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Business of the House

Volume 705: debated on Thursday 16 December 2021

The business for the week commencing 3 January will include:

Monday 3 January—The House will not be sitting.

Tuesday 4 January—The House will not be sitting.

Wednesday 5 January—Second Reading of the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill [Lords].

Thursday 6 January—General debate on Russian grand strategy. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 7 January—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 10 January will include:

Monday 10 January—Remaining stages of the Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill.

Tuesday 11 January—Opposition day (10th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition, subject to be announced.

We will rise for the Christmas recess at the close of business today, and I would like to offer my best wishes to all Members and staff for a peaceful, safe and merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous new year. The thanks of the whole House, and of the Chamber, go to the staff of the House, including our magnificent Doorkeepers. Before the Division on Tuesday, I opened the windows in the Division Lobbies, and one of the Doorkeepers offered me his coat on the basis that I was doing his job for him. They even put up with the Leader of the House interfering in their business, and they do so with enormous grace and kindliness.

I also thank the cleaners, who have been here throughout. Not a day has gone by during the whole pandemic when the cleaners have not been in, doing their job.

I thank the Clerks, who know everything. There is no knowledge in this universe that is not in a clerkly head. Clerkly heads may no longer be kept warm by a wig, but they none the less contain all the wisdom the world has ever found.

I had the opportunity to thank many of our catering, police and security staff this morning.

The small broadcasting team has done a truly fabulous job during covid. The magnificent Hansard Reporters take my gobbledegook and turn it into fine prose, for which I am eternally grateful.

I thank our constituency staff and civil servants who work so tremendously hard, and those in the Box are first class. I am not meant to mention people in the Box, am I, Mr Speaker? If I were allowed, I would say the lady in the Box has provided me with all the answers I will give later, and she does a magnificent and glorious job. We should be proud of the contribution of our civil servants. I also thank the lady who gives them such great leadership, Marianne Cwynarski, who has done a brilliant job throughout the pandemic and continues to do so.

And, of course, I thank you, Mr Speaker. Without your leadership, guidance and kindly wisdom, this House would not be the great place that it is. So, ho, ho, ho, merry Christmas and a happy new year!

Oh, Mr Speaker, that “Ho, ho, ho!” will go into my memoirs.

I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business. On behalf of the official Opposition, I join him in wishing all staff who work for Parliament and for MPs—he made a fantastic and comprehensive list—a peaceful, safe and joyful Christmas. I look forward to seeing everyone in the new year.

I pay great tribute in particular to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) and his fantastic staff, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) and her staff, welcoming them to my small but perfectly formed shadow Leader of the House team. I thank the team of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton for their wonderful contribution.

It is astonishing that this week, we voted to place sensible limits on crowded indoor events with hundreds of people by having a crowded—whatever window-opening the Leader of the House did—indoor event with hundreds of people. We could have had proxy voting, or any of the voting that we had last year. It was not necessary, and it was reckless when we know that we have more cases of covid on the parliamentary estate every day. That is gone, but will the Leader of the House please commit to preparing for a return to covid-safe practices in Parliament, if necessary, so that we can do our democratic duty without risking the health of the staff to whom he has just so warmly paid tribute?

Four years ago, the Government promised a draft Bill to establish a public register of beneficial ownership of overseas legal entities. That is an important anti-corruption and anti-tax avoidance measure on which the Government have delayed and delayed. The fourth anniversary of that promise came and went last Friday, despite the Prime Minister’s recent words. When will we see that important Bill?

That is not the only Government commitment missing in action—I have a Christmas list. In October, the Prime Minister said that the draft Online Safety Bill would have completed all stages by Christmas; then it was just Second Reading; and then it was just some vague commitment that the Bill would be presented at some point. I welcome the statement later by the prelegislative scrutiny Committee, but will the Leader of the House please give us the early Christmas present of just an indication of a date?

Secondly, Ministers seem to have developed an unacceptable habit of prioritising pressers over Parliament. Despite the Leader of the House’s efforts, answers to written parliamentary questions and ministerial correspondence are still too often inadequate, delayed, or frankly just missing. Will he please ask his Cabinet colleagues once more for a new year’s resolution to do better?

Thirdly, after rail betrayal, we have still not heard from the Secretary of State for Transport, despite a commitment to update us before the end of the year on the cost-benefit ratio analysis for the revised High Speed 2 line. I know he is here, because there were Transport questions this morning. How will he keep that promise before the end of today?

Fourthly, as the urgent question just now reminded us, it seems from a leaked email that there will be a 10% cut to Foreign Office staff. This morning, the i newspaper provided some evidence for that, in what appeared to be a copy of that email to staff. The Prime Minister yesterday seems to have confused staffing with aid, but the Minister who has just left his place, the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, seemed to deny that it was a 10% cut without saying that there was no cut. A yes-or-no question to the Leader of the House: will there be a cut? Does he or anyone else know how much that cut will be, because the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa did not say that there would not be a cut?

This week, we learned of the all-too-predictable humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, yet the Government chose to row back even further on their promised, but again missing-in-action, Afghan resettlement scheme. Will the Leader of the House ask the Foreign Secretary to come to the House to give a statement in the new year on what action the Government will take?

