House of Commons
Monday 29 November 2021
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Levelling Up, Housing and Communities
The Secretary of State was asked—
Fire Safety Remediation: Protection for Leaseholders
I have enormous sympathy with leaseholders who are being landed with bills for faults for which they were not responsible and for which the responsibility for remediation truly lies elsewhere. I and my Department are looking at every available means to ensure that the burden is lifted from leaseholders’ shoulders and placed where it truly belongs.
I am glad to hear that response. Hundreds of Putney leaseholders are facing agonising waits to get funding through the building safety fund. People in the Radial development have been waiting for 16 months, people in Hardwicks Square have been waiting for 17 months and those in the Swish building have been stuck at stage 2 for 11 months. Meanwhile, one constituent is paying more than £4,000 in insurance for a two-bedroom flat following a 500% hike, which is not unusual. What is the Minister doing urgently to speed up and simplify the building safety fund application process and also to prevent insurers from cashing in?
As the hon. Lady rightly points out, leaseholders find themselves caught in an invidious vice, whereby they are not only having to pay remediation costs, but also find that insurance costs and the capacity to sell on their flat are compromised by the situation in which we find ourselves. Making sure that individuals are in safe buildings is our first responsibility, and to do that we must make sure that the building safety fund pays out and that we get support for remediation from those in the private sector, who also have a share of responsibility. I hope to update the House on our plans shortly.
Leaseholders in Battersea should not be held responsible for paying for remediation works when their homes were sold to them with the assurance that they were safe. Due to the poorly regulated EWS1 assessments, there have been cases where homes were being awarded a B2 classification—the lowest category—leaving leaseholders expected to pay for the repairs. In one case, leaseholders in Battersea challenged that, providing evidence proving that the building was of A2 classification. What action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that leaseholders are protected from erroneous EWS1 assessment outcomes and that the process is not a barrier to selling or remortgaging, including properties below 18 metres?
The hon. Lady’s question emphasises the complexity of the issue, but that is no reason not to take action to help her constituents and others. One of the principal concerns that I know many leaseholders have is that lenders will require the EWS1 form. The EWS1 form is a consequence of previous Government acts and decisions made by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and others. We need to ensure co-ordinated action across the piece to ensure we are in a stronger position to free people from the position in which they currently find themselves.
A number of my constituents are facing terrifying bills for remedial works. One couple made redundant due to covid need to sell their apartment urgently, but are trapped because of the safety issues. They have since heard that the developers have gone bust. I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State recognise how unfair it is to expect leaseholders to pay remediation costs, but they are expected to, and people are desperate. The Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill is a wasted opportunity to help them. When will this unjust mess finally be sorted out?
Again, the hon. Gentleman reminds us in the case of his constituents how widespread this challenge is. The leasehold reform Bill can play a significant part in ensuring that the position of those in the future can be safeguarded, but we need to take action even before that legislation comes forward, and I hope to update the House shortly on a series of measures that I hope will help bring some relief to his constituents and others.
I have a constituent in my constituency who has been severely affected by the lack of progress on building safety fund funding. He is an example of the complexity and the “invidious vice” that the Secretary of State mentions from the Dispatch Box. Will he agree to meet me to discuss the particular complexities of this situation?
My hon. Friend has been campaigning incredibly assiduously behind the scenes on behalf of those who have been caught in this vice. It is the case that 700 or so disbursements have been made from the building safety fund so far, but we realise that we need to take a number of measures to address this situation. He is right that we need to do so with a sense of urgency, but we also need to ensure that those measures are appropriately co-ordinated to have the beneficial impact we would all like to see.
I very much welcome the fact that a number of properties in Ipswich have been successful on building safety funding, but I am concerned about the conditions that many people renting flats are having to live through as the work is carried out. Yes, the work must be carried out quickly, but in one case residents are expected to live for 12 months behind shrink wrap with no natural light whatsoever. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must balance the need to do the work quickly and make buildings safe with the mental health and wellbeing of residents who are expected to live in properties while that work takes place?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I do not know whether the constituents to whom he refers are in private rented sector accommodation or social tenants. In the latter case, some of the changes that we hope to make with our forthcoming social housing Bill will help to ensure that tenants are treated as they should be by all registered social landlords. We are also looking at appropriate re-regulation of the private rented sector.
Residents at The Wharf, a building of below 18 metres, are being asked by the management company to foot large bills for works to their building next year. Will my right hon. Friend outline how he will support those residents? Time is of the essence, and some residents will simply not be able to pay.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is vital that we proceed as quickly as possible on 18 metre-plus buildings rendered unsafe because of aluminium composite material or other forms of cladding whose unsuitability the Grenfell tragedy laid bare, to make them safe. For some buildings of between 11 metres and 18 metres, it is important that we take a proportionate approach to safety and cost. Safety must come first, but for a number of buildings between 11 and 18 metres, the action needed can be taken quickly and may not be at the level or intensity—or certainly the cost—of action required in other buildings.
If I include the Secretary of State, Housing Ministers have promised 19 times to protect leaseholders from historical remediation costs, yet as we speak we know of thousands of people receiving invoices for astronomical remediation costs. Thirty-three such residents are in Oyster Court in London, and they could face bills of up to £80,000 each following an assessment using the Government’s new PAS 9980 form. We will hear a lot more about that in the media. Have the Government added yet another toxic layer to the mess? What will the Secretary of State do about it?
I do not believe that the Government have added anything that is toxic to this mess. We need to ensure that we are in a position to reassure lenders, leaseholders and everyone in the market that buildings are safe. We also need to ensure, exactly as the hon. Gentleman indicates, that leaseholders are not paying and not shouldering an unfair burden for the remediation required. As I mentioned earlier, I hope to say more about that in due course.
The Secretary of State, like me, has been in the House a long time. Does he agree that this scandal measures up to some of the worst that we have seen, whether it be contaminated blood or the wrongful jailing of innocent postmasters? While I welcome his change of tone, does he agree that people are constantly paying out colossal sums for things such as waking watch, and that this must be remedied?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In arriving in this role, I was struck by two things. The first was the combination of circumstances that come so unfairly on to the shoulders of people who bought their properties in good faith and now find themselves landed with wholly disproportionate and unfair bills. In fairness, to respond to the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), I also realised that my predecessors had worked hard to deal with a situation that is intrinsically complex. That is not to take away from the urgent need to tackle it, but good people both in government and outside have been attempting to deal with an interconnected set of issues. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that they must be tackled, but, for a host of reasons, that requires not just Government but others to fulfil their responsibilities.
Homes: Climate Standards
I welcome the hon. Members’ attention to this important issue. Homes are among our biggest sources of emissions, and we are committed to reducing the carbon they generate. The recently published heat and buildings strategy sets out the steps required to improve the energy performance of our homes, and through the future homes standard, from 2025 we will deliver a 75% reduction in CO2 emissions compared with homes built to the current standard. However, we are not waiting until 2025 to take action: as a carbon-saving step along the way, we will introduce an interim uplift to the current standard before the end of this year—and there is not a lot of time left, as you will have spotted, Mr Speaker.
What are you trying to tell me?
The cost of living crisis is hitting families in Luton South and across the UK hard, and it is set to get worse this winter. With rising energy bills, taxes and food costs, we have never needed a retrofit programme more than now, but the Government’s heat and buildings strategy is inadequate and unambitious. In advance of Fuel Poverty Awareness Day on Friday, will the Minister commit to Labour’s 10-year plan to invest £6 billion a year in home insulation and zero-carbon heating, which will improve our energy security, create jobs and reduce carbon emissions, while also helping to cut bills by £400 a year?
Mr Speaker, I do not know about you, but I spent the weekend reading “My climate action plan: Becoming a carbon neutral borough by 2040”, by the hon. Lady’s local council, and I understand the effort the local council is putting into ensuring that all homes are going to be net zero. Obviously, the Government are committed to that. I am disappointed to hear her say we are unambitious given that we have committed £3.9 billion to the social housing decarbonisation fund and a further £450 million to the boiler upgrade scheme to ensure that people can claim £5,000 per property to replace their boilers with carbon-efficient alternatives.
There is a significant funding gap to meet the housing investment requirements of the Government’s energy performance targets. I am informed that housing organisations will be expected to fund the majority of this investment over a 10-year period. In my constituency of Jarrow and across the UK, local authorities have had more than half their funding cut over the last 10 years. How are local authorities expected to meet this required investment despite the obvious financial challenges that they are currently facing?
