best way to protect yourself, your loved ones and your community, so please come forward and join them, and make our wall of protection even stronger.
First, thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to ask this urgent question; as Big Brother Watch brings its campaign against vaccine passports to Westminster today, it is certainly timely.
The introduction of vaccine passports will have enormous practical implications for the literally thousands of businesses across the country that will be required to gather and to hold our data. It is on those aspects that the answers are most urgently required from the Government—this must not be “in due course”, as the Minister has just said. The deadline for the implementation of this scheme is now just three weeks away. We must not, however, lose sight of the fact that a scheme of this sort opens the door to a major change in the relationship between the citizen and the state. Never before in peacetime have a Government in this country controlled, in this way, where we can go and with whom, and what to do. If the Government have concluded that this now has to change, at the very least this House must have a chance to make its voice heard and its views known. So when will we get the vote that the Minister promised us before the recess?
The case for vaccine passports is riddled with inconsistencies. Nightclubs have been open since July and, notwithstanding recent events in Aberdeen, they have been relatively safe. If they are safe today for people to enjoy responsibly, what do the Government expect to change between now and the end of the month? On Monday the Minister told me at the Dispatch Box:
“We do know that 60% of people who have had two jabs will not become infected with the Delta variant and therefore cannot infect someone else, although 40% will and can.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 75.]
The 40% figure highlights one of the biggest dangers of the whole idea: taking people into large social gatherings where they think they will be safe from infection but in fact they are not. The Minister will know that there will always be some who cannot be vaccinated, so if entry to nightclubs or events is to be dependent on demonstrating vaccination, those people will be excluded. So can he tell the House: what assessment have the Government done with regard to their duties under equalities legislation? A study by the Night Time Industries Association found that 69% of its members view the introduction of vaccine passports as having a negative impact on business, and 70% said they were not necessary for opening their business. Why are the Government not listening to the experts in the industry? When will nightclubs and other businesses be told how will they be expected to check the vaccine status of their patrons? What legal authority will they have to do that and what will the consequences be for them if they do not do it?
On 12 July, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care told the House:
“As we move away from regulations, there will no longer be a legal requirement for any establishment to have covid vaccine certification”.—[Official Report, 12 July 2021; Vol. 699, c. 32.]
When did that change and why?
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s questions and I will attempt to address them. I will begin by saying to the House that no one in this Government, and certainly not this Prime Minister—it is not in his DNA—wants to curtail people’s freedoms or require people to show a piece of paper before they enter a nightclub. The reason we are moving forward on this is that we have looked at what has happened in other countries, where nightclubs were opening and then shutting again, and opening and then shutting again, and we want to avoid that disruption and maintain sectors that can add to people’s enjoyment of life and dance, as was the case for the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. We want them to be able to do that sustainably.
The reason behind the end of September date, which the right hon. Gentleman asked about, is that by then all 18-year-olds and above will have had the chance to have two doses.
The right hon. Gentleman was quite right when he quoted what I said to him at the Dispatch Box a few days ago: 60% of people who are doubled vaccinated will not be infected and therefore will not spread the infection, but 40% may do. The view of our clinical experts is that the additional relative safety of people having to be doubled vaccinated before they can enter a nightclub does begin to mitigate super-spreader events, which could cause us, in effect, to take a decision to close nightclubs, which we would not want to do.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the disruption to business; as he will know, this is a tried and tested solution that has been used extensively throughout the Government’s events research programme. It requires venues to check or scan the NHS covid pass, in the same way as nightclub bouncers check ID before entry.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the equality impact assessment. I assure him that we conducted a full equality impact assessment and consulted widely to understand the potential equality impact of covid status certification. We spoke to ethicists and representatives of disabilities, race and faith groups. The system allows both digital and non-digital proofs, to help to ensure access for all. Constituents who do not have a smartphone, for example, can confirm their vaccine status by calling 119 and getting proof via email or written letter.
As I say, this is not something we do lightly; it is something to allow us to transition this virus from pandemic to endemic status. We are coming towards the winter months, when there will be upward pressure of infections because of the return to school and winter. Large gatherings of people, especially in indoor venues such as nightclubs, could add to that. The mitigation against that, to allow us to transition the virus from pandemic to endemic status, is the booster programme that I hope we will embark upon later this month, after the final recommendations from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.