Finally, a Christmas Brucie bonus question round. First, on rule-breaking parties in No. 10, this is a second chance for the Leader of the House to tell us exactly who assured the Prime Minister that no rules had been broken, and when they said that. Secondly, on the ministerial code, why did the Prime Minister say that he did not know who paid for the Downing Street refurbishment when the Electoral Commission found messages to Lord Brownlow that seemed to show that not only did the Prime Minister know, but he was the one apparently asking for the donations? If the Prime Minister is found to have inadvertently misled the House or Lord Geidt, what actions does the Leader of the House think he should take?

On the cost of living, does the Leader of the House understand the struggles that working people face this Christmas with Tory tax rises, risks to jobs in hospitality and other industries, and everything costing more? I am sorry to end like a Grinch, but this is a Government who ignore the rules, break their promises and have lost their grip. It is working people who are paying the price, and if I have to be the Grinch, I am afraid it is the Leader of the House and his colleagues whom I hold responsible—but merry Christmas to you, Mr Speaker.

I wondered how long our Christmas cheer would last. I see the hon. Lady, in the absence of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who has generously and kindly sent me his apologies for missing this session, has had to model herself on him and become as grumpy as he sometimes is. Let me try to answer her multiplicity of questions, though the ones that really relate to the Foreign Office were answered in the previous half hour, and the hon. Lady was here, so may I suggest she listens, when she is sitting in the Chamber, to the brilliant answers given by the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, who answered everything she could possibly have wanted an answer to and more?

Let us go back to why we have to be here. Being here, in a democracy, is important. The work we do in Parliament is crucial. Holding the Government to account and ensuring that people can express their views is fundamental. The House authorities have been brilliant in running a covid-safe environment. There are tests available, and people have been testing themselves like billy-o, as is their responsibility, in order to try to keep us all safe. The idea that we should run away from- our democratic duty is for the birds. We should be here, we should be proud to be here, and we should not want to run off home; I think that would be most unsatisfactory.

The hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) asks about the online harms Bill. When Bills do not have prelegislative scrutiny, she says, “Well, why haven’t they had prelegislative scrutiny?”, and when they do, she says, “Why is the Bill taking so long?” That is trying to have her cake and eat it, which we know is a difficult thing to do in terms of physics. I am delighted to see here my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), who chaired the Committee with such distinction; the online harms Bill is much improved, and will be much improved after consideration of the work he has done. I am sure it will be brought before Parliament at the appropriate time for us to debate it.

Then the hon. Member for Bristol West then mentioned railways. For the past couple of weeks, we have thought she was a reformed character—indeed, we thought she might be becoming a Tory, because she kept on referring to taxpayers’ money. It made the Government side of the House really excited—joyful even; Christmas spirit was arising—that there might be someone coming over to us. But alas, this week it is back to socialism, and £96 billion of taxpayers’ money is pooh-poohed—pooh-poohed, Mr Speaker!—when in fact it is an enormous amount of money, and will be the largest amount of expenditure on the railways in real terms since the Victorian era, that era that we look back to with fondness and admiration for the great things that were done.

Let me go on to all this stuff about what may or may not have gone on in Downing Street last year. That is being looked into by the Cabinet Secretary. I ask the hon. Lady to have a little patience, and to wait and see what comes from the Cabinet Secretary.

On the cost of living questions, yes, inflation has risen by 5.1%. I have a feeling that the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee will meet, or announce its decision, at midday, so we are moments away from the witching hour when we will know what the Bank thinks it necessary to do. The hon. Lady may have forgotten that her socialist friend, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, gave the Bank of England independence on monetary policy in 1997.

Finally, let me conclude on my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. We are lucky to have such charismatic, incisive and thoughtful leadership; we are led by one of our truly great leaders. I am proud of the fact that he is leading us, and I see that the hon. Lady looks pretty proud too, though that is hidden behind her mask.

If the Leader of the House had been in our Lobby on Tuesday, he would not have had to open the window; we were much more socially distanced. In my experience, crowded Lobbies full of Labour and Conservative MPs are seldom a very good thing—I am talking about not covid, but political damage. May I give the Leader of the House this early Christmas present? I am trying to be helpful. If we have another vote on a measure that is inimical to civil liberties, and that the Conservative party in its heart profoundly opposes, can it be a free vote? Then only one in 10 Tory MPs will vote for it, and nine out of 10 Labour MPs will vote for it, and the Government might get the same result. My next question to him is important: will he guarantee that if the Government decide to impose any further restriction on civil liberties, even over the Christmas period, Parliament will be recalled?

First, I note my right hon. Friend’s helpful advice. Of course, whipping is not a matter for me as Leader of the House, but I would argue that the Government are given leadership by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who is one of the most civil libertarian leaders that the country has had in well over 100 years. He really believes in the liberties of the people of the United Kingdom and that people make better choices for themselves than the state makes for them. It is this leader who has felt obliged, in the face of a health crisis, to make the decisions that he has. How pleased we should be about that. Just think: we could have had a socialist leader joyfully taking away our liberties and loving locking us down. The Opposition would have kept us in complete lockdown forever and ever—in saecula saeculorum, as my right hon. Friend will quote regularly. This leader—our Prime Minister—has always restored freedoms as quickly as possible and taken them away with reluctance. We should be pleased about that.