I would say that many local authorities are already making considerable progress along these lines. I am delighted to see that the hon. Lady’s local council has joined the ambitious UK100 network—a network of councils committed to achieving net zero as soon as possible—and I understand that it has committed to being carbon neutral by 2030, so it feels to me as though councils are getting the funding that they need.
There is very clear evidence that people who commission their own houses do so to much higher environmental standards, thus doing their own bit to protect against climate change. What plans do Ministers have to make it easier for ordinary people on normal incomes to get a serviced plot of land so that they can commission their own, much greener houses?
My hon. Friend is a frequent champion of his cause in this Chamber, and I think the simple answer to his question is the funding that we are providing through the help to build scheme, but I look forward to further conversations with him in the future to see what else we can do to assist him.
Stroud residents are pleased and relieved about the potential reforms in place to build new net-zero homes and protect rural areas from overdevelopment, but we have a local plan going through now and there is a lot of unrest about the consultation process, net-zero homes not being built and mass development in places such as Sharpness. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss the areas where local plans are going through now to see how we may benefit from some of the fantastic work going on for the future?
My hon. Friend is a doughty champion off all issues environmental and net zero. I am not sure I am the correct Minister to meet her, but if I am, I will, and if I am not, I will ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing to do so instead.
With energy costs rising exponentially and the Government having scrapped Labour’s zero carbon homes policy months before it was due to come in, abandoned the green homes grant and delayed the future homes standard, is it not the case that families and taxpayers pay the cost for the Government’s failures to make our homes more sustainable? This is an obvious case of false economy, with all of us paying more in the long run for higher bills and future retrofitting costs. The Minister has already been asked this question, but will he answer it this time: will he adopt Labour’s plans for a national mission to retrofit every home that needs it and bring forward all aspects of the future homes standard without delay?
The simple answer is that this Government already have a pretty good plan, so we do not need to look to others and adopt their plans instead. It is unfortunate that the hon. Lady wrote her questions in advance of my previous answers, in which I mentioned, for instance, the £450 million that we have committed to the boiler upgrade. So there is significant investment in this area, we have a strong and sound plan, and progress is moving at pace.
Has my hon. Friend examined the advantages of ground and air heat pumps? I know it is difficult in smaller buildings to have ground pumps because of the large infrastructure required, but air pumps are a little more possible, so what encouragement can the Government give to retrofit such pumps to existing homes?
In the summer I was fortunate to visit the Grey Mare Lane estate in Beswick and see the work going on through the social housing decarbonisation fund demonstrator. Heat pumps are being fitted, and we will have the opportunity very soon to see how people benefit from the experience of having those measures introduced.
Children in Temporary Accommodation
It is certainly not ideal, but time spent in temporary accommodation does that mean people are getting help and ensures families have a roof over their heads. We are committed to reducing the need for temporary accommodation by preventing homelessness before it occurs, which is why we are investing £375 million this year to support local authorities to prevent homelessness, an increase of £112 million on the sum last year. However, on 30 June this year 124,290 dependent children were living in temporary accommodation, although that is down 2.3% on the same quarter last year.
Some 124,190 children will spend this Christmas in temporary accommodation, without a place to call home. They will wake up in hostels, bed and breakfasts and working industrial estates, often far away from their schools and friends. Homeless families in the UK are moved the equivalent of 400,000 miles around the globe each year, at a staggering cost of over £1 billion. Given that there have been over 100,000 children in temporary accommodation since 2015, what hope can the Minister give this House, and more importantly those children, that they will at some point have a place to call home?
I completely sympathise with the cause trumpeted by the hon. Lady and would say two things. First, some councils are doing innovative work in this area: I understand Barnet Council is working with Opendoor Homes to purchase properties itself to use for temporary accommodation, as in that way it can at least control the quality and associated cost. But my personal preference is the work we are doing through Capital Letters, which has been very successful so far in helping London boroughs secure properties for use for temporary accommodation.
New Housing Developments: Community Consultation
As we know, local communities help to shape the identity of local places, and it is right that they should be at the heart of our planning reforms. I can tell my hon. Friend that public engagement through consultations is already required for new housing developments and in any preparation for local plans by councils. We consider plans for the future as a priority to ensure local people have a voice that is integrated much more effectively into the planning process.
I welcome the Minister’s response on how we are making the system more responsive to local residents, but what steps will he take to ensure that residents have more of a say over the influence of developer contributions to local communities such as mine in Wolverhampton?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Developer contributions, provided by developers to local authorities in order to undertake important infrastructure works, can often be slow to arrive, if they arrive at all, and they are often not what was expected in the first place. We want to put more power in the hands of local authorities and local communities, and not developers. That is one of the reasons why our infrastructure levy, which is under development, will provide greater transparency and greater certainty for communities about the important infrastructure that they will get.
I think there is a desire across the House for a planning system that gets homes built but also recognises the democratic rights of local residents. Looking at the Minister’s planning reforms, may I suggest that he drops his zonal proposals, which are really quite bureaucratic and time consuming, and looks instead to simplify the local plan system, allows for more residents to contribute and be involved in it, and brings in his digital proposals, which have been generally accepted? Once a local plan is in place and an individual application comes in, should there not be a presumption that that application will be accepted where it is in agreement with the local plan, subject to any remaining concerns from residents being taken into account and listened to as part of the consideration of the application?
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, who makes some important and powerful points. He is right that we need to have more people engaged in the planning system. He will know that presently, about 1% of the local community engages in local plan making; that is, as near as damn it, local planners and their blood relations. That rises to as much as 2% or 3% of the local community engaging in individual local planning applications. We want to make sure that we have an engaging process and that we use digitisation to help us with that, and we will consider his proposals as we move forward with our important planning reforms.
Transport Infrastructure: Cheshire
Levelling up is an ambition that runs right across the Government. Ahead of the White Paper, the Transport Secretary and the Levelling Up Secretary met in recent weeks to discuss the critical contribution of transport to levelling up.
Winnington bridge provides vital access to thousands of homes and businesses in Cheshire. It needs completely rebuilding to cope with the current demands and the increased housing scheduled for the area. May I urge the Government to provide funding for that as part of their levelling-up agenda?
I know that this is something that my right hon. Friend has been campaigning very hard for. The next round of the levelling-up fund will be open in spring next year, and I am sure that, with her help, her local councils will be able to develop a strong bid for that important bridge.
Integrated Rail Plan
As the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), pointed out in response to the previous question, levelling up involves every Department working in a co-ordinated fashion to advance a series of policies that spread prosperity more equally across the country. The £96 billion integrated rail plan was the single largest rail investment ever made by a UK Government.
There was broad agreement around Lord Heseltine’s 2012 report that investment in rail infrastructure is central to a levelling-up agenda. The integrated rail plan really only delivers an upgrade to the existing lines, axing the eastern leg of High Speed 2 and the new high-speed Northern Powerhouse Rail line. How can the Secretary of State do his job now that the integrated rail plan has derailed progress in the north? With less than three weeks of parliamentary time left in 2021, when will he publish his long-promised levelling-up White Paper, which is due this year?
The hon. Lady makes two very good points. On the first, if we look at the integrated rail plan, we can see that there are significant benefits for communities across the north of England. Indeed, travel time between Leeds and Bradford is reduced from, in some cases, just over 20 minutes to 12 minutes. That is a real, material benefit for citizens of both great cities. It is also the case that the potential for further work in making sure that we can have a more effective mass transit system in West Yorkshire is inherent in the approach that was outlined by my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary. More broadly, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her anxiety to see the broader set of plans that we are keen to bring forward shared with the House, and we will do so at the earliest possible opportunity.
What my constituents in Rossendale and Darwen would have liked to have seen in the integrated rail plan was a rail line from Manchester to Rawtenstall, but they did not see it. With that in mind and with our shared ambition to level up Rossendale and east Lancashire, will my right hon. Friend look favourably on our levelling-up bid, which will have transport and other schemes in it, when it comes forward?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. East Lancashire and its success must be at the heart of a successful approach towards levelling up. Whether it is Rawtenstall, Bacup, Blackburn or Burnley, we need to ensure that all communities in east Lancashire feel they have the right investment not just in transport, but in skills, schools, and ensuring that streets are safe and communities can take back control.
HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail were never just about train lines and journey speeds; they are about regeneration opportunities. In the case of the cancelled eastern leg, 38,000 homes were planned on the back of that line, which now will not happen. Some £38 billion of economic growth in Bradford, reliant on Northern Powerhouse Rail, has been cancelled. Local government leaders in the north are united in their opposition to the £18 billion reduction in rail investment plans. Is the north not once again being let down rather than levelled up?