What a load of rubbish. I do not believe that my hon. Friend believes a word he just uttered, because I remember him stating very persuasively my position, which we shared at the time, that this measure would be discriminatory. Yet he is sent to the Dispatch Box to defend the indefensible. We in this House seem prepared to have a needless fight over this issue. It is completely unnecessary. We all agree that people should be encouraged to have the vaccine, and I again encourage everybody to do so, but to go down this route, which is overtly discriminatory, will be utterly damaging to the fabric of society.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has made his view clear to me on many occasions. It pains me to have to take a step like this, which we do not take lightly, but the flipside to that is that if we do not and the virus causes super-spreader events in nightclubs and I have to stand at the Dispatch Box and announce to the House that we have to close the sector, that would be much more painful to me.
I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for bringing this important topic to the House.
I associate myself with the Minister’s opening remarks regarding vaccine uptake. It is incredibly important that people take up the vaccine where possible, and I reiterate that from the Opposition Dispatch Box.
We are weeks away from implementation, but while Ministers were relaxing over the summer, there was no clarity from the Government about these plans. Businesses remain anxious. Our priorities are clear: to protect the NHS and our economy. We absolutely cannot be faced with an unmanageable winter crisis for both. My first question to the Minister is really simple: what does he think this will achieve? How and when will the UK Government decide which businesses must implement vaccine certification, and will they rely on low-paid staff at venues to act as public health officials, and what support will they be getting?
The NHS covid pass application currently allows individuals in England to either input a negative test result or complete a vaccine record. That is important for those who cannot, for legitimate medical reasons, take the vaccine. Will the Minister explain why the Government plan to drop the negative test option? Will they improve and keep available the NHS covid pass application or will it be replaced or outsourced?
Let me be crystal clear: we cannot support any potential covid pass scheme for access to everyday services. Can the Minister categorically assure me that no one will be required to have a covid vaccination pass to access essential services?
This Government have dithered, dawdled, and, as some have said, dad danced away the summer. They have not planned or prepared, and they have not provided the reassurances or presented a clear path forward. UK businesses have had a hell of an 18 months during this difficult pandemic. They need a proactive, supportive Government, and it is about time that Ministers worked towards that aim.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her opening words and for urging those who have not had a vaccine to come forward and be protected. She asked a number of important questions relating to this measure, including what it will achieve. She will know that double vaccination was important for people to be able to travel, and the implementation of that was largely successful. We need to go further to make sure that we recognise other vaccines from other countries around the world. Those vaccines need to be recognised by the WHO, our regulator and other regulators to make it even easier for people who are double vaccinated to travel to the United Kingdom. The NHS in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland stands ready to continue that joint work, as does NHSX in terms of the technology.
The hon. Lady asked about people’s access to essential settings, which is incredibly important. I can assure her that some essential services will not require people to show covid vaccine certification. They include settings that have stayed open throughout the pandemic, such as public sector buildings, essential retail, essential services and, of course, public transport.
She also asked what certification will achieve domestically. I hope that, combined with the vaccination programme, the booster programme and all the work that we have done around education, we will be able to transition this virus, post winter, from pandemic to endemic status. The reason for this very difficult decision is that it allows us to sustain the opening of the economy, including the nightclub sector, without having to flip-flop, go backwards and close down sectors because of super-spreader events. The chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, tells us that in absolute terms. As I said earlier, if people are double jabbed, only 60% will not be infected by the virus and therefore not spread it, but 40% could be infected. In relative terms, putting that downward pressure on infection rates is important in that journey towards transition from pandemic to endemic.
I have to say that I agree with the Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg). The Minister set out earlier this year that this policy was discriminatory. He was right then and that remains the case. It is a discriminatory policy. The vaccines are fantastically effective at reducing hospitalisation and death. They are very much less effective in reducing transmission of the Delta variant. This is a pointless policy with damaging effects. I am afraid that the Minister is picking an unnecessary fight with his own colleagues. I say to him that the Government should think again. The Leader of the House has been clear that we do not believe—the Government do not believe—that this policy is necessary for us to meet here in a crowded place. Let us not have one rule for Members of Parliament and another rule for everybody else. Drop this policy.
My right hon. Friend asks about my previous position. I addressed it a few days ago from this Dispatch Box. Back in January and February, we did not have the level of evidence on the Delta variant, which he mentioned. That variant is far more infectious—it requires only a few particles of Delta for a person to be infectious. Let me repeat the data that I cited earlier: 60% of people who are double vaccinated will not be infected by Delta and therefore will not spread it, but 40% could be infected and then spread it.
As for the policy being discriminatory, there will, of course, be exemptions—for example, in exceptional circumstances where a clinician recommends vaccine deferral, where that vaccine is not appropriate, and where testing is also not recommended on clinical grounds. Then there are those who have received a trial vaccine, including those who have been blinded or given a placebo as part of the formally approved covid vaccine trials in the United Kingdom.
