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Commons Chamber

Volume 706: debated on Tuesday 11 January 2022

House of Commons

Tuesday 11 January 2022

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The Secretary of State was asked—

UK Productivity

As we recover from the pandemic, the Government are seizing the opportunity to drive up productivity. We seek to level up the private sector in all parts of the UK.

I recently visited the Financial Planning Corporation in my constituency, whose impressive productivity has enabled it to expand its business. Will the Secretary of State confirm that if bills and taxes go up in the spring, local businesses will continue to operate in a productive environment, free from bureaucracy and unnecessary red tape?

Absolutely. I know that my hon. Friend is doing an excellent job of representing his constituents and making sure that the Government deliver on the levelling-up agenda.

Buying British is a great way for the Government to boost productivity, so why are they buying so many covid tests from China? Many of those tests have only temporary approval from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and are now banned in the United States. In contrast, the MHRA is delaying approval for British test manufacturers, who have approval and can sell around the world but not here. Surely the Secretary of State is not going to tell us that the MHRA has a different set of standards from those in all other countries. When will he get behind British manufacturers who want to play their part in fixing the shortage of covid tests?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the UK has led the world in life sciences manufacturing. I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), has taken up the role of life sciences Minister. He has engaged with our manufacturing base, and people look to the UK as an outstanding example of a world-leading life sciences manufacturing nation.

Hospitality Sector: Covid-19 Support

2. What plans he has to support small and medium-sized enterprises in the hospitality sector during the covid-19 outbreak. (904923)

In addition to our £400 billion package, including grants, loans, business rates relief, VAT discounts and the rent moratorium, we are providing a further £1 billion for hospitality businesses and an extra £100 million in discretionary grants—a lifeline for many small businesses.

Great British pubs are the heart of our community, especially in rural constituencies such as mine. I recently hosted a roundtable with several pubs in South West Hertfordshire, at which they expressed their concerns about the next few months after a tough December. Will the Minister confirm that he will do all he can to encourage people to return to their local pub? Will he commend publicans for their hard work making their businesses covid-safe, indoors and out?

I thank my hon. Friend for his support for our pubs. It is important that we save our pubs one pint at a time; they play a crucial role in our high streets, our communities and our wellbeing. I am working, through the hospitality recovery strategy, to champion pubs at the heart of our communities, many of which have been supporting the vulnerable during the pandemic. We will showcase the value of the excellent work of pub landlords to make venues covid-secure, including with good ventilation.

My nightclub in Brighton, Revenge—[Laughter.] It is not mine personally, although I do like to frequent it. It has seen a 60% fall in its patronage because of the latest variant. It is really struggling, but it has been told that it is not eligible for the latest round of grants because it has received previous grants, including the recovery grant. That is a real problem for our night-time economy and for many businesses. Will the Minister confirm that any business in the night-time economy or hospitality sector is eligible for the latest round of grants that he has released?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his reference to that aptly named nightclub in Brighton. Clearly, opening nightclubs is a big challenge because of ventilation, but they are eligible for discretionary grants: councils have £100 million for discretionary grants to support them.

The café and restaurant owners I met in Basingstoke before Christmas saw their bookings plummet in the key pre-Christmas weeks, so they will really welcome the extra support that the Minister speaks about. The newly recognised personal care sector—hair and beauty—was similarly hit. Will he support that sector as well: the hairdressers, barbers and beauty businesses that make up our high streets?

I support the personal care sector, which I have engaged with regularly over the past few weeks. My right hon. Friend refers to the hospitality sector, cafés and the like. The grants that we are now offering equate to the levels we were offering when those businesses were closed, in recognition of the chilling factor affecting the number of events booked in the lead-up to Christmas—that is the rationale behind it. The care sector can also get discretionary grants from the local authority.

Tory failures on the economy now show all too clearly that the Tories are no longer the party of business. Business taxes and costs are rising, revenues and profits are falling, and businesses face a cliff edge in March as support is withdrawn. Yet when hospitality businesses were losing, on average, £10,000 a week, the Chancellor was in California, with the Business Secretary nowhere to be seen. Does the Minister agree that hospitality businesses, hit hard by covid and Government chaos, need more than the one-off grants finally announced, and will he now back Labour’s calls for the Government to consider extending the VAT discount for hospitality?