I would contest that. Although the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the integrated rail plan creates opportunities for broader regeneration, it is important to recognise that transport is not the only tool that can promote regeneration across the midlands and the north of England. The work that Homes England does in making sure we can unlock the potential of brownfield sites for regeneration is critically important. I appreciate the disappointment felt by communities in Bradford and elsewhere, but there is more to come, both in transport and other investment, that will ensure that we meet our shared objectives to spread opportunity more equally across the geography of England.
What conversations is my right hon. Friend having with the Department for Transport with regard to restoring your railway funding, in particular for the reopening of the Ivanhoe line in North West Leicestershire, where we currently have no railway stations at all?
I was unaware that there were no railway stations in North West Leicestershire. For the citizens of Ashby de la Zouch and other communities, transport connectivity is as important as it is for citizens elsewhere. I will look at whether the Ivanhoe line can secure the investment it needs. I know my hon. Friend is a white knight for rail investment. North West Leicestershire could have no surer champion in the jousting required to secure the investment needed. [Hon. Members: “Groan.”]
Stick with the day job!
The Government agree with the independent review of fire safety that EWS1 forms should not be required on buildings under the height of 18 metres. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has issued guidance to professionals, as the hon. Lady will know, on when EWS1 forms are required. That is being reviewed following the independent expert group’s statement.
In February, the former Housing Secretary announced his five-point plan to bring confidence to the housing market, committing to a state-backed professional indemnity insurance scheme for professionals. We still have not seen the scheme materialise, so will the Minister provide an update today on when that scheme will become available?
The hon. Lady is quite right. We made that commitment and we adhere to it in the narrow circumstances that are required to give fire risk assessment assurers confidence that PII ought to apply. We believe that, collectively, the associated facts of the Fire Safety Act 2021 and the fire safety order, the withdrawal of consolidated advice note PAS9980, and the introduction of British Standards Institution standards, will ensure a much clearer approach to the sorts of challenges that she outlines.
Community Funding: Scottish Borders
The UK community renewal fund and its successor, the UK shared prosperity fund, are examples of how we will have more flexibility to support communities now that we have left the EU. The CRF is funding eight projects in the Borders including on employment support, skills development and environmental sustainability. That will help to pilot new approaches and is helping to inform the design of the UK SPF.
I was delighted to see eight successful projects from the Scottish Borders secure funding from the community renewal fund. It is brilliant to see the United Kingdom Government delivering in all parts of this kingdom. I want to see even more successful bids from the UK shared prosperity fund, so will the Minister come to my constituency to visit the Burnfoot Community Futures trust to discuss how its application might be as strong as possible?
I would be delighted to have an excuse to get back up to the Borders.
Last week, the Minister for Levelling Up Communities told us that many community renewal fund projects will finish late. That will further delay the UK shared prosperity fund, under which areas such as Cornwall have so far received only 1% of the amount that they lost in European funding, having been promised that they would get all of it back. Will the Minister tell us how the latest CRF delays will affect the roll-out of the UK shared prosperity fund?
All the successful community renewal fund bids have been given additional time to deliver their good programmes. We have asked them all to be in touch if there is any issue and we stand by our commitments to Cornwall and other places to which we have made commitments to match EU funding.
There is a worrying pattern with this Government of overpromising and underdelivering, is there not? We have had the great train robbery and the return of the dementia tax and now they have postponed levelling up. The community renewal fund is plagued by delays. More than £1 billion of towns fund money has not even been allocated yet, and two years after the scheme was announced, it still has not delivered anything. If this is the Minister’s idea of levelling up, does he accept that it is just not good enough?
The hon. Gentleman says that the scheme has not delivered anything. I was in Norwich on Friday opening the first project ever funded by the towns fund. Whether it is the towns fund, the future high streets fund, the community renewal fund, the shared prosperity fund or the levelling-up fund, this Government are determined to put the financial firepower behind communities’ ambitions across this entire United Kingdom, so that we can level up and unite this country.
The Institute for Public Policy Research has pointed out that the UK shared prosperity funding of £1.5 billion from 2025 falls far short of the £11 billion that would have been received from the EU between 2021 and 2027. Will the Minister explain why the UK Government have not delivered on their promise to replace EU structural funds in full?
The UK Government will match the spending that different places had through the EU. We have had a delighted reaction from many of the places across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that have secured funding through the different routes that are now available, and we have all the additional flexibility and a reduction in the bureaucracy of those old EU schemes. The replacement funding not only matches the quantum of the funding that we used to get through the EU, but gets rid of that unnecessary bureaucracy.
Homelessness Reduction: London
This year, councils will receive £375 million to prevent homelessness, with almost 50% of that funding going to London councils. The funding is part of an overall investment in England of more than £800 million to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping this year.
Will the Government consider a specific fund for the relatively small number of families with children who have a terminal illness? I have several cases where there are specific requirements around enlarged doorways and an extra bedroom so that nurses and doctors can get around the bed and the child can have care at home. Will the Minister look at specific funding for certain London councils to provide that sort of special housing need?
I think it would be easier for me to agree to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the specific details of the case that she is talking about.
Planning (Street Plans) Bill
It is a cracking private Member’s Bill. We shamelessly want to rip off all the ideas in it and take them for our own.
I am delighted to hear it. Will the Secretary of State look not only at those ideas, but at the related “build up, not out” proposals in my soon-to-be-launched policy paper “Poverty Trapped”? Both enshrine local democratic consent and style codes as essential steps for new developments. Does he agree that they are both vital to unlocking the scale of home building that will make buying or renting homes more affordable, reducing poverty and levelling up communities everywhere?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is rare that we have legislation that combines greater democratic control with the potential for the beautification —for want of a better word—of our urban and suburban environment, and also unlocks the potential for the value of individuals’ homes to be enhanced by additional development. It is a triple whammy of good news; we just need to make sure that it meshes with everything else that we want to do that is beneficial. I am really grateful to my hon. Friend and all the supporters of his legislation for helping the Government out so much.
Residents in Hull and Hessle are often fearful that the design of new homes and new housing developments will lead to increased flooding. Anybody who has been a victim of flooding knows how utterly devastating it is for everybody concerned, so will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss my ten-minute rule Bill, the Flooding (Prevention and Insurance) Bill, which is designed to improve and strengthen flood mitigation and flood protection measures for all new builds?
I know how prone so many communities in the East Riding are to flooding. It is vital that we balance the need for new housing with making sure that there is appropriate mitigation, so I will ensure that I or another relevant Minister meet the hon. Lady to discuss her Bill and how we can take forward those provisions that mesh with our own ambitions.
Dorset: Increasing Opportunity
The Government are committed to levelling up the whole country, and Dorset is no exception. The new community renewal fund is investing in enterprise and skills training for young people in Dorset. The local growth fund in Dorset has contributed more than £98 million to 54 projects. We are also investing nearly £12 million into Dorset through the getting building fund to stimulate job creation and support the region’s economic recovery.
Dorset Council has historically been very financially responsible, spending wisely according to need, but now we are facing more pressure than ever, particularly from the cost of social care and the need to provide vital rural transport links. Will my hon. Friend confirm that Dorset will get its fair share in the upcoming local government funding settlement? Will he and his Front-Bench colleagues do all they can to support any future levelling-up funding requests from Dorset?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Yes, the Government are providing approximately £1.6 billion in additional grant funding in the LGDEL— local government departmental expenditure limit— each year. That follows year-on-year real-terms increases for local government since the 2019 spending review. It will allow councils to increase spending on vital public services such as social care. We will set out more details in the upcoming provisional local government finance settlement later this year.
Accessibility Standards for New Homes: Consultation Response
My Department is considering responses to this very important consultation. We will publish a response that sets out next steps for increasing the supply of accessible homes as soon as possible.
Housing association Habinteg estimates that more than 400,000 wheelchair users are living in homes that are neither adapted nor accessible. Having new accessible homes reduces the need to adapt as individuals change during their lifetime and allows them to live independently for longer. Will the Minister meet me and experts from the Centre for Accessible Environments to find out what good accessible design can mean for users?
I salute the hon. Lady’s industriousness, the all-party parliamentary group that she leads, and the work that Habinteg and other groups undertake. She will know that as part of the affordable homes programme, between 2021 and 2026, 10% of the homes to be built—about 20,000 new homes—will require adaptation for living. I am very happy to meet her to discuss what more we can do and how quickly we can bring forward our response to the consultation.