This is not something that we enter into lightly, but it is part of our armoury to help us transition over the winter months from pandemic to endemic status. I hope to be able to stand at this Dispatch Box very soon after that and be able to share with the House that we do not need to do this any more as we will be dealing with the virus through an annual vaccination programme.
I pay tribute to all those involved in the vaccination programme. It has been extraordinary. In Scotland, we have 4.1 million adults with a first dose and almost 4 million with a second dose, which means that north of 90% of all adults have had at least one dose. It is a fantastic result across the UK since last December, but the pandemic is not over. Lives are still at risk and the pressures on the NHS are very real, so we in Scotland are introducing a vaccine passport, but, broadly, it will be limited to nightclubs, outdoor standing events with more than 4,000 people and any event with more than 10,000 people. While the rules in England may be slightly different, I hope that they are as proportionate as that.
May I go back to the issue of essential services? It is not enough simply to say that a person will not need a vaccine passport to get an essential service. It has to be any setting where a person’s attendance is unavoidable—shops, public transport, medical services and education. We need the confirmation that no setting where a person’s attendance is unavoidable will require a vaccine passport.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his excellent citation of the vaccine success in Scotland. NHS Scotland has done a tremendous job, as has the NHS in Wales, Northern Ireland and, of course, England. He raises an important point about essential services. In the process of parliamentary engagement and scrutiny, we will be able to share the detail of that in due course.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister, who is defending a policy that I do not think his heart is truly in. May I ask him a technical question? If a fake vaccine passport is used, who will bear responsibility? Will it be the venue, the person who checked it, or the individual who used the fake passport? Who will police it? Will we be asking our local police, our local authority or some other agency?
The Night Time Industries Association and others have expressed concerns about the practical implementation of this policy. As the Minister has highlighted, those questions remain and need to be answered quickly. Will the Minister also publish clear guidance on which events and venues will require a covid passport? There will also be increased costs for businesses at a time when they are recovering, so will they also be getting extra funding, and when will that be announced?
It pains me to have to stand at the Dispatch Box and implement something that goes against the DNA of this Minister and his Prime Minister, but we are living through difficult and unprecedented times. As one of the major economies of the world, our four nations have done an incredible job of implementing the vaccination programme. This is a precautionary measure to ensure that we can sustainably maintain the opening of all sectors of the economy.
I almost feel sorry for the Minister because he really is struggling to defend this policy. However, he has failed to answer the fundamental question posed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) about this deeply illiberal, discriminatory and unnecessary policy: will this House get a vote on the implementation of covid vaccine passports—yes or no?
I fear that my hon. Friend is on a sticky wicket. Let me point out to him that, if people have had covid but have not had any vaccinations, they will not get the passport that he is proposing and therefore will not be allowed into nightclubs. We are a proud, liberal party in that we believe in freedoms; whatever happened to a laissez-faire attitude? Nightclubs have been open since July. My hon. Friend has not closed them yet. There is no need for a vaccine passport.
That is an important question. My hon. Friend is quite right that nightclubs have been open since July. The end of September date was chosen deliberately to allow over-18s to have the opportunity to be double vaccinated. On people who may have had covid and not had the vaccine, there is evidence—for example, on the beta variant—that it can be much more harmful to people unless they get vaccinated. I urge people who have had covid and recovered to get the vaccine, get double jabbed and get protected.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. As somebody who worked in nightclubs for 25-plus years, let me tell the Minister that this is a recipe for chaos on the doors of nightclubs. As my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) said—and as I said to the Minister the other day—the Night Time Industries Association has said that this will cripple the industry. This industry has been massively hard hit and it relies on walk-up trade; this is going make it impossible for nightclubs to run.
Let me ask the Minister two questions. First, how does he define a nightclub, as opposed to a late bar with a DJ playing music? Secondly, there is no rationale for this—as the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) said, nightclubs have been open for weeks—so why close them now? Why require vaccine passport for nightclubs, as opposed to other crowded indoor venues, such as the Chamber and the voting Lobby of the House of Commons?
That is an important question. As I said earlier, part of the trials gave us the confidence that we can do this and do it well. These passports have already been implemented for international travel and other countries in Europe have them for nightclubs. We think this is the right thing to do to help us transition the virus from pandemic to endemic status. We will be coming forward with the details for parliamentary scrutiny in due course.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Although I understand the libertarian argument regarding this policy and the very good points put forward by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), is it not the prime duty of any Government to protect their own population, whether in peace or war? And in many ways, are we not in a unique war with this virus? The passport is easily available. I have it on my iPhone now, although it shows my date of birth, which I would rather it did not do. I certainly agree, by the way, that if we want equality, we should be using these passports to get access to this Chamber, because it is also a crowded place. Will not the vaccine passport also encourage more people to get double vaccinated?