As regards recall, Parliament is always recalled when there is a really serious matter to discuss. Sometimes, when we go away on a Thursday, the matter that leads us to be recalled is not what we were discussing when we went away but events that overtake what we were discussing at the moment of our departure. The Government will always listen to calls for recall if the issue is serious enough.

Before I bring in the SNP spokesperson, may I also wish everybody all the best for Christmas and a peaceful new year? I thank all the staff of the House for the tremendous job that they have done. Without them, the House would not work, so it really is appreciated. I must also put on record a big thank you to my team in Speaker’s House. I hope that the Speaker’s secretary is soon fit and well and back at my side, but I have certainly got good cover at the moment. Just to gently tease the Leader of the House—I have a very good working relationship with him—he is absolutely right that this House matters, so let us make sure that Ministers come here to be held to account.

I join the shadow Leader of the House and the Leader of the House in sending Christmas wishes to all staff of the House, all Members and, in particular, my team in Midlothian and the SNP Whips Office, who have done a remarkable job over the past year. It has been a difficult time for many, and we are lucky to have so many willing staff really looking to go that extra mile to support all of us in everything that we do. So many in this place and beyond—I think of all the public services and local government—have done so much over the period. With that, I wish everyone a happy Christmas and a guid new year.

On how this place works, though, I agree with the shadow Leader of the House that we must look at how we can take account of the current covid situation. I know the Leader of the House’s views about the need for us to be here, but we must look very closely at how we work, because having so many Members in one place at decision time while trying to maintain the highest possible level of safety for Members is challenging. Beyond that, with the rise in cases of the new covid-19 variant, a number of Members will have to be isolating because of either contact or having tested positive. This week alone, a significant number of Members have had to withdraw questions—three SNP Members had to withdraw questions from Prime Minister’s questions—so an extraordinary number of Members will be affected. Apart from my personal thought that it would be far better if we were much more flexible anyway, we need to look closely at that, given that Members will have to isolate and the significant impact that that will have on how the business of the House can be conducted, even with testing in place.

The earlier Treasury statement seems to have caused a wee bit of confusion. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) asked about the questions sent by the Scottish Finance Secretary Kate Forbes to the Chancellor to get clarity about Scottish Government funding, and he did not receive a sensible answer, if I can put it that way. If the Leader of the House can do anything to encourage a response from the Chancellor to Kate Forbes, that would be very much appreciated.

Finally, let me take advantage of the season’s goodwill to make a pitch for my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). Come on! He should be the right hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire. Can we please do what we can about that? With that, I wish the Leader of the House all the very best in the inevitable leadership contest that is upcoming.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. What he is asking for for the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) is not within my gift, but may I wish him particularly a very happy Christmas. He is a great sparring partner in this Chamber, even if somewhat grumpy at times. He is also very good company privately. I hope that he is in good health.

The key issue that the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) asks about is funding for Scotland. It is worth pointing out that there is: a £4.6 billion per year average funding boost to Scotland through the Barnett formula; the announcement of a more than £170 million levelling-up fund for eight Scottish projects; £42 million for Scottish fisheries; £1.9 billion for farmers and land managers over the next three years; £1.5 billion for 12 city and growth deals, including more than £500 million for Glasgow, £300 million for Edinburgh, £125 million for Aberdeen, and £53 million for Inverness and the highlands; and new funding for the British Business Bank to establish a £150 million fund for Scotland. This is really important in showing the strength of the United Kingdom together and the amount of money that, as a United Kingdom, we have been able to afford, which is in addition to the £1.7 billion that the Scottish economy has benefited from, dealing with 620,000 self-employment scheme claims and 910,000 jobs that have been on the furlough scheme. This country is better and stronger together. Working together, having the strength of the UK taxpayer, has been essential to the benefit of Scotland, but also to Wales, Northern Ireland and England. We all benefit through our United Kingdom.

As regards issues around the workings in this House, every effort is made to ensure that this House is working safely. We are in the same place as the nation at large. We are people who need to come to work, so we are therefore right to come to work. As the hon. Gentleman will remember, at the very beginning of the pandemic, when there was a total lockdown, we did things differently, but I do not think that that is the current situation.

Yesterday, we heard the sad news that Linda Whetstone had passed away. Linda dedicated her life to spreading the ideas and values of freedom and classical liberal economics around the world. She was not in frontline politics, but, through the Atlas Network, the Institute of Economic Affairs and Mont Pelerin Society, undoubtedly had a huge impact. As the director-general of the IEA said yesterday:

“We may not see her again, but we can be grateful for the incredible legacy she leaves us.”

Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House join me in sending condolences to Linda’s family and friends, particularly her brother, Mike Fisher, and pay tribute to this champion of freedom?