Housing Developments: Infrastructure
That is exactly what we are doing. As we consider new housing developments, it is important to ensure that infrastructure is in place for local communities. Our £4.3 billion housing infrastructure fund seeks to achieve that by investing to improve connectivity, healthcare services and vital infrastructure before housing is built.
I welcome the Minister’s words, but, having visited my area and observed the flood risk there, does he agree that the drainage capacity of an area should be assessed before any houses begin to be built, and that that assessment should be independent rather than being conducted by the water companies?
As my hon. Friend will know, the national planning policy framework was amended in July this year to ensure that all sources of flood risk, including drainage, are fully considered before planning permission is granted by a local authority. Sustainable drainage infrastructure is hugely important. I should be happy to discuss the subject further with my hon. Friend, and I draw his attention to the speech that I made in last week’s Adjournment debate in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith).
I am very conscious of the additional responsibilities that I bear as Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, which is why I was pleased not only to be able to attend the British-Irish Council just over a week ago as a guest of the Welsh First Minister, but to have the opportunity this weekend, as we all consider how we deal with the shadow of the new omicron variant, to discuss with First Ministers across this United Kingdom how we can co-ordinate all our efforts in order to defeat this new covid threat.
The Secretary of State may know that I have campaigned tirelessly for investment in our town centres across Hyndburn and Haslingden, and those millions of pounds of investment would make a significant difference. Can he confirm that the second round will be confirmed in the White Paper, and will he visit my home of Hyndburn and Haslingden to see at first hand how the money would be spent?
Absolutely, and we will be saying more about how we can ensure that the remaining tranches of the levelling-up fund are allocated fairly. Accrington and Oswaldtwistle speak to me even now as communities that I would love to visit, with my hon. Friend as my guide.
Not only have reforms of permitted development rights led to a new generation of slum housing, but the latest developments pose a huge risk to the beating heart of our high streets. Communities in this position have no voice and no say in these conversions, and councils are powerless to stop them. Will the Government at least give councils and communities some transparency, and release in full the promised regulatory impact assessment of the Department’s changes to permitted development rights?
The hon. Lady is quite wrong in her assertion. Local authorities do have powers to deny permitted development. Prior approvals are required in respect of matters such as aspect, parking and access before the buildings can be constructed. Authorities can also apply for article 4 exemptions for areas in which PDRs will therefore not apply. I can tell the hon. Lady that as a result of our PDR changes, 84,000 new homes have been built which otherwise might not have been built, often on brownfield sites and often in town centres, to the betterment of those people who want to live in them. These are advantages for home dwellers.
My right hon. Friend has spoken frequently and passionately about the importance of a balanced approach to the assessment of housing need across the United Kingdom. It is certainly true that the way in which we assess it needs to be updated. I think it only fair to say that every part of England—indeed, every part of the United Kingdom—will have to share in making sure that we can meet the housing needs of the next generation, but we are seeking to achieve a fairer and more equitable distribution of need across the country.
In contrast to what the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), said in his earlier answer, the Institute for Government has said that, far from reducing bureaucracy, the UK Government have, in the shared prosperity fund, established a system that fails to include devolved Governments to the same degree as previously, and that the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 facilitates the UK Government riding roughshod over devolution. How can the Secretary of State in all honesty work to improve intergovernmental relations when the core thrust of his portfolio is about undermining devolution and overriding devolved Governments?
I share the hon. Lady’s concern for enhancing and improving devolution, which is why we are working with local government in Scotland and, indeed, with Scottish National party Members of this House, to help to ensure that the levelling-up fund, the shared prosperity fund and the community ownership fund meet the needs of individual communities. That is why we are so pleased that the hon. Members for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) and for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn)—SNP MPs—and the SNP councils in Edinburgh and Glasgow were so happy to work with us on these funds. I have to say that I sometimes find it surprising—
I call Andrew Rosindell.
I find it surprising that local government in Scotland—
Order. Order. Secretary of State, it is not fair to take advantage. I know you enjoy teasing them, but my problem is that questions and answers are meant to be short and succinct—that is why they are called topical questions—and Mr Rosindell is desperate. Come on Andrew!
Companion animals are a really good thing—cats, dogs or whatever they are—and it is vital that we work with landlords to ensure that people have the right to have the animal that brings so much joy into their lives with them, whatever form of tenure they enjoy.
I am disappointed by the hon. Lady’s suggestion that it has been abandoned. It certainly has not. The Government are committed to giving all people somewhere safe to sleep. We have the £10 million winter pressure fund and we have the winter transformation fund to help charities and faith groups to deliver single-unit accommodation, so this Government are very much committed to the cause and I would welcome working with the hon. Lady on this in the future.
I think that the Vagrancy Act has to go. We do need appropriate legislation to deal with examples of aggressive begging, but the most important thing to recognise is that the work that Westminster Council and Greater Manchester have done to reduce rough sleeping has been exemplary. In partnership with my Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), the Minister for rough sleeping, we must redouble our efforts, but I want to congratulate Rachael Robathan, the hon. Lady’s successor, and Andy Burnham on their success in dealing with rough sleeping in the hotspots that have suffered most from that phenomenon.
Conspiracy theories are all the rage these days, but I have to say that the hon. Gentleman should be above all that. He has a number of important constituency issues that I long to work with him on. I know that this raillery across the Dispatch Box can entertain others but—I say this in the most generous of spirits—let us concentrate on ensuring that we can work together for the people of Chesterfield, and if we have legitimate disagreements, that is fair enough.
Around 40% of workers who commute from the Charnwood Borough Council area commute into Leicester city. This is due in part to the lack of housing in the city. However, despite there being a derelict doughnut of brownfield land around the city that could be utilised for house building, more and more housing is being built in the Leicestershire countryside. Will my right hon. Friend set out what the Government are doing to encourage development on brownfield land? Will he provide greater incentives to councils to ensure this happens?
We are doing exactly that. The brownfield remediation fund is providing significant moneys to ensure that brownfield is remediated. My hon. Friend will be hearing more about that shortly. We also made it clear when we uplifted the local housing need numbers for the largest cities in our country that we expect them to build within their own geographies and not to try to shunt building outside those geographies. That will be made clear to them time and again until they do so.
I could not agree more with the hon. Lady. The Post Office is a marvellous UK-wide institution, and the universal service obligation ensures that everyone across the United Kingdom benefits in exactly the same way. It is one of the strengths of our Union, and I look forward to working with her and with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure we have a robust network for the future.
The Minister will know I am very concerned about rampant house building in east Berkshire and elsewhere in the south of England. Will he please assure me of what might be forthcoming in the planning Bill to protect assets such as farmland, school playing fields, golf courses, open spaces and the Pinewood Centre in Crowthorne?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for making that important point. He represents a beautiful part of east Berkshire, and it is important that we maintain our protections for areas of environmental importance and areas of aesthetic distinction. We all need to recognise that sustainable additions to the current housing stock are an important part of making sure the next generation also have a chance to own homes, too.
I would challenge the hon. Gentleman’s arithmetic, but I know time is short. All I will say is that when I visited Merthyr Tydfil and Pontypridd less than a fortnight ago there was jubilation, not on my arrival but on the arrival of the money from the levelling-up fund that is helping fantastic figures in Welsh local government to deliver for their citizens. I hope I have the chance to visit Ceredigion to see how we can support more projects there.
I urge my right hon. Friend to increase protections for the green belt in the forthcoming planning Bill. In Sevenoaks we are 93% green belt, yet we are constantly inundated with speculative planning applications that worry the local community. The answer should be clear: if it is green belt, it is protected; and if it is a speculative planning application, the answer is no.
I would hate to be a developer facing my hon. Friend. When it comes to these speculative and ill-thought-out planning applications, developers had better put on their armour because she fires truth bullets at them from the hip, and repeatedly. Of course it is vital that we protect our green belt. However, the best protection that any local authority can have is to make sure its plan is properly designed and adopted.
Yes. I take this incredibly seriously. The right hon. Gentleman’s office may have already been in touch with the Department, but if it can be in touch with my private office directly, I will see what we can provide by way of additional information before he sees his constituents later. Whatever information we can provide in the meantime, let us try to make sure we can have a proper conversation about how we can resolve this problem in depth.