I agree with my hon. Friend that there is a very strong libertarian argument and not one with which I would disagree. This is a difficult and important decision. As he says, we are still not in a place where I can stand here and say, hand on heart, that we have transitioned this virus and that it is no longer a pandemic. That is why we are having to take this decision. I slightly disagree with his latter point; public buildings should obviously remain accessible and open to all without these passports, because there are relative measures that we can take to allow us the additional protection as we head towards the booster programme.
Mr Speaker, I am feeling sheepish about earlier; my apologies—touché.
This is just nonsense. I am 100% in favour of vaccination and 100% opposed to vaccine passports. There is no legal definition of what a nightclub is, as opposed to a place where other people might be bouncing up and down, and shouting at one another across a Chamber in a room of 500 people. There is no legal definition that the Minister is going to be able to rely on. The Government will effectively be turning bouncers on the door into legal officers, who will be deciding whether somebody has had a placebo or not. This is for the birds. We can relieve the Minister of all his pain; he just has to say that he has thought again and he is not going to do it.
I said this at the Dispatch Box before recess. Actually, the Secretary of State took to the World Health Organisation a plea to the rest of the world that people in trials should be considered fully vaccinated, whether they have had the placebo or otherwise, in order to encourage them to come forward for vaccine trials. I repeated that today. It will not be an issue for nightclub bouncers.
The measures presented by the Minister today are unsupportable because they are bereft of any rationale. I ask him to think carefully about whether this Government wish to take powers that were deemed to be emergency powers and make them the normal powers of a Government in a free society. I, for one, think that that is extremely unwise and that there is no case for this.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the times that we are enduring are not normal. This is a measure that we are having to take. As he will hear from our chief medical officers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, this is a mitigation to allow us to continue to transition this pandemic over the winter months and not have to reverse our policies. I say, with a heavy heart, that I would much rather stand here and take from colleagues arrows in the back—or in the front—than come back to this House and have to close down nightclubs because the virus has caused a super-spreader event. I do not want to have to explain that to the whole industry, because it would be much more detrimental to businesses to have to open and shut them, and open and shut them again.
The Minister cannot underestimate how much freedom has been limited for those with medical exemptions. I have heard from some of my constituents that they feared even leaving the house. The idea that they will see those freedoms limited again is abhorrent, so how can the Minister ensure that the medically exempt will not have further restrictions on their freedoms because of his vaccine passport plan?
We have spent a lot of time, energy and resource on ensuring that those with medical exemptions, who have underlying medical conditions, were prioritised in both category 4 and 6 of phase 1 of the vaccination programme, as the hon. Member will recall. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has gone further for the immunosuppressed. As I said earlier, there will be exemptions from this particular set of rules for people who, for whatever reason, cannot be vaccinated or cannot have a test for medical conditions.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the duration of these passports, whether they are passed by the Government or it is done by a vote, would only last as long as it is considered that the United Kingdom was in a pandemic state, not an endemic state, in terms of the disease? Will he also set out when that transition happens so that we can judge and understand it for ourselves?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s thoughtful question. There is great difficulty with knowing at what stage we feel confident that the virus has transitioned from pandemic to endemic. We have now entered a period of equilibrium with the virus because of the success of the vaccination programme. The upward pressure on infections is obviously schools going back. The downward pressure on infections will be the booster programme and mitigating policies like the one we are debating. The Government certainly do not see this as a long-term power grab to restrict people’s liberties.
I feel I should try to help the Minister by thanking him for the regular briefings on vaccination uptake over the recess, which was very helpful to me in terms of encouraging a number of people from the BME communities to take up the vaccine. However, this policy is not going to work in Vauxhall. A number of businesses that have been hampered over the last 18 months want to get back. A number of those businesses are fearful of the looming rent increases for private commercial tenants. A number of businesses are fearful about the backlog of business rates that they have to pay. We are now probably going to ask those same businesses to pay to implement this policy. I want to go back to the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra): what funding will be available to those businesses and when will they receive it?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s kind words about the engagement that we have maintained throughout the vaccine deployment programme. We will continue to do so, by the way, as we enter the booster programme, which, in some weeks, will hopefully break all records that we set in phase 1 of the vaccination programme. I think what is more detrimental to businesses in Vauxhall is having to open and shut, and open and shut again. The reason for this policy is to sustain their ability to trade, and hopefully trade profitably.
