House of Commons
Wednesday 15 December 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:
Critical Benchmarks (References and Administrators’ Liability) Act 2021
Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) 2021
Armed Forces Act 2021.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Renewable Energy Generation
I regularly discuss issues of importance to Scotland with Ministers, including support for Scotland’s renewable energy sector. Our recently published net zero strategy will leverage up to £90 billion of private investment by 2030 across the entire UK.
Edinburgh based Nova Innovation is a success story in the tidal energy sector. There are plans for tidal energy schemes across the UK, including in the Liverpool city region, with the Mersey tidal barrage. Thanks in large part to the Labour party and the industry, £20 million is now available in the contracts for difference scheme, after years when there was nothing. Will the Minister commit to long-term support for the tidal energy industry, which has so much potential in Scotland, for my constituents in Merseyside and across the UK?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point to contracts for difference, the fourth round of which was announced at the beginning of this week and is bigger than the other three rounds put together. Scotland has punched above her weight, securing 21% of the capacity in the previous rounds, and stands well placed—not just in tidal, but right across the spectrum of renewable energy. We are funding this in the short and long term.
The British Government have not backed the Acorn carbon capture and storage cluster, which is vital to Scotland’s path to net zero, but are maintaining support for the Cambo oilfield, which would dig up more fossil fuels for years to come. Does the Minister agree that the priority should always be supporting renewable energy generation, not fossil fuels?
The hon. Gentleman paints a misleading picture of the support that we are giving. I have just outlined to the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) the long-term support that we are providing to the renewables sector. It is wrong to say that we are not backing Acorn. There was a competitive round for two carbon capture and storage schemes. Acorn was a good project; it is a reserved project. We continue to work with it to ensure that it has a fighting chance of securing the next tranche of the carbon capture and storage schemes.
I welcome the remarks made by my hon. Friend with regard to Acorn in my constituency, which is still very much on the table, despite protestations from Opposition Members. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government also provide the oil and gas industry with vital support for the energy transition through the North sea transition deal?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. I pay tribute to the tireless work that he does to champion the energy sector, both as a Minister and as a local Member. He is absolutely right; yes, we need to transition to renewable, but we have to be aware of the fact that we will need oil and gas during that transition period—not just for energy, but for the all the other purposes for which fossil fuels are required, such as the production of medicine.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The post-COP26 message is that Governments have little time to act on climate change. As the Secretary of State is aware, the Acorn carbon capture and storage project has not been given the go-ahead by the UK Government, but it could create 15,000 highly skilled jobs in Scotland and demonstrate that a just transition is feasible. The shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), wrote to the First Minister to encourage her to find a joint solution, but the reply contained more reasons not to work together and grievances than finding a solution for the project. Rather than the UK and Scottish Governments trading insults, will the Secretary of State back the Acorn project by finding a joint funding solution with the Scottish Government?
I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position. I look forward to our debates in the weeks and months ahead. I can advise her that she should probably not be too surprised when letters from the Scottish Government are full of grievances—that is par for the course. On Acorn, we do support the scheme. There was a competitive bidding round, where it placed third. It is a reserved project, and we are working with it to ensure that it stands a good chance in the next tranche of the carbon capture and storage scheme.
Alongside renewable energy, we need to accept our current energy mix with the energy transition. Does the Minister therefore share my anger at the Scottish Government’s complete dismissal of the Cambo oilfield, at the expense of oil and gas workers in Scotland and across the country?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I said a minute ago, we cannot just switch off oil and gas immediately. We want a transition, and this Government are investing significantly, with £160 million in floating wind farms, £20 million for tidal stream and the £285 million next round of contracts for difference, but it is important that we do not lose our domestic oil and gas supply not only for energy, but for the whole range of purposes, including medicine and other vital products.
Standards Impropriety: The Union
We remain focused on delivering for Scotland within a strong United Kingdom. This can be seen by the scale of our investment, with more than £191 million of UK Government funding being invested directly in community projects across Scotland. This is real devolution in action.
People in Scotland have rejected the Tories for the past 50 years. We decisively rejected the Prime Minister’s Brexit projects, and we rejected them once again at the last election. Some 65% of people in Scotland say that the Prime Minister is totally corrupt and 65% of people in Scotland also believe he should resign. Given that this coincides with a surge in independence, with more than half of the population in Scotland now supporting independence and the Scottish National party, does the Secretary of State agree that the corruption of the UK Government is driving Scots away from the Union? If he were truly interested in saving the Union, should he not be joining the rest of us in calling for the PM’s resignation?
I will stick to the question, which is what we are doing to deliver for the people of Scotland, and I am delighted to answer that question. I will give the hon. Gentleman one example: with the Union connectivity review, there are huge opportunities to improve transport links between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and I am dismayed that Members on the Opposition Benches refuse to support that.
May I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), who has left the shadow Scotland team and been significantly demoted in my view to the ministry of fun? I thank him for everything he did in that role. I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). I do not know what she did in her previous life to deserve it, but she will, as the House has already seen this morning, be wonderful in her new role on the shadow Scotland team, and we welcome her very much.
Every day, there are more and more revelations about the Prime Minister and this Government breaking their own lockdown rules. It truly is one rule for them and one for the rest of us. As the country cancelled Christmas last year, the Prime Minister had a party or three. The Government have lost all moral authority to lead this country, with scandal, sleaze and cronyism writ large. The Scottish Conservative leader was asked three times in the media at the weekend whether he could think of any positive attribute for the PM, and even he could not answer. Can the Secretary of State think of any positive attribute for the Prime Minister? Can he tell me any reason why this morally bankrupt Prime Minister is not a bigger threat to the Union than any nationalist?
Absolutely, without any difficulty, I can. The Prime Minister is a man of optimism, he is a man of vision and he is a man who delivered the trade deal running up to Christmas last year when no one said he could. He showed courage. He showed foresight in investing in the vaccine development, and he has gone on to deliver the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his reading ability, and I notice that he did not use the word “honesty”—there’s a surprise. I know the Secretary of State has cancelled his own Christmas party this year, so I look forward to seeing the photographs from it in the press shortly.
A major strength of the Union is of course the pooling and sharing of resources. The First Minister has announced a raft of new covid guidance this week that has devastated the hospitality trade. At the same time, she has offered pitiful financial support and criticised the UK Government for not providing funds. Such sectors want our two Governments to work together: they need our help. A hospitality business in my constituency sent me an email last night, saying:
“my customers have been driven away so we won’t survive these latest restrictions without government support. We always need a good festive season to see us through the winter. Where is the financial support?”
Why can the UK and Scottish Governments not work together to provide the financial support that these hospitality businesses deserve and need?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very serious point. Hospitality is under a lot of pressure across the United Kingdom, not least in Scotland. The Treasury announced yesterday afternoon, just ahead of the First Minister’s statement, that we were giving the Scottish Government certainty over their finances, and that is the first point I would make. What the Scottish Government have failed to do is set out what measures they believe are right for Scotland and how much these would cost, and that is an important thing to understand. They have also failed to explain how they cannot afford to act on their own, given that they have a record settlement this year of over £41 billion of block grant—the highest block grant settlement in real terms since devolution began.
Following on from the shadow Secretary of State, could I ask the Secretary of State whether he was invited to any of these parties in Downing Street and whether he had any knowledge of these parties?
If the hon. Lady had been at the Scottish Affairs Committee last Monday, when I was one of the witnesses—or if she had read the briefing from that—she would know that I was asked that question by the Chairman, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), and I answered very clearly that, first, I had no knowledge of the parties, and secondly, I was not at any of them.
I am sorry for the floundering social life of the Secretary of State, but if I could, I will move on to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) made. We talk about the Prime Minister’s vision, but does that vision not go against what the majority of people in Scotland voted for, given that they are against Brexit, the majority are against the Prime Minister and they are against the Conservatives? So is it not the case that the best chance this Prime Minister has of saving the Union and rebuilding trust in our covid response is by resigning?
You are right, Mr Speaker. I would say again to the hon. Lady, if we are talking about majorities, that the First Minister failed to get a majority in May. Let us be clear that less than a third of Scots voted for her in May. Our focus, and the Prime Minister’s focus, is on fighting this pandemic and then recovery from this pandemic, and on bringing forward great things for Scotland, such as the Union connectivity review, freeports and investing directly with local authorities structural funds.
Cross-border Transport Connectivity
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about cross-border connectivity. Sir Peter Hendy’s report, published last month, covers a wide range of solutions spanning all transport modes across the United Kingdom. We will take time to consider carefully all the recommendations in the report, and we will publish our response in the new year.
Investing in zero-emission technologies is essential for future public transport connections. Scotland, as well as other parts of the country, is of course an important manufacturing base for buses. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the Government are working hard to ensure that British manufacturing leads the way in fulfilling our world-leading commitments to introduce zero-emission buses?
I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. We remain committed to supporting the introduction of 4,000 zero-emission buses and to achieving a zero-emission bus fleet. I think I am right in saying that transport is now the biggest single contributor in this country to carbon emissions, so it is absolutely right that we back our domestic industry to help deliver these zero-emission buses.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Can I ask the Minister this question? Now that the bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland has been laid to bed at long last, can the Minister indicate what will be done to improve the roads from Larne to Stranraer and further on, because it is important for us in Northern Ireland, where we have tourism and we have business, that the roads are up to a certain standard? What has been done to improve those?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important question. The thinking behind the connectivity review is that we look at transport connections right across the UK. The A75 from Stranraer and Cairnryan to the motorway network is in desperate need of an upgrade, and that was one of the central recommendations of Sir Peter’s report. We absolutely see that as an important corridor.
Oil and Gas Sector
My ministerial colleagues and I regularly discuss oil and gas with fellow Government Ministers and stakeholders. The oil and gas industry is hugely important to north-east Scotland, and most recently the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my noble Friend Lord Offord attended the North Sea Transition Forum, alongside the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change, regulators, and representatives from the oil and gas industry.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. In the transition period to our net-zero future, we will still need oil and gas for domestic use. What role does the Secretary of State see for UK domestic production to meet that need, because the Scottish economy is well poised to deliver it?