Will my right hon. Friend meet me and other coastal MPs in Devon and Cornwall who are concerned about the deepening housing crisis, with no private rentals, no affordable homes and public services unable to recruit, as no one can afford to live in what were communities but have become holiday camps by summer and ghost towns by winter?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which emphasises the need for us to make sure that affordable housing is available for those in communities who are the vital workers—the productive workers who are at the heart of successful communities. Although of course it is legitimate for people to have second homes, that also means we need to look at one or two of the loopholes that allow some to not necessarily contribute to the community as much as they might.
Across Durham, social housing in in short supply, while much of the stock that is available is of poor quality, and housing associations, such as Believe Housing, are struggling to meet the needs of residents on repairs and maintenance. Does the Secretary of State share my belief that residents in social housing in places such as Sherburn Hill and Brandon deserve housing that is fit to live in? Will he meet me to discuss the problems?
I do share that view, and our affordable homes programme will be part of making good on our commitment to more and better social housing. I look forward to working with the new administration at Durham County Council in order to achieve just that.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that culture can play a central role in levelling up throughout the north of England, and that an excellent example of this would be the proposed purchase and refurbishment of the Co-op theatre in Ramsbottom? May I invite him to visit this cultural gem from the 1870s, which has all its unique features still in place? What support can his Department give to supporting the cultural sector throughout the north of England, which is so important to levelling up?
Culture is absolutely vital to levelling up. One thing I was discussing with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport earlier today was the importance of making sure that more of the Arts Council funding that is currently spent in London and the south-east is spent in the midlands and in the north. Our acting and performing talent is spread equally across this country, but funding and institutions are not. We must do more, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right.
The Secretary of State said earlier that his revised plans to solve the cladding crisis would be published shortly. Will that be before the forthcoming recess? All long-suffering leaseholders in my area want for Christmas is finally to hear that they will not have to pay sums they do not have to fix a problem they are not responsible for.
Yes, I really do have to come back before Christmas with proposals. I cannot promise at this stage that they will relieve the burden on every leaseholder of every obligation, but we will do everything we can to help.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Is it related to these questions?
It is. The right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) referred to a priority levelling-up bid for Winnington bridge in my constituency, and too right, as this is much needed. How do I get it on the record that this is a joint bid, Mr Speaker? I am looking for your advice.
The best is answer is: what you have just done. It is on the record, and I think it was more a point of clarification than of order.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the omicron variant and the steps we are taking to keep our country safe. We have always known that a worrying new variant could be a threat to the progress that we have made as a nation. We are entering the winter in a strong position, thanks to the decisions we made in the summer and the defences we have built. Our vaccination programme has been moving at a blistering pace, and this weekend we reached the milestone of 17 million boosters across the UK. This means that even though cases have been rising, hospital admissions have fallen by a further 11% in the past week and deaths have fallen by 17%.
Just as the vaccination programme has shifted the odds in our favour, a worrying new variant has always had the opportunity to shift them back. Last week, I was alerted to what is now known as the omicron variant, which has now been designated a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation. We are learning more about this new variant all the time, but the latest indication is that it spreads very rapidly; it may impact the effectiveness of one of our major treatments for covid-19, Ronapreve; and, as the chief medical officer said this weekend, there is a reasonable chance that our current vaccines may be impacted.
I can update the House that there have now been five confirmed cases in England and six confirmed cases in Scotland. We expect cases to rise over the coming days. The new variant has been spreading around the world: confirmed cases have been reported in many more countries, including Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal.
In the race between the vaccines and the virus, the new variant may have given the virus extra legs, so our strategy is to buy ourselves time and strengthen our defences while our world-leading scientists learn more about this potential threat. On Friday, I updated the House on the measures we have put in place, including how, within hours, we had placed six countries in southern Africa on the travel red list. Today, I wish to update the House on more of the balanced and proportionate steps we are taking.
First, we are taking measures at the border to slow the incursion of the variant from abroad. On Saturday, in line with updated advice from the UK Health Security Agency, we acted quickly to add another four countries—Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia—to the travel red list. That means that anyone who is not a UK or Irish national or resident and who has been in any of those countries over the previous 10 days will be refused entry. Those who are allowed entry must isolate in a Government-approved facility for 10 days.
Beyond the red list, we are going further to put in place a proportionate testing regime for arrivals from all around the world. We will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after they arrive and to self-isolate until they have received a negative result. The relevant regulations have been laid before the House today and will come into effect at 4 am tomorrow.
Secondly, we have announced measures to slow the spread of the virus here in the UK. We are making changes to our rules on self-isolation for close contacts in England to reflect the greater threat that may be posed by the new variant. Close contacts of anyone who tests positive with a suspected case of omicron must self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated or not. Face coverings will be made compulsory in shops and on public transport in England unless an individual has a medical exemption.
The regulations on self-isolation and face coverings have been laid before the House today and will come into force at 4 am tomorrow. I can confirm to the House that there will be a debate and votes on the two measures, to give the House the opportunity to have its say and to perform valuable scrutiny. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will set out more details shortly. We will review all the measures I have set out today after three weeks to see whether they are still necessary.
Thirdly, we are strengthening the defences we have built against the virus. We are already in a stronger position than we were in when we faced the delta variant: we have a much greater capacity for testing, an enhanced ability for sequencing and the collective protection offered by 114 million jabs in arms. I wish to update the House on our vaccination programme. Our covid-19 vaccination programme has been a national success story. We have delivered more booster doses than anywhere else in Europe and given top-up jabs to more than one in three people over the age of 18 across the United Kingdom. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the NHS, the volunteers, the armed forces and everyone else who has been involved in this life-saving work.
Our vaccines remain our best line of defence against this virus in whatever form it attacks us. There is a lot that we do not know about how our vaccines will respond to this new variant, but, although it is possible that they may be less effective, it is highly unlikely that they will have no effectiveness at all against serious disease, so it is really important that we get as many jabs in arms as possible. Over the next few weeks, we were already planning to do 6 million booster jabs in England alone, but against the backdrop of this new variant we want to go further and faster.
I asked the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, the Government’s independent expert advisers on vaccinations, to urgently review how we could expand the programme, and whether we should reduce the gap between second doses and boosters. The JCVI published its advice in the last hour: first, it advised that the minimum dose interval for booster jabs should be halved from six months to three months; secondly, that the booster programme should be expanded to include all remaining adults aged 18 and above; thirdly, that these boosters should be offered by age group in a descending order to protect those who are most vulnerable to the virus—priority will be given to older adults and people over 16 who are at risk; fourthly, that severely immunosuppressed people aged 16 or above who have received three primary doses should now also be offered a booster dose; and finally, that children aged between 12 and 15 should be given a second dose 12 weeks from the first dose. I have accepted this advice in full. With this new variant on the offensive, these measures will protect more people more quickly and make us better protected as a nation. It represents a huge step up for our vaccination programme, almost doubling the number of people who will be able to get a booster dose to protect themselves and their loved ones.
I know that we are asking more from NHS colleagues who have already given so much throughout this crisis, but I also know that they will be up to the task. The NHS will be calling people forward at the appropriate time, so that those who are most vulnerable will be prioritised. I will be setting out more details of how we are putting this advice into action in the coming days.
Our fight against this virus is a global effort, so I will update the House on the part that the UK is playing. We currently hold the presidency of the G7, and, earlier today, I convened an urgent meeting of G7 Health Ministers to co-ordinate the international response. We were unanimous in our praise for the leadership shown by South Africa, which was so open and transparent about this new variant. We were resolute in our commitment to working closely with each other, the World Health Organisation and, of course, the wider international community to tackle this common threat.
Our experience of fighting this virus has shown us that it is best to act decisively and swiftly when we see a potential threat, which is why we are building our defences and putting these measures in place without delay. Scientists are working at speed, at home and abroad, to determine whether this variant is more dangerous. I can assure the House that if it emerges that this variant is no more dangerous than the delta variant, we will not keep measures in place for a day longer than necessary. Covid-19 is not going away, which means that we will keep seeing new variants emerge. If we want to live with the virus for the long-term, we must follow the evidence and act in a proportionate and responsible way if a variant has the potential to thwart our progress. As we do that, we are taking a well-rounded view, looking at the impact of these measures not just on the virus, but on the economy, on education, and on non-covid health, such as mental health. I am confident that these balanced and responsible steps are proportionate to the threat that we face.
This year, our nation has come so far down the road of recovery, but we always knew that there would be bumps in the road. This is not a time to waver, but a time to be vigilant and to think about what each and every one of us can do to slow the spread of this new variant—things such as getting a jab when the time comes, following the rules that we have put in place, and getting rapid, regular tests. If we all come together once again, then we can keep this virus at bay and protect the progress that we have made. I commend this statement to the House.