Yes, of course, I pass the condolences of the House and my own condolences via my hon. Friend to Mike Fisher. It is indeed with great sadness that we mark the passing of Linda Whetstone. She was chairman of the Atlas Network, an international association of free market think-tanks, and of the Network for a Free Society. She was the daughter of Sir Anthony Fisher, co-founder of the Institute of Economic Affairs, which has to be said is one of the finest think-tanks that there is and an absolute bastion of good sense and thoughtfulness. She followed his legacy as a dear friend of the IEA and member of its board of trustees. She has also served as a board member and president of the Mont Pelerin Society. My hon. Friend quoted what Mark Littlewood said about her, and that shows how greatly she was admired by an important institution in this country, and we pray for the repose of her soul.

As always, I am very grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I wish you, all Members across the House and all staff in the House, a very happy Christmas, a very peaceful and restful Christmas, and a very happy new year in 2022? We all deserve a better year.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and let him know that we already have pre-allocations for every Thursday in January if we are awarded the time, but that includes, as he has already announced, that important debate on 6 January on Russian grand strategy and a very heavily subscribed set of applications to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day on Thursday 27 January. They are in, and we have pre-allocated that if we are given the time.

I could not help noticing that when we return on Wednesday 5 January, the sitting in the Chamber will begin at 2.30 pm, as it does on Mondays, but the Westminster Hall sitting will begin at 9.30 am, which will make life extremely difficult for those travelling from further afield. Could the Leader of the House look at that as a matter of urgency? I am sure it is just an oversight, but I am thinking particularly of our colleagues in Scotland—members of all parties—who will find it difficult to travel given that 4 January is a bank holiday in Scotland.

Since the inception of the hotel quarantine policy, I have received a number of complaints from my constituents who have been forced to pay significant sums, often at short notice, to return home via hotel quarantine. I readily accept that on public health grounds, but I had hoped that 10 months after the introduction of these measures, the Government would have taken steps to ensure that all hotel quarantine stays were fit for purpose. Many of those constituents who have had no choice but to pay those significant amounts of money have been given very poor provision in return. I was incredibly disappointed to learn just this week that a number of my constituents staying at different hotels around the country have paid thousands of pounds for the privilege, and are still being left without adequate food, access to exercise and fresh air, a laundry service, or even fresh bed linen. One couple paid £3,500 for 10 nights, and had to put up with that sort of provision. May we have a statement so that a Minister can come to the House to explain just what the Government will do to rectify this dire situation? Our constituents are being ripped off and neglected.

I had a feeling, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you were getting a bit nervous about the over rate. I am worried that we will be fined our total match fee if the over rate becomes too slow, so I shall try to be quick, but I thought Members might like to know that the bank rate has risen from 0.1% to 0.25%, although they have all probably heard it already on their Sky News alerts.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) for his thanks for the business that has been provided. I very much noted his request for a Back Bench debate on 27 January, Holocaust Memorial Day; I heard that loud and clear. I know that the debate will be well subscribed, so I will do my best to prevent statements, as I did last year, but I cannot guarantee that, because sometimes there is a strong demand for a particular statement.

On the hotel quarantine policy—which, as the hon. Gentleman fairly pointed out, was necessary on public health grounds—I would say to him that if he has particular issues involving individual constituents, I will happily help, and will take them up for him through my office.

May I, in passing, thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating the debate on Russia’s grand strategy? A proper debate on the subject is long overdue, along with a fuller understanding as we respond to the Ukraine crisis and the other crises that the Russians are provoking.

May I issue a plea not for more or fewer restrictions in the House, but for the Leader of the House and the House of Commons Commission to use as their lodestar the question of consistency? Public confidence in whatever measures the Government are recommending rests on consistency between what people see their leaders doing and what they are being asked to do. If we have to introduce further measures—whether or not Parliament is recalled—we should ensure that our practices here are consistent with what we are asking other people to do.

The fundamental point that we must always bear in mind is the absolute, unequivocal constitutional right of Members to attend Parliament. Whatever rules there may be—we saw this at the height of the pandemic, when people were saying that they were not allowed to travel under restrictions in certain parts of the United Kingdom—there is no law, unless we were to legislate for it specifically, that could ever change the fundamental right of a Member of Parliament to come to Parliament. It is essential to our constitution. Whatever laws there are, that right must be retained.

On 23 September, following an urgent question on the energy crisis, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy offered to meet me to discuss a particularly complex constituency case. The meeting was scheduled for 16 November, only to be cancelled at the last minute. The rescheduling was pushed to another Minister, who has still not found time in his diary. I would be grateful if the Leader of the House could make a statement to remind his colleagues of their responsibilities and to encourage them to keep commitments made in the Chamber.

I will take that up immediately after. A meeting with a Minister that was asked for on 23 September and that was agreed to ought certainly to happen well before Christmas. I can only apologise to the hon. Lady. It is quite easy for people who want to come and see me—my office is very nearby and they can just bang on the door, which sometimes short-circuits cumbersome interlocutors who get in the way of arranging meetings.

Knaresborough is a thriving market town in my constituency, but nevertheless all its bank branches have closed. Next year, however, it will be one of five locations in the country where a shared banking hub will open. That new initiative will be funded by the major banks and will be open for personal and business customers. As banking changes, it is good that the financial services sector is working with other top companies such as LINK on what the next generation of service provision will look like. Can we please have a debate about local banking services to enable us to explore that new initiative and perhaps give some publicity to that positive news?