My hon. Friend is right: we will continue to need oil and gas as we transition to net zero. Developing our own supplies reduces reliance on imports that are produced to less rigorous environmental standards. It will also protect jobs in our oil and gas sector during our transition. Comments by the Scottish Government on this have been, by turn, disgraceful and depressing. As Sir Ian Wood, one of the most respected authorities in the industry said, those Scottish Government Ministers are creating an “adverse investment environment”, to which I would add only this: careless talk costs livelihoods.
Is the Secretary of State aware of the evidence given to the Scottish Parliament’s Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee by Professor Stuart Haszeldine, who said that there was no advantage to the Acorn project having been given reserve bidder status, as that merely means “a lot of meetings”, and requires companies to
“run on the spot with very little or no funding”?
Is the professor wrong in his assessment, and if so, would the right hon. Gentleman be good enough to tell us why?
Acorn is the reserve for this round, and we would like it to be expedited in the next wave. We have met many of the stakeholders involved in the project, and they have agreed that if we can accelerate it to 2023, they can improve the bid and the Government can include it in the next wave. That is very much our focus.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the complete abandonment of north-east oil and gas workers by the First Minister of Scotland is an absolute disgrace? She did not call for an end just to Cambo; it was to all further exploration in the North sea. Will the Secretary of State confirm that this Government stand full square behind the industry and workers in the north-east, unlike the Scottish Government?
I would add that the remark of the First Minister’s Minister, the Green party MSP, who said that only “hard-right extremists” want to explore oil, was also disgraceful. Even when we get to 2050, we will need oil for 20% of our power, and we will need gas for 15%, and for producing blue hydrogen. We will need that oil not just for power, but for important things such as the petrochemicals industry and for making instruments for the NHS. It is ridiculous to think that we can just turn off the taps and not destroy our economy.
This is not just about what we extract from the North sea; it is also about what we put back in. That is why the Acorn project is fundamental. The Secretary of State mentioned Sir Ian Wood and his views on the oil and gas sector, but he will also be cognisant of Sir Ian Wood’s views about his Government’s decision to turn their back on Acorn. Will the Secretary of State finally admit to regretting the decision of his colleagues?
I have discussed this matter with Sir Ian Wood, and I do not think the hon. Gentleman reflects his views fairly. Sir Ian Wood understands and agrees with us that the bid can be improved. To be clear, the difference between Acorn and Humberside, Teesside and Merseyside, was that Humberside, Teesside and Merseyside have a huge hinterland of industrial carbon. Acorn was bringing the carbon from all parts of the UK and/or Europe to make the bid work. We are working on how to get more industrial carbon into the project, to make it more viable and to expedite it for 2023.
My office and I have regular discussions with the Ministry of Defence on all matters relating to defence in Scotland, including the latest plans to modernise and restructure the Army. I was pleased that the review included plans for the Army to expand its footprint in Scotland; it is going from six to seven units, and Scotland will have a greater proportion of the Army than today.
While I have the opportunity, I would also like to thank our fantastic British armed forces who are currently supporting the booster programme in Scotland. The Secretary of State for Defence announced yesterday that a further 100 military personnel will support the vital booster campaign, and today the MOD has announced that another 80 medics are going to three NHS boards in Scotland. That means that over 400 military personnel are supporting Scotland’s health services.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the “Future Soldier” paper shows just how important defence is to Scotland and Scotland is to the defence of the UK and our allies, and does he share my enthusiasm that it delivers £355 million-worth of investment in the Army estate in Scotland?
Absolutely. Scotland plays a vital role in the defence of the UK. The Army’s future soldier restructuring programme is great news for Scotland. Not only will it deliver £355 million of investment in the Army’s Scottish estate, as my hon. Friend pointed out, but Scotland will gain a major unit and, as I said, we will see a greater proportion of the British Army in Scotland.
Soldiers from Scotland have had a central role in the armed forces over many centuries, from the charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo, to the western front, to helping roll out our vaccine programme. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that that proud central role will continue as strongly as ever in Scotland following any restructuring?
Under the future soldier review, the Army’s footprint in Scotland will be stronger than ever, recognising the immense contribution that Scottish servicemen and women make to the British Army. I am pleased that Scottish troops will continue the tradition, and they will lead the new Ranger Regiment, deploying alongside partner forces to counter extremist organisations and hostile state threats.
Scottish Economy: Support
The Budget and the spending review provide the largest annual block grant to the devolved Administration in Scotland since the Scotland Act 1998. Throughout the pandemic we have provided significant support, including through our furlough and self-employment schemes and additional support to businesses, on top of an extra £14.5 billion for the Scottish Government. We are also investing in new local infrastructure and regeneration projects through the levelling-up fund and community ownership fund, alongside the existing £1.5 billion investment in Scottish city and growth deals.
The Scottish Budget last week should have marked the start of an ambitious recovery plan for Scotland, but instead it is a missed opportunity that will not deliver the recovery Scotland needs. Similarly, the UK Government’s Budget offered tax cuts for bankers on business class flights but nowhere near enough for hard-working families across Scotland and the rest of the UK. Does the Secretary of State accept that both the Scottish and UK Governments must go further so we can get the economy firing on all cylinders?
I accept that both Governments need to work together—the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about that—but the UK Government are doing their bit, with a block grant of £41.3 billion, £4.6 billion higher than last year and the highest since devolution began; £14.5 billion of covid funding since the pandemic began; a furlough scheme supporting over 900,000 jobs in Scotland, and grants and loans to businesses totalling over £4 billion. The UK Government are doing exactly what they need to do to support the Scottish economy.
I am delighted that the Government recently announced a new £20 million ringfenced allocation for tidal stream technology as part of the new contracts for difference round. That will enable Scotland to take advantage of the huge potential that exists to develop tidal stream technology.
The Scottish Affairs Committee visited Orkney a few months ago when collating evidence for its report on renewable energy. We were so impressed with the tidal stream technology, which is less expensive than tidal lagoon barrage technology. I am delighted that the renewable energy auction will include for the first time a ring fence for tidal stream power. How will that turbocharge the potential for this type of renewable energy in Scotland?
I am very glad that my hon. Friend and her colleagues on the Committee had the opportunity to visit Orkney. I also visited Orkney in August and was hugely impressed by the innovation that is going on there. The principle behind contracts for difference is that it gives the renewables sector the confidence to invest in these long-term technologies. I believe Scotland as a whole, and Orkney in particular, will be at the forefront of that.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure the whole House will want to join me in wishing you, Mr Speaker, and all members of staff—and indeed all Members—a merry Christmas and a happy new year. Members from across the House will also want to join me in sending our warmest wishes to all our armed forces, all members of the emergency services and all health and care workers, especially those who will be working over Christmas, not least on our national mission to get boosted now.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. Yes, it was, because last week we showed that we are not only the party that is putting in the resources to fight crime, with 10,000 more police already recruited, but the party that is finally getting tough on the drugs gangs that blight the lives of children and communities up and down this country. We will not tolerate middle-class drug use any more than any other kind of drug use.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the work of Sewa Day and all the people of the West Bromwich Hindu community, who make an incredible contribution to this country. I am delighted that the charity is again distributing donated gifts. Thank you to everyone involved, particularly my hon. Friend for her efforts.
Can I also wish you, Mr Speaker, everybody who works in this House and all Members a merry Christmas and a happy new year? Can I also send my congratulations to the Prime Minister and his wife on the birth of their daughter, and join the Prime Minister in supporting our armed forces and all those on the front line?
There were 200,000 omicron infections on Monday. That is doubling every two or three days and the NHS could be overwhelmed, so I want to start by encouraging everyone listening to this session to get their jabs and boosters. It is the best way to protect themselves, the NHS and their loved ones. Given the seriousness of the situation, does the Prime Minister agree that the 100 Conservative Members who voted against plan B measures last night, voted against steps that are necessary to protect the NHS and to protect lives?
The Government are taking a balanced and proportionate approach to dealing with the pandemic. The House voted through plan B with Conservative votes and we will continue with the massive booster roll-out, to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman is a late convert. Since Friday, when I decided that we had to accelerate the booster programme in view of the data about omicron, we have cut the timetable in half. Monday was the biggest vaccination Monday in the history of this country, and yesterday was the second biggest vaccination achievement by the NHS ever. More than 500,000 jabs were delivered and the campaign continues to grow. I thank absolutely everybody involved and I thank all the British public for coming forward to get boosted now.
We all hope that, combined with the booster programme, plan B will be sufficient to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed. Nobody wants to see further restrictions, but the Prime Minister has rightly not ruled anything out, so can I take this opportunity to make it clear to him that, if further votes are needed to save lives and protect the NHS, Labour MPs will follow my leadership and we will always put the national interest first? Can I ask the Prime Minister to get his house in order so he can say the same about the Members behind him?
Yes, if further measures are needed, as the House will understand—if further regulation is needed—of course this House will have a further say. As for hon. Members following the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s leadership, they wibble-wobbled over plan B, they wibble-wobbled over quarantine, and if we had listened to him, we would not even have the vaccine roll-out because we would have remained in the European Medicines Agency—[Interruption.] It is true. And we would not have opened up on 19 July; we would have remained in lockdown. That is the reality.
Let me put that straight back in its box: the Labour party showed the leadership yesterday that the Prime Minister lacks. If it was not for Labour votes, his Government would not have been able to introduce the vital health measures we need to save lives and protect the NHS—so weak is his leadership. His own MPs were wrong to vote against basic public health measures, but I can understand why they are angry with him. After all, the Health Secretary said this summer that relaxations of restrictions were “irreversible”. They were not. [Interruption.] Only last week—[Interruption.]
Only last week, the Government were saying that plan B measures were not required. They are. Just like “the rail revolution for the north”, “no one will have to sell their homes for social care” and “no tax rises”, it is overpromise after overpromise until reality catches up. Does the Prime Minister understand why his own MPs no longer trust him?
There he goes again—the right hon. and learned Gentleman comes to this House pompously claiming that he wants to rise above party politics and support the efforts of the nation in delivering the vaccine roll-out, and then he talks endlessly about party politics and plays political games. What the people of this country can see is that, as a result of what this Government have done, with the tough decisions that we have taken—which he ducked—to deliver the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe and now the fastest booster roll-out, we have the fastest growing economy in the G7 and 500,000 more jobs today than there were when the pandemic began. That is Conservative Government in action. We deliver—they complain.