Young people have been coming forward in droves to be vaccinated. We have walk-in centres all around the country where people do not even have to book an appointment. There have been many different ideas for incentivisation of young people. The great incentive, I hope, is to protect themselves, their families and their community, but also to enjoy the freedoms that come with double vaccination.
As the Minister has indicated, many countries are already introducing checks in hospitality and entertainment venues, and a large number of our own citizens are visiting them on holiday, showing vaccine passes issued free by Her Majesty’s Government and having already undergone checks at airports. I have been arguing since February for the introduction of vaccine passes in order to save venues and jobs. To ensure that they can stay open, will he now cut through the hysteria and get on with it?
On Sunday, I joined dozens of volunteers for a thank you event with Medicare Pharmacy for the 58,000 jabs that it has delivered to local people this year. What more, though, can the Minister do to encourage—I stress the word “encourage”—those who are still to have their jab to come forward and do so?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s work. He has been a champion of the vaccination programme and I am grateful to Medicare Pharmacy. We continue to have pop-ups at universities and walk-ins around the country, and incentives to young people to get vaccinated. We also continue to redouble our efforts to keep the vaccine evergreen for those who have not yet had their first dose.
Last week, I spoke to a constituent who is a widow with four children and has been working for the NHS on the frontline throughout the pandemic. One of her children has a range of very complex needs that can only be met by full-time residential care, and there is only one setting in the entire country that can meet his particular needs. She has been told that it cannot take him because of a shortage of care staff, and that the particular difficulty in recruiting at the moment is the requirement for care staff to have had two jabs. As the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who is no longer in his place, highlighted, the vaccine does not prevent infection or the spread of covid. So why, given the crisis in recruitment of care staff, do we still have this requirement for two jabs when it is not effective and is depriving vulnerable people of the care they need?
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I wish to reiterate that what she said is inaccurate in the sense of the vaccines not preventing infection. Sixty per cent. of people who are double-vaccinated will not be infected and therefore cannot spread the virus, but 40% can. This is an important measure. We have a duty of care to those most vulnerable in care homes in ensuring that the staff are double-jabbed, and they have until 11 November to do that.
Make no mistake: vaccine passports will create a two-tier society with the hospitality industry having to police an unethical policy that will hammer its recovery. Given the Government’s own words that we need to live with this virus, will my hon. Friend confirm how long vaccine passports will be in place—if passed by this House?
I thank the Minister for all the hard work he does and for answering these very difficult questions. It would seem that each region of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has differing versions of the system in relation to offering vaccine passports, and that confuses people whenever they read or hear it in the national news. What discussions have taken place with regional Administrations on this issue? Are there any plans to standardise each region to have a one-size-fits-all UK strategy that people can understand and follow?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s excellent question. I am very proud, as are the Ministers from the devolved Administrations, of the work we have done collectively on the vaccination programme, which we will continue to do for the booster programme. As he heard earlier, this is a devolved matter but we try to co-ordinate wherever possible and do the right thing together.
I congratulate the Minister and all those involved in the vaccination roll-out on four-fifths of over-16-year-olds now being double-vaccinated. This Government have worked night and day to ensure that we have the testing capacity to test over 1 million people a day, and many millions more with lateral flow tests as well. Surely a nightclub full of people who have tested negative is safer than a nightclub of people who are double-vaccinated.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s championing of the vaccination programme. He raises an important point. One of the issues around lateral flow tests is the risk of people fraudulently inputting their test result, but also those are for a single excursion whereas being double-vaccinated means that people can go and enjoy nightclubs as many times as they like.
May I, on bended knee, implore my hon. Friend to summon all his courage and say no to vaccine passports to protect our civil liberties? He has been so courageous in the vaccine roll-out, so will he please protect our civil liberties and say no to vaccine passports?
I hope that when my hon. Friend pauses and reflects on what we will be bringing forward, she will see that it is that it is much better for the nightclub industry to be able to open sustainably while we get through the next few months. The winter months are going to be tough and challenging not just for covid but also for flu. It is a far better option to listen to the clinical advice of the CMOs and implement something that is difficult for me to do, and goes against everything I believe in, but nevertheless is the right thing to do.
We have a whole summer’s worth of data from the events research programme that shows how organisers of events such as the British grand prix at Silverstone in my constituency had to meet extreme costs to put in the planning and the checking of vaccine passports at the gate. Before this policy is put to a vote in this House, will my hon. Friend commit to publishing the data on the cost to business of vaccine passport checks through the events research programme, so that we can be fully apprised of the cost of this policy?