I start by sending my best wishes to the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), who cannot be here as he is off with covid; we all hope that he gets better soon.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. This variant is a wake-up call: the pandemic is not over. We need to act with speed to bolster our defences and keep the virus at bay. It is also an important reminder that no one is safe until all of us are safe. Ministers have not met the commitments that were made at the G7 this summer to get the vaccine rolled out to other parts of the globe. What update can the Secretary of State give on the Government’s global commitments?
Given that omicron is already here, what we do at home truly matters. There are measures that we can put in place right now to keep infections down and ensure that the country has the best possible protection. Will the Secretary of State set out the rationale for not introducing pre-departure testing? Surely that would be an effective way of preventing people with covid from travelling into our country.
We support the decision to introduce measures on masks on public transport and in shops, but we believe that those requirements should never have been abandoned in the first place. Keeping in place requirements for masks would always have been our plan A. Will the Secretary of State extend measures on the use of masks to hospitality and other settings, or does covid not spread in pubs? Most importantly, what is the plan to enforce mask wearing? Shop workers have given so much during the last 20 months, alongside our emergency services. Asking shop workers to enforce mask wearing is yet another pressure that they do not need and do not deserve.
If masks had been mandatory, it would have been harder for this new variant to spread. A global study published in The BMJ argued that face mask wearing can bring transmission down by as much as 53%. This Government’s flip-flopping on masks has created confusion across schools, colleges and universities, so will the Secretary of State today confirm the new requirements across all education settings? The Prime Minister is not the best person to tell people to wear masks, when he cannot even be bothered to wear one himself when he goes into a hospital full of vulnerable patients—and may I ask the Secretary of State when Conservative Back Benchers will start wearing their masks?
Will the Secretary of State update the House on when he expects there to be a decision on vaccinations for younger children? The Government have fallen far short of their own target to offer all 12 to 15-year-olds the vaccine by October half-term, so can he say what action will be taken to speed up vaccine roll-out?
Our NHS has done us proud, and has done a fantastic job of delivering the vaccine, offering first, second, third and booster jabs, all at the same time as treating patients who are suffering from covid and trying to recover when it comes to elective procedures. I thank everyone who works in our NHS and care sector. We are putting even more demands on them at the moment. Our NHS has stepped up to the challenge; it is a shame that this Government simply have not.
Among those with mental illnesses, vaccine rates are low and mortality rates high. The Government need to stop weaponising mental health, and must instead recognise that good, clear, honest communication, which they have failed to have so far, is so important in a crisis. I know that I have mentioned this time and again, but the Government must acknowledge the trauma for people with severe covid and long covid, and for NHS staff, so where is their plan?
Labour has been clear throughout this pandemic that proper sick pay will help people to isolate. The Government have chosen to ignore us time and again, so I ask again: what support will be available to people who need to self-isolate? Is not this the time to finally fix sick pay? I would appreciate it if the Secretary of State updated the House on the new antivirals and how they will be used. Why are the Government not already giving antibody tests to the immunocompromised? The situation we find ourselves in was entirely predictable. Yet again, this Government have shown that they are incapable of protecting our communities, protecting our NHS and saving lives.
I, too, extend my best wishes to the shadow Health Secretary and wish him a speedy recovery.
I have to say that I think the hon. Lady has misjudged the tone of the House. This is a very serious matter. The whole country will be looking for all Members of this House to work together and support the nation. Surely she is not blaming the UK Government for the emergence of the new variant. Perhaps she was just auditioning for the reshuffle that is going on in her party right now.
The hon. Lady asked about international donations. The UK is leading the world on international donations—quite rightly. It is absolutely right that that be treated as a priority. We would like to see other countries step up as well. A few months back, the Prime Minister pledged 100 million donations by June 2022, 80% of which will go through COVAX, of which we are a huge supporter; 20% will be made bilaterally. So far, we have donated over 20 million doses—more than many other countries. COVAX, which we helped found, and which we support, has donated, I believe, some 537 million doses to 144 countries.
The hon. Lady asked about the rules on travel and masks, and other rules that I set out. I think I have addressed that. I believe that the measures are proportionate, and that this is a balanced response. We have just set out a huge expansion of the vaccine roll-out programme, and it is a shame that the hon. Lady could not find it in herself to welcome that. As I said, I will set out more details in coming days on exactly how we intend to meet the requirement to vaccinate more.
On antivirals, we are one of few countries in the world to have procured the two leading antivirals. Our independent regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, was the first in the world to approve one of those antivirals. I am pleased with the over 700,000 courses that we have for citizens across the United Kingdom, but of course, given the emergence of the new variant, we will be reviewing that and seeing if more needs to be done.
The late Donald Rumsfeld coined the phrase, “known unknowns”, and that is what we face with the new omicron virus. The Secretary of State is therefore absolutely right to take sensible and proportionate measures to buy time while we wait to understand how dangerous this new variant can be, but does he not agree that the fact that we face this danger is a symptom of the failure of western countries to make sure that vaccines are distributed adequately around the world? I recognise the enormous contribution that the UK has made through COVAX, the development of the AstraZeneca vaccine and so on, but is it not a moral and practical failure that while richer countries have managed to vaccinate 60% of their populations, for poorer countries the figure is just 3%?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his support. I agree with his words. It is important that all rich countries do everything they can to support the donation of vaccines to developing countries. I set out earlier what the UK has done, and we can be proud of that, but we need other countries to step up. In the G7 meeting I chaired earlier today with Health Ministers, we all agreed on the importance of this, and about redoubling efforts to make sure that all commitments are met.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, and I add my own thanks for the work that the NHS does and continues to do in all parts of these islands to keep us all healthy and safe. The emergence of omicron, including the six cases in Scotland, along with the evidence of community transmission, shows that this is absolutely no time to be complacent. For all the measures being taken at the border, with day two PCR testing, we risk missing a number of cases as they cross the border because of the incubation period. Surely a more effective approach would be to introduce day eight PCR testing, accompanied by eight days of isolation—and surely it would be better to do that now, than to be bounced into doing that by events further down the line.
Secondly, the Secretary of State issues a call for us all to work together, and I am sure we all wish to be able to do that, but does he share my disappointment that when the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales today called for a Cobra meeting to be convened, that possibility appeared to have been dismissed out of hand already? Will the Secretary of State prevail on the Prime Minister to convene and attend an urgent Cobra meeting involving all four nations, so that people might be persuaded that he is on top of this development, as we would all expect him to be?
Finally, does the Secretary of State agree with the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, the Chair of the Select Committee and me that the emergence of this variant shows that none of us is safe until all of us are safe? However much is being done, and however much the UK has done to date, more still needs to be done to achieve as close to 100% global vaccination as possible, including through the vaccination programmes we are in, and by increasing global vaccine production and overcoming the barriers that patent law might place in the way of our achieving that.
First, on the hon. Gentleman’s question on day two testing, we believe that the day two testing requirement for international travel is the proportionate response. He will know that it applies to all arrivals to the UK, and that the individual would have to self-isolate until they got a negative test result, and I think that is the right response.
In terms of meetings and the UK nations working together, that has been one of the successes of the UK’s response to the pandemic. The way that nations across the UK have worked together, especially on vaccines, testing, surveillance and antivirals, shows that we are stronger together.
Sir Andrew Pollard, who developed the Oxford vaccine, predicted in June to my Select Committee that new variants would escape the vaccines by being more infectious, but said that protection against severe illness should continue. Will my right hon. Friend avoid taking any panic measures if we see a rise in infections in the weeks ahead, as seems inevitable, and concentrate instead on the vaccine’s effectiveness against severe illness and hospitalisation?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I said in my statement, even in the case of the dominant delta variant, we have seen some rises in infections, but also falls in hospitalisation and death rates, thankfully. The reason for that is the power of the vaccines, and especially our booster programme, which is the largest in Europe. He is absolutely right: with the new variant, as we look ahead, what matters more than anything is hospitalisations.
The second line in the Secretary of State’s statement was:
“We have always known that a worrying new variant could be a threat to the progress that we have made as a nation.”
With that in mind, does he think it was wrong for the Government to abandon mask wearing in public places and confined spaces? Will he listen to the recommendations of Doreen Lawrence’s report and start to issue full-face protection masks to care workers and health workers?
Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that if we had had different rules on masks over the summer, this variant would not have emerged.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to pay tribute to the South African Government for raising the existence of the omicron variant, which resulted in their having a travel ban imposed. I have constituents—and, in fact, a family member—stuck in South Africa. For how long does he expect cancellations and suspensions of flights to occur? It is a worrying time for anyone stuck overseas.
First, I join my right hon. Friend in again expressing thanks to the South African Government for how they have handled this difficult situation. I understand her point about her constituents. Many of us will have constituents in a similar position. It is hard to say when direct flights might start. We have started our hotel booking programme, which is one part of trying to get our citizens back, but we will do everything we can to support them in that way.
We have quite rightly praised the South African doctor, but she saw her patient face to face. What advice, guidance or instruction will the Secretary of State give to GPs? I know that my constituents are keen to see their GPs face to face, which may be more effective than Test and Trace.
The right hon. Lady asks an important question. One thing that we are doing is updating guidance throughout the NHS, including for primary care.
The Secretary of State said in his statement about the legislation that he has laid before the House—incidentally, it is not yet available on legislation.gov.uk for Members to study—that close contacts of anyone who tests positive with a suspected case of omicron must self-isolate for 10 days regardless of whether they have been vaccinated. First, will he confirm that that is in the regulations? Secondly, for the benefit of the House, will he set out what he did yesterday in television studios: the mechanism by which the omicron variant will be identified and communicated to people contacted by Test and Trace, so that we all know how it will work? It is more complicated than the system that we have had to date.
I can confirm that the new regulation on close contact will be anyone who is a close contact of someone with a confirmed positive case of suspected omicron. The UKHSA is working at speed on the best ways to determine a suspected case. One way is the so-called S-gene drop-out test, but there are other quick ways to ascertain that. The tracing work will be carried out by Test and Trace.
It is often said that how a society treats its most vulnerable is a measure of its humanity, yet a quarter of the clinically extremely vulnerable have yet to receive their third primary dose because of confusion that persists about the third primary dose and the booster. One in five of the clinically extremely vulnerable are still shielding without any Government guidance or support. For them, the uncertainty of the new variant is terrifying. Will the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers please meet me and patient groups to discuss our five-point plan on how we can protect the clinically extremely vulnerable this winter?
The vaccines Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup), is meeting patient groups this week and she is also happy to meet the hon. Lady.
May I join others in welcoming the well-judged and rapid action this weekend as well as the acceleration of boosters, including the new provision of a mass vaccination this weekend in Newmarket? Existing vaccinations—including boosters—are effective against all known major variants before omicron, but will the Secretary of State set out plans for a variant vaccine, should that be needed in the worst-case scenario?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his support. The UK has been supporting a new vaccines programme largely thanks to his efforts when he was in my position. That work continues. If it is necessary to procure new vaccines that we believe are safe and effective and will help with the new variant, we will do so.
Gordon Brown said yesterday that the chief medical officer urgently needs to teach the Prime Minister “some basic medical facts”, and I would say that that could probably be extended to some of those on the Government Back Benches as well, meaning that we are not going to stop the threat of variants—
Why don’t you learn food mechanics then?
Order. Mr Shelbrooke, I thought you might have been going on the NATO delegation, and I do not want to hear that you have missed out on it.
We are not going to stop the threat of variants derailing our progress until we vaccinate the world. Our country has enough vaccine to give at least three doses to everybody, yet of the 100 million doses that were pledged by the Prime Minister to the world’s poorest, less than 10% have actually been delivered. Can the Secretary of State tell us if the PM will meet his ambition to help vaccinate the world by the end of 2021, or is that yet another broken promise with catastrophic consequences?
I said earlier that, out of the 100 million commitment that the UK has made to international donations, over 20 million have already gone and been delivered, and another 10 million are about to go.
The return of PCR testing will be met with some apprehension by the international travel sector, which has just been getting back on its feet, but it will at least be cheered by the Secretary of State’s statement that we will not keep measures in place for a day longer than is necessary. Can I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that the providers of PCR tests are those that will actually give accurate, good-value testing back to the public, and that we will not see some of the issues that arose over the summer repeat themselves?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I know he rightly takes a close interest in this; we do want to minimise any impact on our excellent transport and travel sector. He is right to raise the importance of making sure that PCR tests are available, the pricing is correct and the Government website where providers are listed is properly monitored so that anyone who breaks the rules is delisted.
Although the measures taken so far are welcome, now that we have community transmission of omicron in Brentwood and in Scotland, we need more protective interventions. Mask wearing can obviously play an important part, so can the Secretary of State say whether he agrees with the call from the British Medical Association to extend it to all indoor and enclosed settings? Will he also consider measures to increase ventilation in enclosed settings, encourage working from home and give proper sick pay to those who need to isolate?
I think we have been clear about why we have set out the new rules on masks, and I think our response is the proportionate one. The hon. Lady is right to raise the importance of ventilation. That is why it is very clear in the guidelines, and many places are following that. When it comes to sick pay, it is right that we have kept the rules in place that allow people, should they test positive or have to self-isolate, to claim sick pay from day one.
If the situation deteriorates—we all hope it will not, but if it does—please can the Government do everything possible not to shut down the hospitality and events sector again? The livelihoods of millions of people depend on it, and they are just getting back on their feet. Please, let us not knock them down again.
I agree absolutely with my right hon. Friend.
The emergence of omicron is not really much of a surprise; it is more a case of when, not if. Anecdotal evidence from South Africa suggests that, while it may be more infectious, the potency seems to be more limited. Of particular concern are the mutations to the spike protein in two specific areas, so what action are the Government taking to put in additional resources to adjuvant therapy development, especially given the impact on monoclonal antibody therapies and the vaccine, and what is the status of genomic surveillance in the UK at present?
First, I think it is fair to say that our genomics surveillance has never been so strong. It was getting stronger even before the pandemic, but because of the pandemic, there has been a huge amount of investment, and it has paid off UK-wide. On the treatments, there is some concern about this new variant and Ronapreve, which is one of the key monoclonal antibodies that we use for treatment, but it is just concern at this point; there is no particular evidence. However, part of the reason for taking these measures is to buy the time we need—two to three weeks—to give our scientists time to assess the risk of this variant properly.
First, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the early reports from South Africa that the variant may actually lead to less severe illness than the previous variants? Secondly, I welcome the fact that we will have both a debate and vote tomorrow on these regulations, but would it not be better if we had the debate and the vote before the restrictions come into force, rather than after?
I believe that right after my statement the Leader of the House will be making a statement about the debate and vote tomorrow.
On the severity, there are reports, as my hon. Friend has said, but it is early days and we are looking into them, talking with our South African friends and getting more details. It is worth pointing out the difference in age profile and demographics: in South Africa, people with covid are on average younger, and we are taking that into account as well.
The Secretary of State set out the booster programme for the vaccines in his statement but has not mentioned what steps he will be taking to support those areas where take-up of the vaccine is still very low: what additional resources will be provided to those areas?
That is an important point and the hon. Lady is right to raise it. We estimate that 5 million people across the UK have not even taken up the offer of their first dose of the vaccine, putting themselves and their loved ones at great risk. A lot of work has been done over the past few months and it is bearing results: we are seeing ever more people coming forward, especially in the past few weeks. Indeed, many came forward this weekend, perhaps out of concern about the new variant. A lot of work is being done with community leaders, and there is an existing communications campaign but a new one will start imminently.
Over the last few months there has been a useful control experiment on face coverings, given the different policies pursued in Scotland and England. What estimate has the Secretary of State made of the result? It is mumbo-jumbo, isn’t it?
If my right hon. Friend is suggesting that there are mixed views on the efficacy of face coverings in helping to fight the pandemic he would be right, but I would point him to UK work by Public Health England—published, if I remember correctly, last month—referring to a number of reports setting out how in certain settings face coverings could help.
What urgent action is being taken to vaccinate people who are bed-bound?
For those who are bed-bound, home-bound or vulnerable for other reasons and who cannot make it to vaccination centres, vaccinations are primarily carried out by GPs. I do not have the numbers of how many have been done, but recently to encourage more people to be vaccinated more quickly we changed the GP payment system, which seems to have helped as well.
The Opposition often call for more restrictions, but it was the relaxation of restrictions this summer, which the Government took under scientific advice, that has put Britain in a good position prior to the emergence of this variant. While I welcome the statement and the proportionate precautionary measures the Secretary of State has taken today, will he assure me and the House that this is a temporary measure, and that when we get more information and have bought more time, we will get new measures to react to that information?