The only person undermining public confidence is sitting right there opposite me. Here is the problem: his MPs are wrong to vote against basic public health measures, but they are not wrong to distrust him. Last week, the Conservative right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) asked:
“Why should people at home, listening to the Prime Minister…do things that people working in…Downing Street are not prepared to do?”—
a Tory MP. The Conservative hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) last week asked:
“Will he give me any reason at all why I should not tell my constituents to treat these new rules…the same way that…Downing Street treated last year’s rules?”—[Official Report, 8 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 499-500.]
The Prime Minister has had a week to come up with a good answer. Has he done so?
The answer is very, very clear. It is there in what the public are doing, because they can see that the Government are getting on with delivering on their priorities, not just on the economy, but above all on delivering the fastest booster roll-out in Europe. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is fond of these European comparisons, but we have done almost double the percentage of any other European country. We have boosted 86% of the over-80s in this country and 91% of those aged 75 to 79. That is an astonishing achievement. I think that that is what the people of this country are focused on, rather than the partisan trivia that he continually raises when frankly he has a case to answer himself.
I think that is a no: the Prime Minister has not come up with a good answer. For weeks, he has claimed that no rules were broken. He claims that he did not know what was happening in his own house last Christmas. I do not believe him, his MPs do not believe him and nor do the British public. He is taking the public for fools and it is becoming dangerous, because from today, anyone who tests positive for coronavirus faces a second Christmas in isolation. It will be heartbreaking for families across the country.
The message from the Government has to be “We know that following the rules won’t be easy this Christmas, but it is necessary.” Can the Prime Minister not see that he has no hope of regaining the moral authority to deliver that difficult message if he cannot be straight with the British public about the rule breaking in Downing Street last Christmas?
I have repeatedly answered that question before. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, a report is being delivered to me by the Cabinet Secretary into exactly what went on. The right hon. and learned Gentleman might explain why there are pictures of him quaffing beer—we have not heard him do so.
I think that what the British public want us all to do, frankly, is focus on the matter in hand and continue to deliver the vaccine roll-out in the way that we are doing. I think that it is an absolutely fantastic thing that people are now coming forward in the way that they are: 45% of people over 18 have now had a vaccine. I thank our amazing staff, I thank the NHS, I thank all the GPs—
Well, you blocked the investment in them. Labour Members wouldn’t vote for investment in our NHS—they wouldn’t do it.
I thank NHS staff for what they are doing. I can tell the House that we are now speeding things up by allowing people to avoid the 15-minute delay after they have been vaccinated, which I hope will encourage even more people to come forward.
The virus is spreading once again, and lives and livelihoods are at risk. The British public are looking for a Prime Minister with the trust and the authority to lead Britain through the crisis. Instead, we are burdened with the worst possible Prime Minister at the worst possible time. [Interruption.] Conservative Members are shouting now. Where were they in the Lobby last night?
The Prime Minister’s own MPs have had enough. They will not defend him, they will not turn up to support him, and they will not vote for basic public health measures if he proposes them. At this time of national effort, the Labour party has stood up, shown the leadership that the Prime Minister cannot show, and put the health and security of the British people first. [Interruption.]
Order. This is silly, because I cannot hear the question. I will hear the question. [Interruption.] I do not think that we need any more help from the Government Front Bench. I am dealing with this corner first.
I understand that this is the last PMQs and we will not be back till the new year, but I need to hear the question. It may take a long time, but I will hear it. So, please: I want to get through questions and I want you all to get away for Christmas. At this rate, you won’t.
The Prime Minister says it is not true—he is so socially distanced from the truth that he thinks that is not true. I do not know where to start. We had better press on. We cannot go on with a Prime Minister who is too weak to lead. Will he take time this Christmas to look in the mirror and ask himself whether he has the trust and authority lead this country?
We won that vote last night with Conservative votes, as I have told the House. I respect the feelings and anxieties that colleagues have, of course I do. I respect and understand the legitimate anxieties they have about restrictions on their liberty and the liberty of people, but I believe the approach that we are taking is balanced and proportionate and right for this country.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about leadership. Let me tell the House about some of the tough decisions that I have had to take. I had to decide to stay out of the European ventilator scheme so that we had our own ventilator channels, which he then ridiculously attacked. I decided to go ahead with the vaccine roll-out, ahead of the rest of Europe, which would have been impossible if we had listened to him. I decided to go ahead with opening up our society and our economy on 19 July, which he opposed.
Never forget that if we had listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman we would not now have the fastest economic growth of the G7. It is because we took those courageous steps that we now have 500,000 more people in work than there were when the pandemic began, and yesterday I saw 1.2 million job vacancies. That is what Conservative Governments do. They create employment and they create business opportunities. Above all, we vaccinate, they vacillate. They jabber, we jab. They play party politics, and we get on with the job.
Order. I am absolutely amazed that some of you wanted to catch my eye. Obviously you do not now. Thanks for that—it is making my life easier. Do not be shocked when I do not call you to put that special question today.
Let us come to the man of the moment, Dr Liam Fox.
My right hon. Friend is a wonderful campaigner on this issue, and he is completely right about Down’s syndrome people. They can have poorer health outcomes, but I know that the Bill aims to improve life outcomes for people with Down’s syndrome. We are pleased to support it and we will do whatever we can to ensure the prompt progress of this Bill.
Mr Speaker, I wish you, all your staff and all Members of the House a merry Christmas and a guid new year when it comes. I also send my thanks to those on the frontline in the emergency services and armed forces for everything they have done to get us through this year.
The public understand the threat that omicron poses to all our people and to our NHS. As we saw from last night’s vote, the Tories might be privileged enough to live in denial about this danger, but the rest of us have a responsibility to live in the real world. That means increasing public health measures and increasing financial support for businesses and workers.
The Scottish Government are delivering £100 million from our fixed budget to support businesses, but we all know that more is needed. Yesterday, the UK Government put out a press release saying that new financial support was coming, but last night the Treasury U-turned, saying that no new money was available. So, Prime Minister, which is it? Is there any new money to support businesses or was it all just smoke and mirrors once again?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and I share some of the views he expressed about the importance of being vigilant about omicron. It is good that he set that out. I think it important that we continue to work with the Scottish Administration, as we do, to help everybody through this.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there is more money through Barnett consequentials, and there are also further powers under the existing devolutionary settlement for the Scottish Administration to raise money if they choose to—they have that option—but we will of course continue our discussions with them.
That simply was not an answer, and it just confirms that it is all smoke and mirrors. There was no new money for Scotland. Once again, the Prime Minister cannot trust a word that this Prime Minister says—[Interruption.] Dodgy dealings on renovations and his distant relationship with the truth—all of it has left him weak.
Last night, this UK Government struggled to get measures through the House that Scotland has had for months. A Prime Minister who cannot do what is needed to protect the public is no Prime Minister at all. No one wants further restrictions, but Scotland cannot afford to be hamstrung if the Prime Minister cannot act because he has 99 problems sitting behind him. Will he give the devolved Governments the powers and the financial support that we need to protect our people?
I think we are going to need a bigger waistcoat to contain the synthetic indignation of the right hon. Gentleman, quite frankly. I can tell him that the Scottish Administration have the powers, and, moreover, that we have delivered a record settlement for Scotland of £41 billion. But let me also say, in all friendship with the right hon. Gentleman—with whom I am actually quite cordial behind the scenes—that we will work with the Scottish Government to make sure that we get through this thing together.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He and I have discussed before his own personal reasons for caring so much about this issue, and I understand and sympathise deeply with what he has said. That is one the reasons why I want to make sure that we do invest enough in this. There are 20 integrated stroke networks in England already, but we want to increase their capacity about tenfold.
I shall be happy to ensure that my hon. Friend has the right meeting with the relevant Minister to discuss the matter. This is why it is so important that we invest now in our NHS in the way that we are—and what a pity that that essential measure could not be supported by the Labour party.
The Prime Minister’s actions over the last number of months have absolutely eroded public confidence at the worst possible time, during a public health crisis. Excusing rule-breaking by his own MPs, ignoring rule-breaking in his own house—he cannot even lead Tory MPs to vote for his public health guidance, so how can he expect to lead anybody else? Surely it is now time for him to do the right thing, the only thing left to him to restore public confidence, and resign.
No, Mr Speaker, I am going to get on with protecting the public of this country, making sure that we get through this pandemic together as one United Kingdom, and making sure that we protect trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the way that I know the hon. Gentleman would want it protected.
Yes, but I also want to say that I understand completely the massive opportunity and the potential that exists in those coastal communities. That is why we are already investing £120 million in five new town deals, including for Lowestoft. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up will want to be taking my hon. Friend’s points on board as we bring forward the levelling up White Paper in the new year.
What I observe is that actually it was our freedom from the rules of the European Union that enabled us to deliver the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe and that has enabled us to have the fastest economic growth in the G7. That is of massive benefit to each and every one of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, and I think he should acknowledge that point.
My hon. Friend is completely right to draw the link between drug addiction and rough sleeping. That is why our drugs strategy is so absolutely vital for tackling this problem. I also want to thank local councils and everybody involved in the Everyone In campaign. Homelessness and rough sleeping are a blight and a disgrace—a shame for our society. I am proud to say that our rough sleeping snapshot shows that levels have fallen by 43% since 2017, although clearly, as we come out of the pandemic in the next year or so, we must make sure that we continue to reduce rough sleeping. It remains an absolute priority for this Government.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much. I understand the difficulty that some families will find themselves in. We want to look after everybody throughout the pandemic. That is why we have done things like lifting the living wage in the way we have and increasing the funds available for childcare, but also making sure that councils have an extra hardship fund of half a billion pounds to help families of the kind that he describes through this winter.
My brief says I should be very careful of what I say. I have no doubt that Crewe is a strong contender, but further details of the competition will be announced in the coming weeks. Expressions of interest from places such as Crewe will be very welcome.
I thank the hon. Lady and, no, we do recognise the importance of putting the bereaved, such as the bereaved of Hillsborough, at the heart of investigations. In certain circumstances funding may be available for representation of the bereaved at a public inquiry or interest. We are considering what steps should be taken, and I will ensure she has a meeting with the relevant Home Office Minister as soon as possible.