I heard about that initiative on the news. It is really important, because the Government recognise that access to cash remains important to millions across the United Kingdom. I think that the report I heard, although I would not swear to it, said that 5 million people still depend almost entirely on cash. The UK has committed to legislating to protect access to cash, but it is impressive that the banks are doing it for themselves. It is a private sector initiative, prior to any legislation being brought forward, that will help people have access to cash. My hon. Friend is right to try to give it further publicity so people know that it will happen. I encourage him to apply to the Backbench Business Committee for a further debate on the subject, because I think it will command the interest of many hon. Members on both sides of the House.

I welcome the Government’s appointment of Baroness Hallett to chair the inquiry into covid-19, and the Prime Minister meeting his own deadline for a change. Much remains unknown about the inquiry, however, so can the Leader of the House tell me when we can expect the terms of reference to be published, when the inquiry will formally begin and when the Government will begin to meaningfully engage with the bereaved families?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the appointment of Baroness Hallett. I looked her up yesterday and I believe that it is her birthday today, so I take the opportunity of wishing her many happy returns.

The inquiry is set to begin its work in spring 2022. It will be established under the Inquiries Act 2005 with full powers, including the power to compel the production of documents and summon witnesses to give evidence on oath. Additional panel members will be appointed in the new year to ensure that the inquiry has access to the full range of expertise needed to complete its important work.

The inquiry will play a key role in examining the UK’s pandemic response and in ensuring that we understand what happened in the past so that we can do it better in future. The Prime Minister will now consult Baroness Hallett and Ministers from the devolved Administrations on the precise terms of reference for the inquiry and will publish them in draft in the new year.

Those most affected by the pandemic, including those who have sadly lost members of their family and their friends, must have an opportunity to play their proper role in the process. Once the terms of reference have been published in draft, Baroness Hallett will take forward a process of public engagement and consultation, including with bereaved families and other affected groups, before the terms of reference are finalised. The hon. Gentleman is so right to ask that their concerns are taken into consideration, and I am glad to be able to confirm that they will be.

Rural crime should be treated as serious organised crime. I am proud that Rutland and Melton is home to more than 400 farmers, but they are suffering from livestock theft, trespassing, hare coursing equipment theft, and even vegan militias that go on to dairy farms and carry out crimes against dairy farmers. That is why Leicestershire needs a rural crime strategy and why 101 operators should have training on rural crime issues. Can we please have a debate in Government time to show how much it matters to the Government to tackle rural crime and how seriously they take it?

As I also represent a rural constituency, I know how serious these matters are and the effect they have on people’s livelihoods and wellbeing. My hon. Friend is lucky, as am I, to live in an area represented by a Conservative police and crime commissioner, who will be able to set the priorities of policing for the people of Leicestershire. This is something that we should be doing more about, but we are doing more about it. Police forces are recruiting. We have another 11,000 new officers, and Leicestershire is leading the way: it has 13% more officers than it had in the year ending March 2021. Things are going the right way, and more police are going to be on the beat, but it will really be up to crime commissioners to set the tone for their forces and to emphasise the importance of tackling rural crime.

First, I thank the Leader of the House for his correspondence in relation to my question last week, although I am disappointed to report that there is still no statement forthcoming from the Department for Education on the future contract for the Turing scheme.

The Leader of the House will be aware of this morning’s urgent question on business support, when the Economic Secretary to the Treasury indicated that the Chancellor is meeting with business groups this afternoon. The variant is putting businesses everywhere at risk, and the House needs to be prepared to give support. How can we tell our own local hospitality businesses that we broke up as they went under? The Government can choose to recall Parliament if they want, so will the Leader of the House therefore advise whether he will use all the measures available to him, including virtual participation, to recall Parliament to pass the right emergency measures to support our hospitality businesses?

It is inevitably difficult for hospitality under the current circumstances. It is worth reminding people of what has been done already, with £400 billion of taxpayers’ money spent on dealing with covid and helping businesses with rate relief and a lower VAT rate. Obviously the Government are aware of what is happening. There was a statement made earlier and the Chancellor has said he will have meetings. As regards recalling Parliament, I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). Parliament is always recalled when there is a matter of sufficient seriousness to recall it, but forecasting what that will be is not always a successful effort.

I am delighted to be able to wish a very merry Christmas to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to everyone here. However, there are some people who will not be celebrating quite as much this Christmas as many of us would hope: taxi drivers. Those who are driving for Castle Cars in Tonbridge or Relyon in Edenbridge have already seen a dip in trade over the past few days, and I know that many of those running cab firms have also seen an impact on the wider use of their business. This is not just a matter for some incredibly hard-working small businesses; this is actually a very important matter, as I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree, for those of us with rural communities, because those taxis provide a much-needed service for getting many people to hospitals and to visit family and for keeping the community together. Could he look for time in the Government’s agenda to have a debate on this matter, because we not only have that pressure, but the pressure of the rise in interest rates, which he announced to the House? That will put an increased impetus on many to seek an income that will be chasing a higher cost of living.