This Government continue to be the Government and the party for businesses, and that includes the hard-pressed hospitality sector, which is such a crucial part of the ecosystem of our high streets, our cities, and our coastal and rural areas. The Secretary of State and I spoke to hospitality sector representatives of all kinds within hours of the announcement of the move to plan B ahead of Christmas, and we will continue to support them as best we can.

Science and Innovation: Levelling Up

3. What steps he is taking to harness science and innovation for the purposes of the Government’s levelling-up agenda. (904924)

UK leadership in science, technology and innovation is already driving huge investment in new sectors, companies and clusters throughout the UK, from the Newquay spaceport to the Shetlands, and from Northern Ireland to Teesside, Aberdeen and other life science clusters around the country. However, we intend to go further, and following our innovation nation strategy, we are committed to supporting those clusters. I am engaged in talks with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and details will be provided in the forthcoming levelling up White Paper.

My hon. Friend may know that a leading example of science and innovation as a key tool in achieving levelling up is the Lincoln Science and Innovation Park in my city constituency of Lincoln, which has been headed by the excellent Tom Blount for a number of years. The aptly named Boole Technology Centre, of calculus infamy, has been a great success to date and continues to expand even further, recently attracting notable international tenants and job providers. What financial support can our Government offer, so that organisations such as the Lincoln Science and Innovation Park can continue to grow and nurture companies such as KryptoKloud, and similar new ones can be created?

I congratulate my hon. Friend, who has been a tireless advocate for the Lincoln cluster. He asked about funding. In the comprehensive spending review, we set out the biggest increase in investment in science and innovation for a generation. Specifically, 34 projects in the cluster are funded by UK Research and Innovation. I look forward to discussing this with my hon. Friend, who has made a powerful pitch for that centre to be recognised as a cluster, and I look forward to visiting it.

The University of Sheffield’s new gene therapy innovation and manufacturing centre shows that South Yorkshire can lead the world when it comes to research, but nearly half of all R&D spending goes into the golden triangle. What is the Minister doing to ensure that the north gets its fair share?

That was a great question. The hon. Gentleman is right. In fact, there are several clusters in the Yorkshire area, and in a previous career I myself worked in the Sheffield university cluster, which is very powerful.

Our strategy is that if we wish to be both a global science superpower to attract investment internationally and an innovation nation, we will not achieve that by moving the golden triangle north. What we must do is increase spending in the north, which we are already doing, and grow the supply chains in, for instance, advanced manufacturing. We are not just an invention economy; we are also a manufacturing and innovation economy, and Yorkshire, and Sheffield specifically, have a big part to play in that.

That truly iconic British-built scientific research vessel RRS Sir David Attenborough—built by Cammell Laird of Birkenhead—came up the Thames just before Christmas, at the time of COP26. Does the Minister agree that she is the epitome of all that is best about British science, and that the British Antarctic Survey, through its work in both the Antarctic and the Arctic, leads the world in research on climate change in particular, and in so many other areas of science?

My hon. Friend is right, and he is also a powerful envoy for the Government in terms of our polar science. The royal research ship Sir David Attenborough is something of which all of us in the House can be proud. It is an incredible platform, and it embodies the very best of British leadership in science and innovation, with international scientists working on global challenges.

Will the Minister publish details of the business innovation forum, and how it will hold the Government to account on the distribution of the shared prosperity fund throughout the UK?

Yes. We are in the process of establishing the forum, and I want to ensure that we are talking not just to the same old people whom the Government always talk to but to the companies on the frontline—the leaders of the sectors of tomorrow. In the innovation strategy we set out seven high-growth sectors, and I will publish details of that in due course.

New Nuclear Power

Let me pay tribute to those who worked at Hunterston nuclear power station in Scotland, which closed a few days ago. The operators have reported that since the station came online in 1976 it has produced enough zero-carbon electricity to power every home in Scotland for nearly 31 years.

Looking ahead, the Government have announced a £120 million future nuclear enabling fund to support new nuclear and we are aiming for a final investment decision on at least one more large-scale nuclear project during this Parliament, subject to value for money and relevant approvals.