As we see Russian forces massing on the Ukrainian border, can we be reminded that Russia is also continuing to carry out cyber-attacks, to attempt assassinations, to use gas as a political weapon, to illegally hold territory in Crimea and Georgia, to intimidate the west and to attempt to interfere in western elections? How much do the Government understand that President Putin is conducting a hybrid war against the west, and how are they responding?
I am afraid my hon. Friend is absolutely right in what he says. He is right to stress the particular urgency of the situation, and he is right in what he says about hybrid warfare and all the other interventions. We face a particular crisis on the border with Ukraine, where Russian troops have been massing for some time, as the House knows. I told President Putin on Monday that I think everybody in the G7 and more widely is agreed that, if Russia were so rash and mad as to engage in an invasion of the sovereign territory of Ukraine, an extremely tough package of economic sanctions would be mounted by the UK and our friends around the world. Of course, there would also be support for Ukraine, and there would inevitably be a build-up of NATO forces in the periphery regions. As I told President Putin, I believe any such action would be catastrophic not just for Russia and Ukraine but for the world.
Yes, this is a massive national effort and, yes, it will be incredibly hard to achieve, but do I believe that our NHS, our GPs and our volunteers can do it? Yes, I do. That is the spirit in which the hon. Lady and the whole House should approach it. Rather than talking down our approach, I advise all Labour Members and all colleagues in this House to tell our constituents to get boosted now.
I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), with its emphasis on global Britain and partnership in standing up to autocracies. Does he therefore share my concern about reports that I have just got from the Foreign Office of a staff cut of 10% across the board? How is that compatible with global Britain?
We are investing massively in overseas aid—this country is spending £10 billion a year on overseas aid. I think that if you look at what we are doing on aid, on the Foreign Office and on Defence, we are, at £54 billion, the biggest spender on overseas activities of any country in Europe. My hon. Friend is an expert on foreign affairs, but I am assured by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary that the information that has recently trickled into his ears is fake news.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Prior to the pandemic, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, spent four years improving TfL’s finances after his predecessor inexplicably bargained away TfL’s £700 million annual Government grant. By failing to meet the Mayor on extending the emergency covid grant, the Government are putting the city’s economy and environment at risk. Rail companies have had additional support. Will the Prime Minister instruct silent Shapps to meet the Mayor immediately so that buses and tubes can continue to keep London moving from Friday?
This happens to be one of the subjects that I know more about than probably anybody else in the House. When I was Mayor and chairman of Transport for London, we had our finances in balance because I ran a responsible fares policy. When I left the mayoralty, we had Crossrail in surplus and our reserves in surplus. Actually, what happened was that the Labour Mayor of London embarked on a reckless, unfunded fares policy, cutting fares recklessly so as to leave a huge black hole in Transport for London’s finances. Yes, we have the greatest capital—[Interruption.] We will of course help the stricken Labour Mayor in any way that we can, but the blame lies fairly and squarely with City Hall.
I wish all our constituents across the country a merry Christmas and a safe 2022. What matters to my Sedgefield constituents is jobs, jobs, jobs. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Hitachi and Alstom on securing the HS2 rolling stock contract? It is a tremendous vote of confidence in the people of Newton Aycliffe and Sedgefield. Will he encourage the Secretary of State for Transport to confirm that the feasibility study for Ferryhill station will be approved at his earliest convenience so that we can get on with levelling up and building back better for Ferryhill, Bishop Middleham, Sedgefield and the Cornforths?
My hon. Friend is a great advocate for Sedgefield, his constituents and levelling up. I congratulate Hitachi and Alstom on securing the HS2 stock order and the proponents of Ferryhill station for completing the initial business case for the scheme. That is part of the £96 billion investment that we are making in our railway infrastructure, which is the biggest in 100 years, dwarfing anything that the Labour party has ever embarked on. We will get on with uniting and levelling up across our country.
I am sure the Prime Minister would like to thank me, as he was kept in the dark about last year’s festivities, for my assistance in lighting the Christmas tree in Downing Street this year. Unlike the Prime Minister, I am not in the dark about what my staff are doing this year: we are serving and delivering over 1,000 hampers and gifts to families across Swansea to ensure that they get a Christmas. Will he join me in congratulating and thanking everyone involved in Everyone Deserves a Christmas? If he would like to come and light a tree in my constituency, I will ensure there is one available for him.
That is one of the nicest things somebody has said to me from the Opposition Benches for a long time. I do want to thank and congratulate everybody in the hon. Lady’s constituency who is helping to bring hampers to those who need them this Christmas. It is a wonderful thing.
My thoughts and I am sure the thoughts of the whole House are with those who loved Star Hobson, who was brutally murdered in Keighley by a monster while Star’s evil mother allowed it to happen. The court heard that numerous referrals were made to Bradford Council children’s services months in advance of Star’s murder, but they were not taken seriously—in fact, the case was closed. The Prime Minister will be aware that this is the latest in a long list of failings at Bradford Council children’s services, where political correctness appears to have been put before the welfare of children. I have no confidence in Bradford Council’s leadership to deliver children’s services. Since the death of Star, I am pleased that the Government have sent in a commissioner—
Order. Sorry, but I am very bothered that we are going into sub judice, which applies till sentencing is finalised. It is very serious and I do not want to cause a real problem. I would ask the Prime Minister to answer without giving any further details. I think we have gone a little bit too far into what the case is at the moment.
I am grateful for your direction, Mr Speaker. I just want to say that I think the whole House will once again be filled with incredulity at the cruelty of people who could perpetrate a child killing such as this, but also sadness and bewilderment that it could not have been prevented. As my hon. Friend knows, we will appoint a commissioner to assess the capability and capacity of the relevant council, Bradford, to improve on its handling, and they will report in January. That will also feed in to the report we have commissioned on the death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. I say to those who are responsible in the authorities concerned that we will not hesitate to remove service control if that is what is necessary to drive the improvements we need to see.
School Openings: January 2022
I am very grateful to you for granting this urgent question on a day when the Schools Minister is out of town, Mr Speaker.
The Government are committed to ensuring that schools open in January as normal. The classroom is the very best place for children’s and young people’s development, and we are incredibly grateful to teachers and all education staff for all they have done to maintain face-to-face learning. Protecting education continues to be our absolute priority.
The Government have taken action to help manage the omicron variant, and the Prime Minister has already announced that we are turbocharging our covid-19 booster programme to offer every adult in England a vaccine by the end of the year to protect people from it. We have set out clear plans for school openings in January, including on-site lateral flow testing for secondary school students on return; continued regular testing at home for the education and childcare sectors; and a comprehensive contingency framework to manage outbreaks.
As of 1 December, more than 95.2 million tests have been completed across all education settings, and the Government have made more than £100 million of funding available to education settings to support costs. Schools and education settings have a range of measures in place to manage covid and to reduce transmission, including regular testing, additional hygiene practices, increasing ventilation, and procedures for managing confirmed cases.
From Tuesday 14 December, a new national daily testing of covid contacts policy was introduced. That means that young people and fully vaccinated adults who are identified as a close contact of someone with covid may take an NHS rapid lateral flow test every day for seven days and continue to attend their setting as normal unless they have a positive result.
We also recommend that older students and staff wear face coverings in communal areas and we have supported education settings to improve ventilation. The Government committed to delivering 300,000 carbon dioxide monitors by the end of this term; we have already delivered more than 329,000, with more than 99% of eligible settings having received monitors.
Every child aged 12 and over is eligible to receive the vaccine. We encourage all children and parents to take up that offer as soon as possible, if they have not already. It is vital, though, that all of us, including parents, carers, teachers and everyone working in education, goes out as soon as they possibly can to get their booster jab to protect the NHS, our way of life and education.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.
Despite the heroic efforts of teachers and support staff in Harlow and around the country who have worked tirelessly to keep students learning, the four horsemen of the education apocalypse have been galloping towards our young people in the form of a widening attainment gap, an epidemic of mental health problems, a rise in safeguarding hazards and a loss of life chances. We know that the attainment gap between rich and poor students is getting worse, and that the number of children being referred to mental health support services has increased by 62%. We know the damage that school closures bring, and 100,000 ghost children are missing almost entirely from the school roll. Yesterday, the Department for Education released new figures showing that more than 230,000 children were not in school because of covid-related incidents.
The Government have stated that they want to keep schools open, but what is the plan in order to do so? What measures are being taken to ensure that, should education staff be required to isolate, there is a network of supply teachers ready to step in? Is additional funding being made available to provide adequate ventilation in schools?
The Health Secretary is right to say that we should protect the NHS, but why can the Department for Education not say that we have to protect our children’s futures? Why do we not have advertisements about that? What mental health support is being given to our young people affected by the pandemic? What assessment is being made of the impact of lost learning on students in critical exam years?
There is a nationwide campaign for an army of NHS volunteers, but not for education. Why is a similar army of retired teachers or Ofsted inspectors not being recruited to support schools struggling to cope with staffing requirements? Can we not have the same vision, the same passion and the same resource provision for the education service as we do for the national health service?
Despite the Government’s assurances, it seems to me that, sadly, we are moving towards de facto school closures. I urge Ministers to prove otherwise.
I thank my right hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee on Education, for his question. I know how much the subject means to him, and I am sure he recognises how much it matters to everyone in the Department for Education. We are absolutely clear that the best place for schoolchildren is in school, that the best thing for schoolchildren is to have face-to-face teaching and that, as the Secretary of State said at the weekend, he will do everything in his power to ensure that that continues.
We have a range of work under way in response to this fast-moving situation. Currently, I believe that there are 14 hospitalisations from omicron and that the rate of the doubling of cases is about every two days. At the weekend, the Secretary of State was on “The Andrew Marr Show”, where he said that he thought that about a third of cases in London were omicron. That number is already now over 50%, so to deal with this we have set about four things: testing, vaccination, ventilation and hygiene. Those are the ways in which we will absolutely back schools to make sure that in-classroom teaching can continue. We are recommending that all secondary school pupils will be tested right at the start of next term. We are offering a small amount of flexibility on the time at which schools can go back in order to make sure that this testing can take place, and we are offering additional funding to make sure that this testing is available. I reassure the House that schools have and will have all the testing facilities they require.