My hon. Friend’s question is important and is one that we will be looking at. Suffice to say, as I mentioned earlier, the events research programme certainly gave us the confidence that people can deal with this measure relatively easily. In the way that a nightclub bouncer can check ID, they can check covid vaccination status.
Like many across the House, I am instinctively wary of this idea. Will my hon. Friend give me a clear answer to a specific question: will right hon. and hon. Members receive a vote? For the avoidance of doubt, I am talking about a vote and not scrutiny of the policy.
I am flabbergasted, depressed and annoyed that we are even discussing this matter. It is absolutely wrong on a fundamental level. Putting to one side the practical implications of how it will be policed, more important are the general data protection regulation implications of bouncers having medical data in their hands. What are we doing in regard to the data? Nightclubs have been open for over two months. Is there any data to support this policy, because I do not think there is?
The very strong advice from the chief medical officers—we have heard from our colleagues in Scotland, too—is that this will be an important mitigating measure. It is something we do not do lightly. I completely understand my hon. Friend’s sentiment and emotion on this. In terms of the data presented, it will be limited simply to the vaccine status and the name of the individual. It can be on a smartphone, but if someone does not have one, it will be physical or by email.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker, you will know that, last week, the Foreign Secretary told the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that he would be making sure that all MPs had direct responses to all the emails that we had sent to the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Defence Secretary about Afghans and those friends and relatives of our constituents who have been caught in the situation in Afghanistan. You will know, Mr Speaker, because you were in the Chair, that the Prime Minister repeated that on Monday. He said that we would all have responses by the end of the day, and the Foreign Secretary then repeated that commitment later that day. Unfortunately, that just has not happened. In so far as there has been any response at all from the Government, it has been a single email from a junior Minister in the Foreign Office that says that we can go and look at a website.
I know that you, Mr Speaker, have said repeatedly that Ministers have to give proper, substantive answers, and I just hope that you might be able to speak to Government Ministers. So many of our caseworkers, for Members in all parts of the House, are in tears every day because they are having so many cases brought to them. On Monday, I mentioned three people out of the 143 cases I have raised, one of whom has been shot, one of whom has been raped and one of whom has been tortured. We are all facing these things. I wonder whether there is anything you can do in your powers to make sure that we get proper answers. We cannot just abandon these people.
Further to that point of order, very unusually I completely concur with the hon. Gentleman. It is really unfair on our staff, let alone our constituents, that we cannot give them answers. This is the first time since I have been in the House that I have not been able to give them the sort of answers that I would expect a Minister to give. I have been a Minister myself in many different Departments, and I know this is difficult for the Department, but it is fundamentally also difficult for the families and loved ones and our staff, who cannot give them the truth.
Further to that point of order, I reiterate and support what the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) have said. Last week, I had, as others have, constituents contact me on behalf of people who they served with in Afghanistan. Last week, there were gun attacks on the houses of some of the people to whom the hon. Member for Rhondda referred. I sent three urgent emails and have hand-delivered letters this week. I do not want to embarrass anyone—it is not about that; it is about getting the answers. May I just say that I would really appreciate, as others would, having immediate, urgent answers on those issues, because for these people it is a case of life or death? It is really important. Let us see if we can get the answers from Ministers.
It is quite right for Members to raise this matter; it is very important. The fact is that commitments were made by the Government to deal with the issues and respond accordingly. MPs have a duty to pursue on behalf of constituents’ cases that are brought to them. We might have been discussing this matter if the Opposition day had not been pulled. Given that it has, let me just say to those on the Government Front Bench that it is not acceptable to make pledges that are not carried out, and in fact, if this continues, it may be that we need an urgent question to discuss why we are not getting responses. That is not from one side; it is from both sides of the House. Ministers should reply to MPs. They are accountable to this House. I expect Ministers to reply accordingly to MPs.
Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits)
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Secretary Thérèse Coffey, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Amanda Milling and Guy Opperman, presented a Bill to make provision relating to the up-rating of certain social security benefits payable in the tax year 2022-23.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 158) with explanatory notes (Bill 158-EN).
Multi-Academy Trusts (Ofsted Inspection)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend section 5 of the Education Act 2005 to provide that Ofsted may inspect the governing bodies of Multi-Academy Trusts.
Mr Speaker, you have may heard me mention only a few times that I used to be a teacher and trade union representative, but having proudly worked in academies in London and Birmingham—I also have a partner who works in the sector—for over eight years before entering this place, I firmly believe that the most important thing we can achieve is to give our children the very best education. In my mind, there is no greater task that we have as MPs, and there can be no better investment than in our children’s futures.