I think Disraeli called London taxi drivers “the gondoliers of London”, and I certainly take that view myself. They are fantastically hard-working and entrepreneurial, as are taxi drivers up and down the country. They are almost all individual small businesses. They work the hours that are required of them and they provide, as my hon. Friend says, a service that is absolutely essential. I encourage hon. and right hon. Members to support the taxi trade as far as they can. While I am at it, I encourage the Mayor of London to be nicer to London taxi drivers and not spend his whole time trying to make their lives more difficult by closing roads to them.

There are obviously difficulties at the moment with people cancelling things because of the pandemic, but I am confident that taxi drivers will be able to get through this. They have got back to work, and trade did pick up prior to the omicron variant coming through. We should thank them for what they do. As regards a debate, I think that will be more in the bailiwick of the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns).

The covid pandemic has shown us the importance of our parks, green spaces and country parks everywhere in getting us out in the fresh air and for recreation. The public health benefits cannot be ignored. So I wish to congratulate my constituents who have formed the Save Our Derwent Walk Country Park campaign group, a non-partisan group seeking to protect the Derwent Walk Country Park in the face of a “Restoring Your Railways” bid. So may we have a debate in Government time about the importance of green spaces and parks to public health?

The hon. Lady continues a noble tradition in this House; I believe it was William Pitt the Elder, known as “the Great Commoner” for his devotion to this House, who called the London parks the “lungs of London”. That was right then and it is right now; open spaces are so important. What the hon. Lady says about the Derwent Walk Country Park support group is really important; people really mind about their country parks. I suggest that in the first instance this is a matter for an Adjournment debate, but I congratulate those in her constituency who, on a cross-party basis, are working for the health and wellbeing of all her constituents.

Over the summer, we had a spate of thefts of catalytic converters in my constituency. That is bad enough for constituents, but just recently this has turned into an even more ugly situation, with gangs of thugs arriving with baseball bats and forcing residents to give up their cars and catalytic converters on pain of severe bodily harm. May we have a statement in Government time on what action the Government can take to prevent the sale of precious metals from catalytic converters for cash? If they are registered, it is much more challenging for these thugs to carry on their evil practice.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and this was an issue with scrap metal some years ago. Her Majesty’s Government are committed to tackling the theft of catalytic converters. We are working closely with the police and motor manufacturers, through the national vehicle crime working group, which was established by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and is overseen by the Government’s Crime and Justice Taskforce, to see what more can be done. In December 2017, the Home Office published a review of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013, which I happen to remember because it started as a private Member’s Bill that was given very widespread support. How that Act is enforced is key to tackling this crime.

I can give my hon. Friend some good news: the British Transport police, through the national infrastructure crime reduction partnership, has conducted two national weeks of action, which resulted in 64 arrests, 1,400 stopped vehicles, and 1,000 catalytic converters and other items of stolen property being recovered. However, these threats of violence are appalling and I encourage people who see anything like that happening to dial 999 as a matter of urgency.

May I echo what the Leader of the House said in praise of the staff of this House and, in particular, the cleaners? When I was first elected to public office in 1991, on Cardiff City Council, I took my mother Beryl, who is now 92 and who was a cleaner, to Cardiff city hall to see its opulent marble splendour. Her reaction to that was to say, “Imagine having to clean this.” We should all bear that in mind in politics. So may we have a debate on the vital work that cleaners do, often in the wee hours of the morning, to clean our hospitals, shops and offices, and even to clean up after No. 10 Christmas parties, and on the need not just to praise them, but to pay them decent pay so that they are the ones who do not have to go in search of second jobs?

May I pay a warm tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s mother, Beryl, for ensuring that her son is always so well turned out, among other things? Clearly, he is calling to mind the fact that cleanliness is next to godliness. I am so grateful that he has picked up on this point, as I was really impressed, and to some extent felt rather guilty, that the people working throughout the pandemic in this House every day were the cleaners, who are probably among the lowest-paid in this House. We should be grateful to them. I can also reassure him that by raising the national living wage to £9.50 next year, and giving nearly 2 million families an extra £1,000 a year through our cut to the universal credit taper and the increase to work allowances, exactly the sort of people we are trying to help will be helped.

Building safety is very important to me and my constituents. I have been shocked and dismayed by some of the revelations coming out of the building products industry, and since March I have been calling for a tax on that industry to pay partly for cladding remediation. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on the timing of the Building Safety Bill, and does he agree that we need to find a solution for leaseholders?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and note very carefully her concerns about this important Bill; I will make sure that they are passed on to the Secretary of State. The Building Safety Bill remains a clear priority for the Government. It will deliver a world-class building safety regime and help drive up standards across the industry, built on the principles of safety and proportionality. We will proceed with the remaining stages of the Bill as soon as practical. I appreciate that this issue is of great concern to many Members, who have pressed it in the House on multiple occasions.

While we legislate to bring forward important reforms, homes are being made safer. The Government are delivering the building safety fund, providing an unprecedented £5.1 billion of taxpayers’ money to remove unsafe cladding from high-rise buildings, and delivering the waking watch relief fund, which helps reduce the use of costly interim measures. As my hon. Friend knows, the Secretary of State is looking at our work in this area to ensure that we are doing everything we can to protect and support leaseholders, and he will set out his proposals in due course. However, as I said, I will make sure that her comments are brought to his attention.