On vaccination, six out of 10 of those aged 16 and 17 have already been jabbed, and more than 80% of everybody in the population aged 12 and over has received at least two jabs. That remarkable achievement has been made possible by our world-leading vaccine procurement and roll-out. As I mentioned, 99% of schools have received the carbon dioxide monitor, and schools are running comprehensive and advanced hygiene programmes. The key to our success in the battle against omicron will be the booster programme. This is a national mission of the utmost importance and severity. The Government are throwing the kitchen sink at making sure that before schools get back all adults will have had the chance to have their booster. That is the way forward; it is how we maximise our chances of making sure that our children get the world-class education they deserve.
First, let me thank school staff, governors, parents and pupils across the country for their dedication and hard work during a year of unrivalled difficulties. However, the Government’s complacency means that we are now in a race against time to protect children’s health and education as the omicron variant spreads. Yesterday’s absence figures showed that 235,000 children are now out of school because of covid, which is an increase of 13% in the past fortnight. An average of 175,000 children have been out of school every day this term. This ongoing disruption to education comes on top of pupils missing an average of 115 days of in-person school between March 2020 and July 2021. The Government have serious questions to answer about why further steps have not been taken to reduce the spread of covid among pupils.
We know that vaccination and ventilation are vital to these efforts, but Ministers are falling short on both. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies first highlighted the importance of ventilation in schools in May 2020, but 19 months on the Government have failed to act on its advice. This is literally a problem the Government could have fixed while the sun was shining, but instead their failure to get measures in place is pushing schools to open windows, despite plummeting temperatures and while school energy bills rocket. Therefore, will the Minister immediately publish interim findings of the Bradford pilot of air purifiers and work with all schools to implement recommendations from that?
On vaccinations, we find that nationally less than half of 12 to 15-year-olds have had a vaccine. Ministers missed their own target to offer everyone in that age group a jab by October, and they have not set a new one yet. Perhaps most concerningly, the weekly number of jabs administered to 12 to 15-years-olds has dropped by 80% since half term. Will the Minister commit to deliver a vaccine guarantee so that all young people can get their jab by the end of the Christmas holidays? Will he also set out what steps he will take to rapidly ramp up the roll-out? Will he adopt Labour’s calls for a clear, targeted communications campaign to parents on the benefits of the vaccination, access to pop-up and walk-in clinics, and the mobilisation of volunteers and retired clinicians? Staff, children and parents are now entering their third school year of disruption. Time and time again, this Government’s failure to plan ahead has left children bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Ministers must stop treating them as an afterthought and act now to avoid chaos next term.
I join the hon. Gentleman in his remarks about schools and school staff. We understand that they have worked enormously hard to do the best for children in extremely difficult conditions over the past 18 months. It is important to recognise that the work that they have done throughout has meant that we are now in a position where we have good and improving vaccination rates, good ventilation, good hygiene and good testing in schools. As I made clear in my answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), that is the key recipe to ensure that schools are in the best possible position, but the national solution to the omicron variant must be—and can only be—boosters, which is why in the next few weeks we need as many people as possible to come forward and take up the Government’s invitation.
We are making an enormous effort to ensure that vaccine centres are available near people, that there are walk-ins, and that people can step forward and take the protection that they, their families and their communities need, and that will mean that we have the best chance for a normal school term in January.
I am reassured to hear the determination of my hon. Friend to keep schools open, but does he agree that the disgraceful campaign of intimidation waged by National Education Union managers to close down schools earlier this year wreaked huge chaos across schools that will take many years to overcome, including the one in six school-age children who now have mental health problems; the chaos caused to the examination system; the academic catch-up; and the problems from a lack of physical exercise? Will he welcome the measures being proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Chair of the Select Committee, and will he agree that, given the extraordinarily heroic efforts of our headteachers and teachers through difficult circumstances, ultimately the decision on safety and keeping schools open should be left to individual heads?
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), the former Children’s Minister, for his remarks. We are absolutely determined to do everything that we can to keep schools open. My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow asked how we are going to maintain the workforce. I remind the House that during the surge of the delta variant, the Department created the workforce fund, which enabled the vast majority of schools to stay open, even in the teeth of that variant. We still have the workforce fund, and intend to say more about it in the next few days.
I urge the Minister to take very seriously the morale out there in schools. We spend a lot of time, quite rightly, thanking NHS staff as frontliners, but teachers and the whole school community are also wonderful, hard-working people, so let us look carefully to morale and to the health of our children, which is paramount. Will he also look at early years and nursery provision, which is essential to people who want to go to work and have their children looked after properly? Will he please talk to the people at the National Day Nurseries Association, which is based in Huddersfield, because they are the experts?
The hon. Gentleman obviously has enormous expertise in this field, as former Chair of the Education Committee. I reassure him that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), the Children’s Minister, is in regular contact with the group that he mentions. Education being open is vital to the national effort. It is education settings being open—particularly for key workers, as they were at all stages throughout the pandemic—that means that the NHS can function, that people who are seriously ill can get treatment, and that the rest of the economy, where possible, can keep functioning. I absolutely understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying.
May I put on record my thanks to the headteachers, teachers and all the staff at schools in the Forest of Dean for the huge effort that they have made both during the period when they were closed and delivering remote learning, and since they have had children back at school?
Once again, there are rumours—only rumours at this point—that the Prime Minister is intending to hold another press conference today. Will the Minister confirm whether that is indeed the case, and, if it is, that there will be a statement in this House setting out whatever measures are to be announced?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He is an experienced Member of this House and he will know that Under-Secretaries of State are not always informed of what is happening right at the very centre, but I am sure that the powers that be will have heard his question.
The Prime Minister has been very clear that Christmas concerts and nativity plays should go ahead, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has said exactly that to me from the Dispatch Box, and we have heard what the Minister has said today, yet Zoom has never heard more “Silent Night” and we have state schools already closed for Christmas and teaching unions calling for a staged return in January. I have heard what the excellent Minister has said and it is very welcome, so I do not require the list again, but what are the Government actually going to do, legally, to see that their will is enforced and that schools are back, as they should be—as they need to be—in January? Where on earth are the Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs? What could be more important than this?
In answer to my hon. Friend’s second question, I think it is clear that they are off on their holidays. In answer to his first question, we absolutely want and expect education settings to be open, we want and expect children to be taught in person, and we want and expect school life to go ahead.
Our children cannot afford for schools to close again or to miss more face-to-face teaching through absence. As has been mentioned previously, evidence shows that ventilation equipment in schools reduces the airborne risk of coronavirus by up to 70%. Other countries have already rolled out ventilation equipment to their schools and are seeing the benefits. When can we expect the results of the Bradford pilot scheme to be published, and when can schools expect ventilation equipment to be delivered? It is needed now.
As the hon. Lady will have heard me say already, we take ventilation and the quality of air extremely seriously. That is why we have achieved our public commitment of delivering 300,000 carbon dioxide monitors over the autumn term; in fact, we have excelled on our target. We are absolutely clear that ventilation is one of the four pillars that will help us best maintain school in person.
May I put on the record my thanks to the hard-working teachers and heads in East Surrey for keeping the schools open during the delta variant? During that time, one teacher told me that they were more worried about the fear that was spreading in children than they were fearful of the variant itself. I have never been more ashamed of the Labour party than in its inability to stand up to the unions when they were muddling the story of safety in schools. Will the Minister please reassure us that he will be able to try to maintain confidence in schools and keep them open? That is the best thing for the future of our children.
My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. Like her, I have been extremely impressed at how calm a head the education settings I have visited and spoken to have managed to keep in the midst of a crisis, despite the quite unnecessary pressure that certain groups have put on them.
I thank the Minister for his positive answers. Does he agree that for some children, Christmas at home is not a time of joy, and that the mental health and wellbeing of pupils must be weighed as a concern? Will he outline what discussions have been had with the Northern Ireland Education Minister to share information in an attempt to see that every region of the United Kingdom implements the right strategy in terms of health and education?
This week, for the second year in a row, I am delivering nearly 7,000 Christmas books—one to every primary school child in my constituency—to spread a bit of cheer after another difficult year. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to remind the militant unions that a majority of teachers and heads share his desire to keep all children in school at all costs? Will he commit again to doing all he can to support the hard-working teachers and heads across the Workington constituency who share the desire to keep their schools open in the face of pressure from a loud minority?
I have always considered my hon. Friend to be a spreader of good cheer, and I now have a wonderful image of him traipsing around his constituency with a large sack upon his back. I can only echo his remarks; the headteachers and school leaders I meet share his and the Department’s determination to do the best for their children.
May I take this opportunity to thank all the teachers and school staff in Meon Valley for their amazing work during the pandemic? May I ask my hon. Friend to give schools and headteachers plenty of warning—hopefully not at weekends—if there are to be any changes to the system?
I would like my hon. Friend to thank all the school teams and college teams in and around Great Grimsby, as well as the employers who are offering placements to our students.
An issue that we have in Great Grimsby is literacy and numeracy. Our primary schools have told me that their in-school additional tutoring is making the biggest difference, so we need to make sure that parents understand that it is important for their children to be at school and not to be afraid. Will my hon. Friend make sure that we now get the message out to parents: “School is safe, and school is the best thing for your children”?
I am very happy to echo my hon. Friend’s remarks about Great Grimsby. I look forward to telling education leaders myself when I visit in the new year. Absolutely, the message goes out: we know what is best for children and we are trying our very best to make sure that it happens.
Testing for school pupils has become something of a regular occurrence for households across the country, including my own. Can my hon. Friend confirm that covid-19 tests will continue to be distributed to schools and pupils so that we can monitor the incidence of outbreaks of the virus?
It was fantastic to be out last week in primary schools in Ipswich handing out certificates for Christmas card entries. The artistic future of Ipswich is looking very bright indeed.
When I visit schools in Ipswich, learning loss is often a concern but not the main concern, which is the impact of lack of socialisation and the mental health implications. Will the Minister confirm that if there is a big struggle with teaching unions that do not put enough value on children’s education, he will stand up not just for learning, but for the mental health and social development of all our young people?