I know that as a teacher and a Conservative, I am a bit of an outlier. There are not too many of us around, although I am delighted to count my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith), for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) and for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) among our ranks on these Benches.
The Conservatives’ record on education since 2010 is a proud one. The proportion of schools rated as good or outstanding by Ofsted has risen from 68% in 2010 to 86% in 2020. Between 2011 and 2019, the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their wealthier peers narrowed by 13% at age 11 and 9% at age 16. In 2019, 82% of year 1 pupils met the expected standard for reading, compared with just 58% when the light-touch phonics check was introduced.
The great Govian and Gibbian reforms have been key to that improvement, as a result of which almost 2 million more children are now in good or outstanding schools than in 2010. At the reforms’ heart has been the academy and free school programme, which has freed schools from local authority control, given parents more choice and granted schools more control over their curriculum, budgeting and staffing. Through those changes, we have been able to drive up standards across the country.
Since 2010, the Government have invested in academy trusts to be the vehicle of school improvement. Over half of children are now educated in academies and 42% of schools are now academies. Some 84% of academies are part of multi-academy trusts, or MATs, and as of August last year, there were 1,180 MATs, covering 7,680 academies between them. Of those, 70% oversee six schools or fewer, and 38% run two or three schools. There are also a small number of big beasts that oversee 20 schools or more.
Parents and teachers must have confidence in the leadership of academy trusts. Over the years, various scandals have appeared in the papers, such as trusts paying for the lease of a new Jaguar for their chief executive, trusts paying thousands for first-class travel and high-class hotel rooms, and even trusts paying for transatlantic flights. We regularly hear of trusts’ chief executives getting huge salaries of £100,000 or £200,000—and, in some cases, close to half a million pounds. I am a big supporter of the drive for academisation and hope that all schools will become academies. I am not against trusts expanding, but, where they are encouraged to do so, it must be for the right reasons.
Numerous funds have been created to encourage MATs to expand such as the regional academy growth fund and the trust capacity fund, but they have often resulted in trusts expanding beyond their means, and there is no formal way of assessing whether they are best placed to expand. As the evaluation of the regional academy growth fund found, one MAT took on 10 schools in a year despite a previous annual growth rate of only two or three. There must be fairness, transparency and accountability, because, as it stands, there is a glaring inconsistency.
Schools, including individual academies, and children’s social services are inspected by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission inspects hospital trusts, so why are multi-academy trusts not inspected, too? I worry that that loophole risks creating a new group of education authorities that are unaccountable to teachers, parents and pupils. To have a fair and consistent system, MATs and their leadership teams need to be accountable in the same way as teachers.
MATs at their best have been instrumental in turning around failing schools. Having previously been placed in special measures, Whitfield Valley Primary Academy in Fegg Hayes in my Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke constituency is now rated “good” by Ofsted, and with “outstanding” leadership, since becoming part of the Inspirational Learning Academies Trust in 2015. While that is a fantastic example of what trusts can achieve, sadly too many are not performing well. The root of the problem is the accountability regime.
Over the years, there have been calls for change. I thank the previous Education Committee, which in a 2017 report found that there was a gap in assessing the performance of MATs not fulfilled by either Ofsted or regional school commissioners. In 2018, Ofsted trialled a new approach to inspecting academies that involved a number of inspections of individual academies from a MAT taking place over a period of up to two terms. Following those inspections, Ofsted would visit the MAT’s head office to evaluate its effectiveness as a whole. That move towards assessing the trust itself rather than simply looking at individual academies was a shift in the right direction. However, as it stands, accountability measures remain heavily focused at school level and do not reflect the top-heavy leadership style of many MATs.
To harness the power of MATs properly, we need to look at their overall performance. I stress that my Bill is not about creating another layer of bureaucracy or more hoops for teachers to jump through. It is about adding accountability for the trustees of multi-academy trusts, and in my mind there should be no extra work for teachers. Through my Bill, the remit of Ofsted inspectors would be extended so that they must consider: the achievement of pupils across schools covered by the multi-academy trust; the success of the multi-academy trust in reversing educational underperformance; and the quality of leadership, financial management and governance of the multi-academy trust. Bringing MATs under the Ofsted inspection regime would ensure that they are playing their full role and, crucially, allow those truly doing excellent work to be recognised.
As the “Lost Learning” report that I co-authored with Onward and the New Schools Network earlier this year argued, we should be using multi-academy trusts
“much more aggressively as the engine of school improvement”.