Yesterday, I met Ali Mushaima on day 21 of his hunger strike outside the Bahraini embassy to raise the cases of his father, imprisoned opposition leader Hassan Mushaima, and Bahraini academic Dr Abduljalil al-Singace. These cases have received unanimous international support from bodies such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, but this Government remain silent. Can we have a debate on political freedom and human rights in Bahrain? Given the UK’s close relationship with Bahrain, when will Ministers meet Ali and issue a statement urging their allies to unconditionally release Hassan Mushaima and Dr al-Singace?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this case and Ali Mushaima’s hunger strike. The Government attach great importance to freedom of religion or belief and view it as a fundamental human right. Her Majesty’s Government remain deeply concerned about the severity and scale of violations and abuses of freedom of religion or belief in many parts of the world. We remain committed to the global effort to support the most vulnerable members of society, irrespective of race, religion and ethnicity. I am not informed about the individual case, and I do not think the hon. Gentleman would expect me to be, but I will certainly ensure that it is passed on to the Foreign Office shortly after business questions, and will ask that a detailed response be sent to him.

May I extend a happy Christmas to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to all the team who so ably support you?

Today, the average price at the pumps in Dudley and elsewhere is about £1.48 a litre. That is about 29p a litre higher than in 2015, since when crude oil has been at today’s price. Does the Leader of the House agree that that is an unjustifiably high price to pay for ordinary hard-working working-class people, the self-employed and businesses? Does he also agree that oil giants should stop taking advantage of everyone in this way, and will he please agree to a debate on the matter?

This is the great fiddle of litres, is it not? That works out at not far short of £8 a gallon. When we put it like that it sounds even more shockingly expensive than in metric measures that make it sound unduly low compared with the real cost. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to be concerned about this. The price has risen very significantly over the past year, and we have seen the latest inflation figures. It is important and fair to motorists that, when the price of crude oil falls, it is passed through the system as quickly and as fairly as possible. It is worth pointing out that the freeze on petrol duty has had a very significant benefit for people in this country—I think it saves them on average £15 every time they fill up with fuel—although saying it could be much worse is not necessarily a great comfort to people when they fill up at the pumps.

A happy Christmas to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to all Members and staff of the House.

I know that the Leader of the House will agree with me about the importance of the local high street, especially in these uncertain times. At the beginning of December, I visited the owners of Steve’s Cycles on Chanterlands Avenue and Macs Tools on Newland Avenue in Hull, both of whom have really gone above and beyond in the service they have provided to their local community while also dealing with the effects of the pandemic on themselves and their families. Could we have an urgent statement from a Minister about the support that will be available to small family businesses while we are under plan B?

First, I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her election yesterday as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, which shows how widely respected she is on all sides of the House.

I agree with the right hon. Lady about the importance of local high streets, and may I pay tribute to those at Steve’s Cycles and Macs Tools? I obviously do not know them individually, but I know what she means because, across our constituencies and across our high streets, we all have businesses like those that are doing their extra bit for their communities, and they deserve thanks and praise. There was an urgent question earlier today about the support that is being made available. There are funds available to help high streets and to help regenerate high streets, which councils have been bidding for, so there is a great deal of activity in this area. However, if the right hon. Lady wants an Adjournment debate on the specifics of her own high street, I suggest she refer that to Mr Speaker.

Merry Christmas to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to all the staff here.

Friends of mine in business are saying that the ability of the Information Commissioner to levy large fines is having some unintended consequences, in that cyber-gangs are stealing businesses’ data and threatening to publish it if a ransom is not paid. That ransom is almost always less than the potential fine they might get from the Information Commissioner, so to save both money and embarrassment, they are quietly paying it. I appreciate that there is no easy answer, because data breaches are serious, but can we have a debate on the regulation in this area, because none of us wants to see more money going to criminal gangs?

No, indeed. My hon. Friend is right to raise this, and he poses an interesting question. The Information Commissioner’s Office has published guidance on responding to a cyber-security incident. It uses information on reported data breaches to identify data security incident trends, and it will share information with the National Cyber Security Centre and other law enforcement or cyber-crime agencies, as well as with other regulators, such as the National Crime Agency or the Financial Conduct Authority. Personal data, as my hon. Friend says, has to be processed securely, but if somebody is having to pay money to a criminal gang to avoid a sanction, and thereby avoids a sanction that would be higher than the bribe to the criminal gang, that just has the effect of encouraging criminality. As he says, the solution is not a simple one.

I recently raised the case of my constituent, Mr Lafferty, involving Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs maladministration that led to an unexpected tax liability, and I am grateful to the Leader of the House for his intervention on Mr Lafferty’s behalf. Jim Harra, the permanent secretary, has written to me describing the case in detail and defending the ongoing imposition of interest, but failing to mention that it was HMRC’s fault in the first place. Can the Leader of the House please arrange for his previous letter to be forwarded to the Financial Secretary, as the person who should deal with it, so that we can at least look at removing the interest from the amount due?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has at least received a reply from Mr Harra of HMRC. I view my role as trying to get replies for hon. Members, rather than necessarily being able to get them the replies their constituents want—that is not always within my capabilities—but I will of course pass on the correspondence to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury.

I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all House staff and people on the estate a merry Christmas.