Absolutely. We have been very keen to make sure that we invest in the mental health of children and young people, following what has been an extremely difficult 18 months. I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in praising the primary school children of Ipswich and their artistic prowess.
School closures have been a welfare catastrophe for millions of vulnerable children. During the pandemic, there has been a 77% increase in self-generated sexual images of children online, and referrals have doubled for paediatric eating disorders. Some 2.2 million children in England live in households affected by addiction and abuse, yet in the first lockdown just 6% of vulnerable children attended school. What will my hon. Friend do, and what can we do as parliamentarians to support him, to make sure that this tragedy never again happens to our vulnerable children?
My hon. Friend is a very powerful advocate for the cause that she raises. Those are shocking statistics.
We kept education settings open throughout the pandemic for the most vulnerable children. Where pupils who are self-isolating are within our definition of “vulnerable”, it is very important that we have systems in place to keep in contact with them, particularly if they have a social worker.
I congratulate headteachers and staff across Harrow, who have kept schools open during very difficult and challenging times. I am a very strong supporter of the vaccine programme and testing, but many of our children will be mixing over Christmas with people from across the country and may inadvertently and regrettably catch covid. Will my hon. Friend and the Department issue guidance telling children and families that they should be tested before they go to school, not when they get to school? Inadvertently, they could spread covid once they are in school being tested.
We encourage everybody to test regularly. To do our very best to ensure the next term starts well, we will be encouraging all secondary school pupils to be tested right at the start of term and we are introducing a degree of flexibility on start dates to achieve that. Schools are now very experienced in making sure they take precautions so that infection is not spread when children are together and preparing to be tested.
I welcome the Minister’s words about keeping educational settings open as a priority, but will he go further and guarantee that primary schools will be kept open? We know that children that young cannot learn properly online, and that the damage to their education and wellbeing is immense. It is unthinkable that we will not keep them open to all children, whatever happens.
I would like to put on record my thanks to Stroud schools and the fact that I have registered with the Department concerns about additional costs arising from tackling covid. On the rumours of lockdowns or further lockdowns, I have spoken to many Stroud parents throughout the pandemic who are incredibly worried about the welfare of their children due to school closures. With the cruel and devastating deaths of young Arthur and Star keeping us up at night, many Stroud parents are worried not only about their own children but about hidden children, and teachers feel the same. Will my hon. Friend confirm that in all discussions with unions, scientific advisers and medical advisers, he refers constantly to the fact that we now know that lockdowns hide evil and damage children’s health?
I know my hon. Friend understands these issues extremely well. We very much want to keep schools open. We think schools are the best place for children in the midst of a pandemic, particularly vulnerable children who are in care or on the edge of care. We are determined that social work contact should continue, so that we can ensure those children will be protected.
I take this opportunity to thank teachers, lecturers, support staff and other educationalists across Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke for their fantastic efforts. I spent eight and a half wonderful years working as a secondary school teacher in London and Birmingham, and it is absolutely essential that schools are kept open. I do not want to hear from the Minister that we are going to do everything we can; I want to hear simply that they will stay open. More than ever, secondary school teachers want assurances that exam plans for summer 2022 will go ahead as normal. The Labour party is stuck in the vice grip of the National Union of Teachers, so we need to ensure that we do not listen to them but to teachers who know that exams are always the best way forward.
It is always a pleasure to answer questions from my hon. Friend, who is an extraordinarily passionate advocate for children and education. He will have heard what I said. We want schools to stay open. We want exams to go ahead. We are working to that end.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You heard me ask the Minister, in the urgent question, whether there were plans for a press conference today. No. 10 has now confirmed that the Prime Minister and the chief medical officer will be carrying out a press conference. No. 10 has briefed the media that new information and the latest data on omicron will be provided. I understand that the chief medical officer was scheduled to give evidence to a Select Committee this afternoon. That has now been postponed until tomorrow, so it looks like the new information, instead of being provided first to Members, will be provided to the media. Have you had any notice of an intention of a Minister to come to the House at the end of business today to update Members on the booster roll-out and the latest information about omicron so that we can ask questions on behalf of our constituents?
Nobody has been to see me about a statement, but of course my office door is open, and I hope that those on the Front Bench will be listening to me say that I would welcome that statement. Once again, I say that Members of Parliament are elected to this House to hear things in this Chamber, not on the media. I hope the message goes back that new information should be shared with Members of Parliament. I would like to believe that somebody will be knocking on my door very shortly to say, “Can we have a statement later?”, and of course I would welcome that statement.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) asked where were the Lib Dem MPs at this very important urgent question. I may be new to the House, but I point out that I am a Liberal Democrat and I asked my question right after the hon. Gentleman, who is no longer in his place. I am sure it was an oversight and that all can be forgiven, but can I please ask that he withdraws that comment for the record?
Asylum Seeker Accommodation: RAF Manston
To ask the Minister to tell the House of his proposals to accommodate asylum seekers at the former RAF Manston barracks.
As the House knows, there has been an unacceptable rise in the number of small boat crossings. It is absolutely right that the Government take all necessary steps in response to what is an ongoing challenge. A new triage facility is being established on part of the Ministry of Defence site at Manston in Kent. It will provide safe and secure accommodation for migrants while the Government carry out the necessary checks. Used alongside existing reception arrangements at the port of Dover, the site will enable the processing of large numbers of arrivals simultaneously. We take the welfare of migrants seriously and will ensure that they receive basic welfare provisions, including hot food, fresh clothing, and, where necessary, medical care.
In the new year, we intend to expand activity at the Manston site to conduct more detailed security and initial asylum screening in parallel before people are dispersed. Arrivals will be expected to remain on-site for a maximum of five days while the security and initial asylum processing checks are undertaken, until they leave to go into further, appropriate accommodation. Our aim is to make our processes more efficient and to reduce pressure on the overall asylum system.
However, this is only one part of a wider process. The Government remain committed to bringing an end to dangerous and unnecessary small boat crossings. We are overhauling our asylum system to ensure that people-smugglers cannot profit from human misery. The tragic deaths in the channel last month underlined in horrific fashion just how dangerous these journeys are. Our new plan for immigration will reform the system and build one that is fair on those who play by the rules and firm on those who do not. It will reduce pull factors by making it more difficult for migrants to remain here where they have no lawful right to do so. The British people want to see change, and the Government are firmly committed to delivering that change.
The former RAF barracks at Manston is about to be released by the Ministry of Defence and is required, once the site has been cleared, by local people for housing. It lies adjacent to Manston airport, which we hope to see reopened in the near future as an airfield once the long-awaited development consent order has been determined. This is not an appropriate site for the proposed purpose.
On Friday 10 December, I received an email from the executive officer of Kent Wing informing me that 2433 Air Training Unit had been given until today, 15 December, to vacate premises at the former RAF barracks and fire training school
“in order that an Immigration Centre could be established there”.
This was described as
“not for us to debate; it is an order to us”.
That was the first that I had heard of this Home Office-instigated proposal. There had been no consultation with me, as the Member of Parliament, with the leader of the county council, with the leader of Thanet District Council, or, I believe, with the county constabulary. I spoke to the Minister of State on that day and was promised a full briefing, with civil servants present.
The leader of Thanet District Council was called by Home Office officials at 5 pm on Monday, two days ago, and the leader of Kent County Council at 6 pm. Again, there was no consultation, and to date, Kent’s senior health officer has not been consulted or even informed officially that the Home Office, which has known of the developing cross-channel people trafficking issue for months, and of the developing crisis for weeks, was proposing to create a screening and processing centre at the unsuitable Manston Road site. Neither were proposals for a phase 2 transfer and triage facility from Tug Haven to Manston discussed; nor was a further proposal for a phase 3 expansion of facilities, to handle the still-to-be-determined number of migrants over an unspecified length of time, consulted on. All we were told by the civil servant leading the project who, as I understand, was working from home and has not visited the site, is that the Home Office is establishing a processing centre—not might be, is establishing—before Christmas.
When I met the Minister of State yesterday, I asked that a stop be put on the project and that proper consultation be facilitated, with a degree of courtesy that from the Home Office has been signally lacking to date. From reports of phone calls made last night, it is clear that officials have ignored that request and are blundering on—hence my request for an urgent question, Mr Speaker. It appears to me that the Home Secretary and Minister of State have been blindsided by officials into yet another knee-jerk reaction to a problem that ought to have been foreseen, and should have been avoided.
As it stands, the current dog-whistle proposal appears to transfer arrivals securely from Tug Haven to Manston barracks, where they will be accommodated, in mid-winter, in marquees, and detained securely while they are being processed. There is no indication as to how the site will accommodate those human beings, how they will be made secure, or what facilities will be made available, other than statutory on-the-site medical services. These are real people who have been subjected to great misery as a result of circumstances that we may discuss on another occasion. As a result of the lack of foresight and preparation, it is now proposed that people should be processed under largely unsuitable conditions, simply to satisfy a perceived demand that can, and should, be met by other means.
I have identified at least one clean, comfortable, and secure operational vessel that can, if commissioned, meet the immediate and longer term need, and I am advised that others are available. I would be grateful if the Minister would now instruct the team to do as I have already requested, put this unacceptable and unworkable proposal on hold, and properly, thoroughly, and swiftly examine the viable alternatives. Perhaps while doing so he could conduct the consultations that ought to have been held weeks ago. Trying to railroad a bad idea through the shelter of the Christmas recess can only have unfortunate and undesirable consequences for the communities and people affected, and for the Government.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his tone in raising this issue on behalf of his constituents, and I fully appreciate the sensitivities he has expressed. I know, not least because he chaired the Nationality and Borders Bill Committee, that he understands and appreciates the pressures that the Department and Government are currently experiencing in relation to the small boat challenge.
I appreciate that the current pressures are real and challenging for our staff on the ground, and we must be responsive to the issues and challenges they face in going about their work. Of course, this issue has come about directly in response to the high numbers of crossings we have seen, which have been so vivid, and about which I know people across our country are concerned. Safety is very much at the forefront of our consideration, not just for the arrivals, but for our staff in the way I have alluded.