What a shame that the Scottish National party is not pressing for a replacement of that old girl, who has given fantastic service over the years. Will the Minister reassure me that he sees nuclear as a way of not only replacing electricity capacity but producing the hydrogen we will need to power the heavy vehicles—the buses and trucks—of the future?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that further question, and I totally agree with him on where the SNP is. On energy in general, SNP Members are not the friends of Scotland on nuclear or the North sea. He is also absolutely right on hydrogen. On the Government Benches we recognise that net zero needs nuclear for security of supply, to meet our decarbonisation targets and to support new industries such as hydrogen.

When it comes to new nuclear, there is not a single successful EPR plan operational anywhere in the world. The regulated asset base—RAB—model has not been shown to work for new nuclear, so why does the Minister think that it is a good investment of £63 billion of bill payers’ money to sign up for Sizewell C when it is just going to be another white elephant?

I repeat my disappointment. Scotland has an amazing nuclear past and I would like it to have a very good nuclear future, but unfortunately the Scottish Government stand in the way. This country needs nuclear, and net zero needs nuclear. Hinkley is being built, and we are very confident of the numbers and of building new nuclear power stations in this country. That is what the Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill—which secured its Third Reading yesterday with the support of the official Opposition but not of the SNP or the Lib Dems—is all about.

My constituency is home to Wylfa Newydd, the best potential nuclear site in the UK. Will the Minister accept my invitation to visit Wylfa Newydd to see at first hand why the Prime Minister himself is a fervent supporter?

I absolutely accept that invitation. There is no more passionate an advocate of new nuclear in this House than my hon. Friend. Nuclear is going to be a vital part of our future. The UN Economic Commission for Europe recently said that international climate objectives would not be met if nuclear power were excluded, so it is a key part of our net-zero ambitions.

I was disappointed that, in his reply, the Minister did not refer to small modular nuclear reactors, which surely are the future in this sector. Can we take the lesson from the vaccine taskforce that rigorous scientific methods can be combined with speeding up the process and cutting out dead time? Can he convey that message to the regulators so that this world-beating technology can be built in Britain to the benefit of British industry and British workers?

I absolutely share the right hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for SMRs. At the end of last year, the Secretary of State announced funding for SMRs of £250 million, working with Rolls-Royce and with the best of British industry and innovation on SMRs. I recently had a meeting with Sheffield MPs as well, where we talked about Sheffield’s potential to host SMRs, along with other sites. SMRs are very much part of our nuclear future.

Is the Minister aware that my constituency is on the frontline of the SNP Scottish Government’s dogmatic opposition to new nuclear power stations? For over 50 years, the Chapelcross power station near Annan provided much-needed jobs and a huge boost to the local economy, yet despite public support we cannot have Chapelcross 2 because the SNP is blocking it.

My right hon. Friend has been a passionate defender of Scotland’s interests since he and I were first elected in 2005, and he is absolutely right. The SNP has a nonsensical policy towards energy in Scotland in general, and towards nuclear in particular. There is a great civil nuclear heritage in Scotland which the SNP has betrayed. I wholly agree with my right hon. Friend.

Flood Recovery Support

5. What steps he is taking with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ensure the adequacy of business and community flood recovery support funding. (904926)

The flood recovery framework is in place to determine where communities and businesses need support from central Government in severe flood events. The guidance has recently been reviewed and refreshed, to learn from previous years. The framework includes the business recovery grant, which BEIS administers as part of a Government core package of support for communities and businesses.

Flooding is now inevitable: climate change means that it is going to happen. It is not a question of if but a question of when, and small and medium-sized enterprises are disproportionately affected by the devastation of flooding. The Flood Re insurance scheme does not cover small businesses, meaning that many are left without insurance. I am pleased to hear that the flood recovery grant system is being looked at again, but will the Minister now consider talking to SMEs to design a scheme that is ready to go from the moment flooding happens? As I say, flooding is not a question of if but a question of when.