Yes, I am very happy to give that assurance to my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right that this is all about buying a bit of time that our scientists need to assess this variant properly and to determine what it really is and whether we should really be worried about it or not. He is also right to point out that we took measures in the summer removing almost all domestic rules and controls and that they turned out to be absolutely the right measures. Many of my counterparts in Europe now believe they should have taken a similar route, but I remember that all those measures were opposed by the Labour party.
Immuno-compromised people continue to be worried: many still do not know whether the vaccination works on them. The OCTAVE—Observational Cohort Trial-T-cells Antibodies and Vaccine Efficacy in SARS-CoV-2—study showed that around 150,000 people potentially have reduced or no antibody response, but OCTAVE-DUO is not due to report until early next year. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the immunocompromised population has access to antibody tests, thus allowing them to know their level of protection? Will he ensure that those with little or no protection have the support they need to stay safe?
Yes, of course. We want to make sure that we are helping people who are immunosuppressed in every way possible, including with access to any tests that might be clinically required. The hon. Lady may have noted that in the JCVI advice that I referred to, there is a recommendation, which we have accepted, that those who are immunosuppressed and are able to benefit from the vaccine to some extent should be offered a booster dose on top of the third primary dose. The antivirals are also very important for that group of vulnerable people, and it is good that the UK has procured them.
Will the Secretary of State, on behalf of the Government, reassure me that the Foreign Office and its consular service will be doing all they can? I am already receiving calls from Islanders stuck in southern Africa who are worried about their ability to get back.
Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We have been working closely with colleagues in the Foreign Office, and that will remain vital work so that we can help people—UK citizens or Irish citizens—who might be stuck abroad to come back.
Given the change to the rules for booster vaccinations announced by the JCVI this afternoon, how long does the Secretary of State think it will be before all the people between 18 and 40 who have had their first and second jabs can come forward and receive the booster jab, so that as much of the population as possible is protected?
First, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that we have already done 17 million, which is almost one third of the adult population. That is more than any other country in Europe. However, he is right to ask how quickly we can do those who will become newly eligible. I will have to come back to the House and set out details about how we intend to meet this advice. The advice was received very quickly from the JCVI over the weekend; it did stellar work to turn it around so quickly. I have already asked the NHS about operationalising it. We are not quite there yet, but we will be very shortly, and I will set that out.
None of us underplayed the threat of any new variant. As my right hon. Friend has said today, covid is not going to go away. It is not; it is here for the rest of our lives. The country is learning to live with the disease, which is the only way forward. Will he please reassure me, the House and the country that he will never, ever go back to locking this country down?
No one wants to see those kinds of measures. I agree with my hon. Friend that covid is with us to stay and we need to learn to live with it. I think the best way we can do that is with the primary form of defence that we have, which is our vaccination programme. I hope he agrees that we are absolutely right to basically put the booster programme on steroids, because that will really help us.
One of the most covid-vulnerable settings in the country is school classrooms. Children have a much lower vaccination rate than adults, and children come from all over communities to one place and then return to families in the afternoon. Masks are being returned to corridors, but they are not being returned to classrooms. I take no pleasure in advising the Secretary of State to make children wear masks in classrooms. However, it is absolutely clear what the stakes will be if we get this wrong. Students have already been absent from schools in their hundreds of thousands this term, and we are approaching the exam season. If we just act cautiously in the next few days, exams will be able to be sat as normal; if we get this wrong, exams will be wrecked for the third year running. That will play havoc with students’ futures, and it will play havoc with teachers and their ability to get the job done on behalf of our country.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Department for Education today set out fresh guidance on masks in communal areas—
Not in classrooms.
Not in classrooms. I think what the Government have set out is the right approach. In terms of protecting children from the pandemic, the vaccination programme for children—especially secondary school children—is important. I think over 40% of 12 to 15-year-olds have been vaccinated. That has certainly increased since we opened up the national booking system to that cohort. I think the figure for 16 and 17-year-olds is almost 60% now, but we continue to work on it.
My right hon. Friend has outlined the Government response to the emergence of the omicron variant and the restrictions he wishes to place on the public. This House will quite rightly have a vote on those measures. He has also stated that the measures will be reviewed in three weeks’ time. He knows that in three weeks’ time this House will be in recess. How will there be parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s review measures, or will we be having Government by diktat?
The review should take place as soon as possible. That is how the Government determined the three weeks. Unless Parliament was called back from recess or the Government took longer than three weeks, I think the approach the Government have set out is the right one.
The Secretary of State says that rich countries must do everything they can to ensure more vaccines reach the global south. Judging by his actions, he means doing everything except the main thing those countries are actually asking for: waiving intellectual property rules at the World Trade Organisation so they can manufacture vaccines themselves. This is about justice, not charity. Will he admit that his Government’s failure to work with the vast majority of countries in the world, including the United States which does support a TRIPS—trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights agreement—waiver, is endangering us all? When will he start putting the need to end the pandemic in front of the financial interests of big pharma?
I heard what the hon. Lady had to say, but the UK does not believe that waiving patent rights and intellectual property rights on these vaccines would be helpful. It would certainly mean that in the future there would be a huge disincentive for pharmaceutical companies to come forward and help the world with their technology.
I say to the Secretary of State that injecting people, not just in this country but around the world, is a huge logistical undertaking. I believe that in India nasal vaccines are used for the administration of the flu vaccine. Please can the Government bring forward nasal vaccines? We did it in nine months for an injectable vaccine—March 2020 to December 2020. It is now nearly December 2021 and there is still no nasal vaccine, despite high levels of efficacy being proven in trials.
My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of vaccine delivery mechanisms. If there was an approved nasal vaccine delivery mechanism, it would be helpful. He will understand that we have to allow the regulators the time to assess new delivery mechanisms, but we do take this very seriously.
I wholeheartedly agree that no one is safe until we are all safe, and the UK and other G7 countries need to take some responsibility for the emergence of this variant. I just wanted to touch on the fact that we already have community spread of this variant. If we are to contain it, we must ensure that contact tracing is relevant and as widespread as possible. Can the Secretary of State confirm—I have asked him about this in the last few weeks—that the contain outbreak management fund will be extended beyond March; that those places that do not have it will have it; and that those that have already spent it will be properly resourced?
The hon. Lady makes an important point about contact tracing. On the contain outbreak management fund, especially given the emergence of this variant, we are actively reviewing it.
I welcome the widening of the booster programme that the Secretary of State announced, but my constituents still have no walk-in access in Winchester. I would therefore really appreciate his help with that, on behalf of the increasing number of constituents who are contacting me.
The measures we will be asked to approve tomorrow night will likely appear rather small in and of themselves, but the Secretary of State knows that the wider impact of the past few days is absolutely huge. Nativity plays have been cancelled or moved online—these are moments that we just do not get back—and community events are being cancelled just in case. The Prime Minister said this lunchtime that if you are boosted, we know your response to this variant is strong. What evidence base is that drawn from, and when might we reasonably expect data from the scientists on how, if at all, the variant hits vaccine efficacy?
First, I noted what my hon. Friend said about walk-in access in Hampshire, so I will take that away and get back to him. Secondly, he is right to talk about the impact of these measures. Although I believe that they are right, proportionate and balanced, we must never forget the impact that they have on individuals and their daily lives. That is why they must be removed the moment it is safe to remove them. In terms of when we will have more data, we have set a three-week review point because that is the time when we believe that we will have more information—not just the information that we will have come up with, but information through our international counterparts.
I thank the Secretary of State and his team for all they do to combat covid-19 in the UK. This has an effect on Northern Ireland; the Northern Ireland Health Minister said yesterday that Northern Ireland will follow the guidance that comes from Westminster. With that in mind, having heard a leading Northern Ireland scientist say this week that he believes that the current vaccination and booster roll-out will have an effect on the new variant, will the Secretary of State assure us that any and all curtailments, such as those faced by the travel industry, will be proportionate and scientific, taking into account transmission and the seriousness of the new covid variant?
Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.
As someone who, very thankfully, received his booster jab last Thursday at the outstanding St Thomas’ Hospital, may I ask the Secretary of State why certain groups and communities seem to fear vaccination? Which are those groups and communities, and what can be done to persuade them that they are wrong?
There are many communities where vaccine take-up is lower than others. That has particularly been the case in the black African community in Britain and in some other black and minority ethnic communities—that has improved significantly over the past two to three months. The same is also the case in many other European countries and the US. A huge amount of work is being done through community leaders and communication campaigns, and by offering access to the vaccine in as many different ways as possible to encourage take-up.