My right hon. Friend has raised a number of points that I want to pick up in responding. It is fair to say that consultation is ongoing—I make the point again that we are having to respond to these challenges at pace—including with local authorities, the NHS, him as the constituency Member of Parliament and the police, for example. We have had to move at pace, and the most recent inspection confirms how important it is that we take the steps we are proposing. As I say, my officials spoke about our plans with local political leaders, their officials and the local police at the first opportunity, and they will continue to do so. I welcome their constructive engagement so far.
My right hon. Friend asked when activities at this facility will start. We are planning to have potential overspill facilities in place over the next few days. In terms of volumes, we will keep that under review. At the moment, we are assessing the capacity and capabilities of the site and what is appropriate to it, and there will of course be times when the site is empty, when crossings are not happening. He asked who will go there. This is an overspill site for Tug Haven and initial processing. We would expect men, women and children to go there as necessary, but for a maximum of five days. We will manage unaccompanied asylum-seeking children separately under the existing arrangements with social services.
My right hon. Friend asked whether this is a permanent arrangement. We will keep our use of the Manston site under review, but we expect to continue to use it for some time. He has suggested some alternatives. If he would like to share those details with me, I would be happy to take that away and look at what he is suggesting, but I go back to the key point in all of this, which is that the Government’s objective is to end these channel crossings. That is the objective we continue to work towards, and it is what the British people expect. We have a comprehensive plan of action—I have set it out many times in this House—for how we achieve that. Of course, getting that right means that there would not then be the need for facilities such as the one he has concerns about.
I have listened carefully to what the Minister has had to say, and I thank the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) for having secured this important urgent question. Tomorrow will be a year to the day that the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) secured an urgent question in this Chamber on the Government’s rule changes, which gave the Home Office the powers to deem asylum claims inadmissible. We described the proposals as unworkable then. Here we are, a year on, and people are becoming trapped in our asylum system by the Home Office, having had their claims deemed inadmissible, but without any functioning agreements in place to move anyone through and out of the system. The Minister has said that 4,561 notices of intent have been served, yet only five people have been returned.
The Minister has said that this site is an attempt to improve the efficiency of the system, so can he explain to the House why the Government passed these inadmissibility rules when the consequences are that thousands of people have endured longer stays in the asylum system than necessary? That is to the detriment of a person’s wellbeing and makes no sense for the Home Office at all. The initial asylum decisions taken by the Home Office have dropped from 28,623 in 2015 to 14,758 now, which is contributing to the backlog. Some 64% of those waiting for a decision on their asylum claims are waiting longer than the six-month target, so the backlogs in processing times are crippling the system. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain why progress on the rates of decision making has collapsed.
The Minister says that RAF Manston barracks will be used more as a reception centre than long-term accommodation, but we know that public health and fire safety advice was ignored by the Home Office prior to Napier and Penally barracks opening as asylum accommodation. We have heard once again about how consultation with local agencies has sadly been absent.
Given what we know about the new variant, dormitory-style accommodation must be avoided if we are to protect those accommodated there, staff and the wider community. Can the Minister confirm whether RAF Manston barracks will have an advisory committee? Can he rule out that children will be held there, and can he provide assurances that this is a temporary measure?
Given that this Government have promised the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, why has the scheme still not been established, and why has eligibility for the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme been tightened overnight? I would be incredibly grateful for some insight on that decision.
Finally, in September 2020, the Home Office was by the inspectorate about the inadequate facilities at Tug Haven for dealing with vulnerable people, especially children, who may have experienced dangerous journeys. What assurances can the Minister give us that Manston barracks would be a significant improvement on the current situation?
I am very grateful to the shadow Minister for her various questions and of course the assiduous way in which she always goes about these matters. We spent quite a lot of time together debating the Nationality and Borders Bill in the Committee that considered it in great detail. The point that I would make initially is that what we are talking about here is a very considerable number of arrivals. Of course, it is right and proper that we have appropriate and safe facilities in place to process those arrivals in a manner that is fitting and of course has safety at the forefront. We believe that the steps I have set out today are necessary to achieve that and to make sure that we have the capacity, with the ultimate aim of course of stopping these crossings from happening in the first place, which is something that we are continuing to work towards.
On the point about inadmissibility, as I have explained several times in different settings in this House, that is very much about our future policy and where we are hoping to get to. We believe very strongly, and I know that Opposition Members have different views on this, that people should seek asylum or claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach. That is of course the quickest route to safety. The shadow Minister will also know that we are continuing to look at what more we can do on the issue of returns along those inadmissibility lines, and upholding that very long established principle under successive Governments of both sides that people should claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach. Those negotiations and discussions are ongoing, as she would expect.
On asylum processing, of course one thing that I very much want to see, as do my ministerial colleagues, is cases decided more quickly. We want to provide sanctuary to those who need it as quickly as possible and to return those with no right to be here without needless delays. That is what our Nationality and Borders Bill and the new plan for immigration are all about. We are getting on: that Bill is passing through the House, and we will operationalise the measures in it as quickly as possible on Royal Assent. I think that is what the British people want to see. It is the right and responsible thing to do, and that underpins the entirety of our policy.
On Napier specifically, we have been responsive. Again, we have set out many times the improvements that have been made to that site. It is right that, for example, when the inspectorates come in, look at these sites and offer recommendations, those are considered properly and thoroughly, and acted on as appropriate. That is why we respond formally to those reports and set out the steps that we intend to take to address any of the issues raised.
On the point about Afghanistan, what I will do—if I may, given that today we are debating the issue of Manston specifically and the triaging facility—is ask my hon. Friend the Minister for Afghan Resettlement to provide an update to the shadow Minister.
How many hotels have now been contracted to deal with illegal migrants and with asylum seekers under Government contract, what is the current year’s budget for all this work and will the Minister promise that, in future, MPs in any constituency where new facilities are going to be procured will be consulted first?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. Of course, as is standard practice, budgets are agreed formally with the Treasury in the usual way. I think it is fair to say that, as Ministers, our door is always open to talk to colleagues about concerns they have about particular circumstances in their own constituencies. I think it is fair to say we are facing very considerable pressures at the moment in this space and it is important that all parts of the country do their bit to help to address some of these challenges. I would encourage local authorities that are not currently assisting with that work to look at how they can help, particularly along the lines of the dispersal model. But to be clear to the House, we want to get away from this reliance on hotel accommodation. We are working towards that objective and that is the right approach.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on securing this urgent question. His point about the lack of consultation with himself, the local authority and health services is frankly appalling. I want to ask the Minister a number of questions. A cross-party report on the all-party parliamentary group on immigration detention called on the Government to end this military-style accommodation for asylum seekers, which it described as “fundamentally unsuitable” for survivors of war, torture or serious violence. So why is the Home Office ignoring these warnings from parliamentary colleagues? The Home Office previously ignored warnings on the use of Napier barracks from the Red Cross and Public Health England, with the inevitable result of a covid outbreak among those being held there. With the pandemic now entering another dangerous phase, will the Government commit to listening to the experts this time and to following their own health guidance?
Can the Minister confirm that parts of the Manston estate are currently condemned as a result of asbestos being found on the site? We know that there has been very little consultation—in fact, none at all—with the local authority and other key partners such as the health services. Will he tell us what consultations have taken place with the non-governmental organisations that work with torture survivors and victims of trafficking and other trauma? Or is there, as with Napier, a lack of proper planning processes? Finally, the Minister mentioned illegal migrants. When will the Department commit to ending this dog-whistle language? There is no such thing as an illegal migrant. Seeking asylum is not illegal, so when will the Government put an end to this language and to pandering to the lowest common denominator?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for his questions. I do not consider that we are ignoring the concerns that are raised. As I have set out to the House, we have consistently been responsive to the reports of the inspectors, for example, and when they make recommendations, we consider them and act appropriately. He will recognise that there is a need for accommodation, and that the system is under acute pressure at the moment, given the number of arrivals. He will also recognise that we are seeking to reform the system. We are bringing forward the Nationality and Borders Bill, which is all about driving reform, processing cases more quickly, providing sanctuary to those who require it and removing those with no right to be here. That is a firm but fair system, and one that I would argue is right.
In response to the hon. Member’s point about there being no consultation with local partners, that is simply not true. As I have described to the House, that engagement is ongoing. He also asked about areas of the site having asbestos. We will of course act entirely appropriately with safety at the forefront. I have made that point several times. Assessments are ongoing in various parts of the site, and it is right that we always act with safety at the forefront of our minds.
We should always remember that it is criminal gangs that are ruthlessly exploiting vulnerable people and bringing them to this country. Can the Minister clarify some issues relating to the site? Will it be used for new arrivals straight after they arrive? He said earlier that they would be there for no more than five days. Following the questions from my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), there was a question about how they would be accommodated. Will they be in marquees, in tents, or in barracks accommodation with proper facilities during this, the coldest period of the year?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the criminal gangs responsible for these crossings are evil, and I would like to think that the whole House would share in that message. As I have said, the intention is for this to be an overspill site for Tug Haven. Work is ongoing on site to assess which areas are appropriate to be used for accommodation, and there will of course be appropriate accommodation on site that is safe and that meets our legal obligations.
The people who are going to be taken into this facility are desperate people arriving from Afghanistan, Kurdistan and many other places, and suffering from the most intense trauma. Everything that the Minister has said, and everything that the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) asked, sounds awfully like a repeat of the appalling behaviour of the Home Office over Napier barracks. Can the Minister assure us that people are not going to be kept there at all, and that some better, more suitable accommodation will be found—at the end of the five days, where are they supposed to go? Has the Minister consulted? Many local people in Kent are welcoming asylum seekers and are prepared to support them. Has the Minister discussed the matter with local non-governmental organisations, or is this just some immediate reaction to get through a problem for the moment, never mind the appalling conditions that these poor desperate people are going to be forced into?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his various questions. This is an overspill site for Tug Haven. At the end of the period spent there in the processing phase, people would enter the dispersal and initial accommodation phase, and would of course be appropriately accommodated.
I have said this to the right hon. Gentleman before, but I will say it again: no one has cause to get into a small boat in order to seek safety. People should seek asylum in the first safe country that they reach.