We could hold them to account through the provisions of my Bill and assess them on their ability to turn around underperforming schools. Inspections of MATs would allow us to reward those that are well-performing and incentivise the best MATs with generous funding to take on struggling schools. There could be no clearer need for that, especially in the wake of the pandemic.
If levelling up is to mean anything, it must mean that children in places such as Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke can get the education that they need to go on to university, the skills they need to go on to an apprenticeship, and a chance to make the most of their talents and achieve their potential, no matter where in the country they go to school. To do that, we need to unleash the power of the best trusts to transform children’s lives around the entire country. Ultimately, that is what the Bill is about.
In the wake of the pandemic, the Bill is needed now more than ever. I am delighted that it has the support of a broad selection of hon. Members from all sides of the House. I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Robert Halfon, Emma Hardy, David Simmonds, Dame Meg Hillier, David Johnston, Layla Moran, Brendan Clarke-Smith, Miriam Cates, Ian Mearns, Lee Anderson, Gareth Bacon and Jonathan Gullis, present the Bill.
Jonathan Gullis accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 28 January 2022, and to be printed (Bill 159).
Business of the House (Today)
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, at this day’s sitting, the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to bring to a conclusion proceedings on the Ways and Means resolution relating to the Health and Social Care Levy at 7.00pm, if not previously concluded; and those Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved.—(James Morris.)
We will be debating an important issue today, and if the debate had been on a Finance Bill, it could have gone until any hour. I appreciate that we are debating a Ways and Means motion, but given the interest in it, the time could have been extended. Will the Minister explain why he decided that the debate would stop at the moment of interruption?
I rise to express sympathy with the point made by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) about this dribbling out of Budget announcements. These days, we have trinity Budgets, not one Budget: we have Ways and Means motions when it suits the Treasury. The change of behaviour on fiscal issues, Budgets and tax announcements in which the Government are indulging does not lead to decent policy making, and nor does it help Parliament to hold the Government to account. Rather than the ongoing dribbling out of Budget and tax proposals when it suits the Government rather than the House, let us get back to having one fiscal event and one Budget when the Red Book is published so that we can properly hold them to account.
Is there not another point? We already have remarkably weak control over taxation and expenditure in this House. It is one of the things that we do worse than nearly any other legislature in the UK or anywhere else in Europe and the rest of the world. Most other countries have a proper budget when they decide both expenditure and taxation at the same time. Surely the two should go together.
What we have here, most extraordinarily, is a motion that was put on the Order Paper only yesterday, without any forewarning of a debate today. Surprise, surprise, as is the convention under our Standing Orders, nobody other than a Government Minister can table an amendment to increase or vary a tax or duty. We are therefore a completely hamstrung Parliament in which the Executive have excessive control over us. We should have had proper time to debate the motion and proper forewarning, but yet again, the Government are taking everything into their own hands.
Question put and agreed to.
Ways and Means
Health and Social Care Levy
I inform the House that Mr Speaker has selected amendment (c) in the name of the official Opposition. I remind the House that, under the terms of the business of the House order of today, the amendment will be moved formally at the end of debate.
I beg to move,
That provision may be made for, and in connection with, the following—
(a) the imposition of a tax on earnings and profits in respect of which national insurance contributions are payable, or would be payable if no restriction by reference to pensionable age were applicable, the proceeds of which are to be paid (together with any associated penalties or interest) to the Secretary of State towards the cost of health and social care but where expenses incurred in collecting the tax are to be deducted and paid instead into the Consolidated Fund, and
(b) increasing the rates of national insurance contributions for a temporary period ending when the tax becomes chargeable and applying the increases towards the cost of the National Health Service.
Supporting health and social care in the aftermath of a pandemic and amid the worst health crisis for 100 years, laying the long-term basis for social care for generations to come—there are few if any greater peacetime challenges for any Government, and that is why it is an honour to be opening this debate today.
As the House will know, yesterday the Prime Minister announced a plan to tackle the NHS backlog, put the adult social care system on a sustainable long-term footing and end the situation in which those who need help in their old age risk losing everything to pay for it. The Government’s plan will make a difference to the lives of millions of people across this country, and it will be funded with a record £36 billion investment into the NHS and social care.
That is an extraordinarily wide-ranging question, and there are many ways in which impacts could be assessed. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Government will be bringing forward a social care Bill, and there will be a Budget at which this measure, fiscal measures in general and the wider consideration of the fiscal position will be considered. In the documents published in relation to today’s debate, there is of course a sustainability analysis of the impact of the measure on different parts of the country, by background and socioeconomic income, and there is also a substantial plan published by the Government in relation to the Health and Care Bill.