I listened earlier to the urgent question on Government support for business. After Tuesday’s vote and the characteristically confusing messaging from the Prime Minister, untold damage is being caused to our entertainment, hospitality and taxi industries. It is clear that neither the Prime Minister nor the Chancellor understands the urgency of this situation. Throughout the pandemic this Government have consistently introduced restrictions without publishing clear guidance for the industries affected and have provided support only after desperate pleas. Will the Leader of the House use the Christmas break to reflect on and discuss with his colleagues how a good Government should operate so that they come back in the new year ready to govern responsibly?

The hon. Lady entirely mischaracterises what the Government have done. There has been over £400 billion-worth of support for businesses, including the furlough scheme and the recovery loan scheme. There has been a terrific amount of support to businesses. There has also been the reduction of VAT initially to a 5% rate to help businesses, the suspension of business rates, and business rates then going to a discounted level. This has been fundamental support for employment and businesses, which is why we now have more people in payroll employment than we did before the pandemic began. The other point she makes shows a fundamental difference between the socialists and the Conservatives. The Government make rules, laws are passed that people have to obey, and then people make decisions for themselves. Conservatives believe that people are capable of making better decisions for themselves than they are by being lectured and nannied directly by the state. The socialists always want to control every aspect of people’s lives, and that is not a good way to operate.

Merry Christmas, Madam Deputy Speaker.

On 7 September, the UK Government announced the new national insurance levy to fund social care. Following this, on 8 September, HMRC issued an email to my constituent Robert Millar saying positively that the draft legislation would have this effect or that effect, even though it was not approved by this Parliament until 14 September. Can we have a debate on whether it is normal for Government Departments to jump the gun on parliamentary debate and voting in this way, and, if it is, whether that practice shows sufficient regard and respect for parliamentary process?

I am very intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s question, because it would be improper for a public body to take a vote in Parliament for granted. On the other hand, it would not be improper to use the word “if”. Without seeing the precise details of the correspondence, I would be very reluctant to criticise anybody, but I would say very clearly that no public body should pre-empt Parliament.

Happy Christmas, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The covid bereaved families across the country will not be having a happy Christmas; it will be a really difficult time. I welcome the appointment of the covid-19 inquiry, just in time before Christmas. I listened carefully to the Leader of the House’s outlining of the process going forward and welcome the fact that in January there will be an appointment of panel members and the terms of reference will be drawn up. The bereaved families community is very interested in those terms of reference, understandably. Can I have an assurance that there will be engagement with the bereaved families community before the drawing up and publication of the terms of reference, and on how that will happen, particularly with the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group?

Let me make this as clear as I possibly can. Those most affected by the pandemic, including those who have sadly lost friends and family, must also have an opportunity to play their proper role in the process. Once the terms of reference have been published in draft, Baroness Hallett will take forward a process of public engagement and consultation, including with bereaved families and other affected groups, before the terms of reference are finalised. I hope that gives the hon. Lady the assurance she is looking for.

Happy Christmas to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to all the House staff.

Christmas should be an exciting and fun time of year, but for too many children it simply is not. Since my question in the House last week, we have heard of another tragedy involving a child. I therefore ask the Leader of the House not if, but when, will we have a debate in this House about the safety of children, the overloaded casework of social workers, and the revolving door of leaders of children’s services, which also adds to the risks?

There is so little that I can add to what I said last week to the hon. Lady. I am grateful to her for raising these just tragic, tragic cases. I read in the newspapers about this little baby, and it is unbelievable that fellow human beings can behave in this way. I am sympathetic to her request for a debate. She knows that I cannot promise debates like this in Government time. They are essentially matters for the Backbench Business Committee, but it is a matter of importance to us all and anyone who has any emotion within them when these terrible things happen to those who are so entirely unable to defend themselves. When the state fails to defend the defenceless, it is perhaps the greatest failing of the state.

May I, too, wish you and all Members of the House as well as the staff a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.

This Saturday 18 December marks International Migrants Day. While asylum law in the United Kingdom makes provision for persons fleeing persecution because of their religion or belief, the sad reality is that many of those who are in desperate need of refuge simply cannot access these pathways. For example, Pakistani Christian Sawan Masih is in hiding with his family in Pakistan after being accused of blasphemy. As we approach Christmas, will the Leader of the House issue a statement of support for those Christians around the world who cannot celebrate without fear of persecution and join me in sending a petition to grant Sawan Masih and his family safe asylum in the United Kingdom?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As always, he brings the most important issues to the attention of the House. I understand that the International Migrants Day theme this year is harnessing the potential of human mobility. This country has a long tradition of welcoming those in need of sanctuary, and this will continue. Since 2015, we have resettled more than 25,000 people seeking refuge from persecution across the world. As I said earlier, freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right. No one should feel unable to celebrate Christmas or any other holiday for fear of being persecuted. It is clear that many Christians have faced awful persecution in Pakistan, suffering spurious accusations of blasphemy. At Christmas it is vital that we try to ease their plight. I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

On the specific case that he raises, I am afraid the hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot give commitments in individual cases, but I am always willing to help right hon. and hon. Members get answers from the relevant Departments.

I thank the Leader of the House for that statement, and I add my best wishes to right hon. and hon. Members and House staff.