Several hundred asylum seekers are currently being housed in a completely inappropriate location in central Blackpool. The Minister will be aware of my concerns about this placement. Does he agree with the people of Blackpool that the plans for an offshore processing centre for asylum seekers simply cannot come soon enough?
As my hon. Friend knows, in the Nationality and Borders Bill we reserve the right to enter into an offshore processing arrangement. I hear the point that he makes on behalf of his constituents about how strongly they feel about this, and of course we want to operationalise the Bill as quickly as possible.
We have heard a great deal about the pressure on accommodation, but surely that pressure could be relieved if the Home Office were to act more quickly and fairly in processing claims. Will the Minister tell us what action has been taken to ensure that that can happen?
Perhaps the hon. Lady could help us in Edinburgh: perhaps her assistance would enable the dispersal process to take place more readily. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), would be keen to have that conversation with her. Let me also reiterate that our firm objective is to increase and improve the processing of cases in the way that I have described.
Stoke-on-Trent is the fifth largest contributor to the asylum dispersal scheme. We have heard from my hon. Friend about the strain on the system caused by hundreds of thousands of illegal economic migrants crossing the English channel from France. Does he agree that the pressure on the system could be relieved if more local authorities, such as Labour-run Islington Council or the 31 out of 33 Scottish authorities, stepped up and played their part in the national effort?
My hon. Friend has been a passionate advocate for the work that his local authority has been doing in this regard. I want to place on record my thanks and appreciation to them for everything they have been doing. I think it fair to say that many local authorities around the country could learn a lot from Stoke.
I thank the Minister for his answers, and I commend the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) for his spirited account of the situation at RAF Manston. As others have said, this is about more than secure accommodation. Can the Minister outline further what measures are in place to deliver education and training for the refugees and their families at Manston and across the United Kingdom so that they can assimilate well into local communities?
I must say I have some sympathy with the need to act quickly bearing in mind the scale of the problem, so I do not really have concerns about the lack of consultation. Does the Minister agree with me, though, that if individuals are concerned about the quality of the accommodation, the simple answer to that is to not come over here illegally and actually apply for asylum in the safe European country in which they are present? They are not from Afghanistan; they are in France. It is hardly surprising that the Opposition opposes this—I know you would like them all to be in four and five-star hotels; you have made that quite clear—but will the Minister promise me that offshore processing is being looked into seriously?
Order. The hon. Gentleman must not refer across the Chamber to the shadow Minister as “you”. I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows by now that when he uses that phraseology he is referring to the Chair, so I ask him to observe the conventions. I call the Minister.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The point I make in response is that nobody should be getting in a small boat to find safety—nobody has any cause to do that. That is why we are so committed to safe and legal routes, for the very reasons he outlines: when people come through such routes, we can provide proper accommodation, support and services to support those individuals.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), the Minister suggested that there was a good level of consultation with local authorities in Scotland. That is not consistent with the view from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which, I understand, is told after asylum seekers are accommodated—there is no engagement in advance. I wonder whether the Minister might reflect on the comments he made.
Ajax Noise and Vibration Review
With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement to update the House on Ajax, which is an important capability and a vital step-change in the way the British Army will operate on the future battlefield. It will provide ground-mounted reconnaissance, allowing the Army to understand the battlefield in all weathers, 24 hours a day.
As part of our £41 billion investment in Army equipment and support over the next 10 years, this modernisation is critical to address future threats. This is a vital investment, and the Defence Secretary and I have been deeply concerned about progress on this troubled project, which has been running for over 11 years since its commencement in March 2010. That is why we have been thoroughly focused on the project, why I insisted earlier this year that no declaration of initial operating capability would be made without ministerial involvement and why we asked the permanent secretary to commission a report from the Ministry of Defence’s director of health, safety and environmental protection on the health and safety concerns raised by noise and vibration. I am today publishing that report, and placing a copy in the Library of the House and in the Vote Office.
Over the past 35 years, there have been some 13 formal reports on defence procurement; we know the foundations that can build success. Openness, good communication and collaboration within Defence and the ability to act as an informed and challenging customer are vital. This health and safety report has highlighted shortcomings that need to be addressed, not just in health and safety, but more broadly. The review finds serious failings in the processes followed. The result was that personnel worked on a vehicle that had the potential to cause harm. The review finds that the failure was complex and systemic; that a culture exists of not treating safety as equally important as cost and time in the acquisition process; and that, from a cultural perspective, the Army did not believe it was potentially causing harm to people, especially from vibration, as it was tacitly expected that soldiers can and should endure such issues.
As I informed the House on 18 October, we have contacted all personnel identified as having worked on Ajax. Forty declined to be assessed for hearing but I am pleased to report that the vast majority of the remainder have returned to duty with no health impact. As of 9 December, 17 individuals remain under specialist out-patient care for their hearing, some of whom are again expected to return to duty with no health impact. Eleven individuals have had long-term restrictions on noise exposure recommended, potentially requiring a limitation in their military duties. Seven of them had pre-existing hearing issues prior to working on Ajax, but four did not.
In addition, four individuals who worked on Ajax have been discharged on health grounds, in some cases for reasons wholly unrelated to hearing loss. Although we cannot yet establish a definitive causal link, it is possible that Ajax may have contributed to the current hearing loss in a small number of individuals. It remains the case that no individuals have had long-term restrictions or been discharged as a result of vibration. However, assessment for both hand-transmitted and whole-body vibration takes time and requires specialist assessment, and these continue.
I will set out the key points from the review. General Dynamics UK is responsible for the design and build of the Ajax vehicles. The vehicles that it delivered for use in the trials had levels of noise and vibration that were higher than usually expected in tracked vehicles and have been proven to be above the statutory limit. That exposed our personnel to potential harm.
That exposure was not prevented by the Ministry of Defence due to a series of failures to act when concerns were raised by expert advisers and by soldiers operating in the vehicles. For example, an MOD safety notice in December 2018 said that design upgrades were required to reduce vibration, but this was not acted upon. MOD safety cases and safety management used GDUK calculations that were not independently assured, despite experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory advising that the calculations should not be relied on.
A report from the Defence Safety Authority in May 2020 identifying some of these issues and entitled “Serious Safety Concerns on Ajax” was retracted and not pursued, either by the DSA or by the project team in Defence Equipment and Support. Multiple warnings from the DSTL and from the Armoured Trials and Development Unit, which was running the trials, were not actioned, even when the ATDU commanding officer questioned the approach as having the potential to expose soldiers to a known hazard, which he stated was not a defendable position.
Overall, the report makes 20 recommendations. The MOD accepts all those relating specifically to armoured vehicle procurements, the regulation of safety for land equipment and the broader approach to safety in defence. Recommendation 9 relates to avoiding the concurrent running of the demonstration and manufacture stages in future projects. That recommendation needs to be considered carefully to ensure that we capture the safety imperatives while not preventing sensible spiral development or, for example, the parallel construction of classes of warship. I will update the House on that, alongside recommendations 12 and 14, which also need consideration of how to best implement them, building on existing work on approvals and senior responsible owners.
I will also update the House on the project more broadly. We have a robust, firm price contract for the delivery of 589 vehicles at a cost of £5.5 billion. We are ensuring that we protect our commercial position under the contract and will not accept a vehicle that is not fit for purpose. It remains impossible to share with the House 100% confidence that the programme will succeed or, if it does, the timing of achieving full operating capability. However, we are working closely with General Dynamics on noise and vibration and it is showing great commitment to resolving these issues. This very advanced fighting vehicle project employs 4,100 in south Wales and across the UK. We all want it to succeed and deliver what the British Army requires.
The Millbrook trials to baseline the vehicle’s characteristics have completed and we expect to receive the conclusions shortly. In parallel, General Dynamics has been developing its theories and trialling design modifications to address vibration. We expect to receive its analysis in the new year, following which we will, if appropriate, undertake thorough testing of its proposed modifications to satisfy ourselves on their efficacy.
Part of our analysis is also looking at the performance of the headset used in Ajax. Although the noise profile on Ajax is noticeably different from that of other armoured vehicles, following tests on in-service headsets we took in November a precautionary measure to limit temporarily the amount of time personnel operate while using them in other armoured fighting vehicles. Acoustic testing of our in-service headsets is under way at test facilities in the UK and overseas. We are also testing other headsets to establish whether they will meet our requirements and provide additional attenuation. Once this analysis is complete, we expect to be able to relax the temporary restrictions or implement appropriate mitigations. In the meantime, we remain able to maintain our operational commitments.
The work on Ajax has also highlighted the significant number of personnel across defence whose exposure to noise results in short or long-term restrictions to their military duties. I have therefore asked the MOD permanent secretary to look further at that issue to ensure that we are doing all we can to prevent avoidable hearing loss in our people.
In conclusion, the Ajax health and safety report makes for very difficult reading. It lays bare a deep malaise, which is cultural and results in systemic failures across our organisations. I am grateful to David King and his team for their work and grateful for the candour of many who contributed to the review. There are many working tirelessly to get Ajax back on track. We need to build on that candour and dedication and encourage all those involved in procurement programmes to speak up, identify problems and make clear where those responsible are failing. A culture in which individuals are encouraged not to elevate problems but only solutions through the chain of command may be admirable in other circumstances, but rarely in procurement. We need to support our people by resolving underlying cultural issues that risk making it harder to deliver the capabilities needed by our armed forces.
To take that forward, we are commissioning a senior legal figure to look more deeply at Ajax and to examine not just health and safety, but the cultural and process flaws that it has highlighted. We will leave no stone unturned to learn those lessons. I encourage people to participate in the further review and will ensure they have the space to do so. Of course, if the review uncovers evidence of gross misconduct, those concerned will be held to account, but the primary purpose of this inquiry is to ensure that we address significant cultural failings. The terms of reference will be agreed with the reviewer and I will make them available to the House.
In summary, while we should not forget that General Dynamics UK is responsible for delivering a safe and effective vehicle, it is clear from the report that the customs and practices of the Army, Defence Equipment & Support, Defence Digital and the wider MOD resulted in a culture that prevented issues from being addressed at an earlier point. We are committed to ensuring that measures are put in place to deliver these very complex programmes in a way that minimises the risk to our people while delivering the capability needed by the armed forces. I commend this statement to the House.