The Flood Re scheme does not include businesses, as the hon. Lady says, and there are no plans to extend eligibility because that market operates differently from the household insurance market. The scheme is bespoke. I appreciate that SMEs are disproportionately affected compared with bigger businesses, but I suggest that the hon. Lady engages directly on this with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Will the Minister look at the opportunities to manage Britain’s longest river, the River Severn? We believe that, if an holistic solution were found to managing Britain’s longest river, there would be a gross value added uplift in the west midlands of more than £150 billion. These figures are being presented to DEFRA. Will he and his Department also take an interest and work with me, as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the River Severn Partnership, on trying to find a solution to managing Britain’s longest river?

It is important not to wait until flooding happens, as we have heard, but to manage it actively. Organisations such as Living With Water in the constituency of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) have done very good things in proactively tackling flooding.

Again, I suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) works with DEFRA. I am happy to see what more I can do in that regard.

Night-time Economy

BEIS and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport sponsor the hospitality and entertainment sectors, both of which support the night-time economy. Alongside the £400 billion package of grants, loans, business rates relief, VAT discounts and rent moratoriums, we are providing £1 billion-worth of grants and £100 million-worth of discretionary grants.

Although the night-time economy has clearly been thriving in Whitehall, especially at the height of lockdown, many bars, clubs and pubs across the rest of London are unfortunately struggling to stay afloat, and many of them employee my constituents. The Night Time Industries Association suggests that its members have lost, on average, £45,000 over the festive period, so the grants do not touch the sides. Will the Minister commit to providing further financial support to this sector by reintroducing the 100% business rates relief and the emergency 5% VAT rate?

The business rates relief and VAT relief continue, but the grants the Chancellor has offered equate to the grants we previously offered when the same businesses were mandated to close, in recognition of the chilling effect. Clearly we will continue to work with the hospitality sector, which wants to stay open and trade normally. That is why we are learning to live with covid, in contrast with, for example, Labour-run Wales, where the hospitality sector has remained hampered by further restrictions.

I welcome all the support the Government have given to businesses and all the work the Minister has done personally in this area. However, hospitality and the night-time economy in Bexleyheath town centre still face real challenges with staffing as well as finance. Will my hon. Friend continue to meet representatives of these sectors to take their views on board and see what more can be done, particularly on staffing?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. Interestingly, we now have 400,000 more people in work than before the pandemic, which is testament to the plan for jobs and the plan for growth, but we need to address the record number of vacancies. We need to match them with the people in work who want to work more hours, and we will do that between the Department for Work and Pensions and my work in BEIS. There will be a cross-Government approach to make sure hospitality can thrive.

The Minister knows that Newcastle’s night-time economy is absolutely core to our city’s appeal and character. But we know that businesses in the night-time economy have accrued massive debts during this period. They are struggling with the continued uncertainty that omicron is bringing. We know that the night-time economy—our nightlife—is what makes Newcastle great and discretionary grants are welcome, but we know that some areas are impacted worse than others and have less discretionary ability to spend that on the night-time economy. So, will the Minister look at specific, targeted support for that sector, for those areas that really need it?

We are trying make sure that the cities can open in full. That is a return to work, a return for students, a return to domestic travel, and a return to international travel. All those people contribute to that ecosystem of hospitality, and indeed the night-time economy, so cities have a particular view that we need to approach. We will continue to flex and work with businesses as they open up fully to pay down their debt and to trade as normally as possible to ensure that the hospitality sector—the night-time economy—can thrive in Newcastle.

Off-grid Homes: Emissions

7. What steps he is taking to support the transition to net zero carbon emissions for homes not connected to the mains gas grid. (904928)

I would like to reassure my hon. Friend that if we look back at where we were this time last year, we came out with the heat and buildings strategy, which directly answered this question, and also a very generous comprehensive spending review settlement.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. In Sevenoaks we are keen to play our part in achieving net zero, but many of my constituents in more rural areas are worried about the costs and feasibility of replacing their oil boilers as they are phased out. Can the Secretary of State provide reassurances to them, and all in a similar position, that safeguards will be put in place to ensure that alternatives are affordable and practical?

Very specifically in regard to her question, my hon. Friend will know that there is a £450 million boiler upgrade scheme, which was outlined in the CSR, that will provide up-front capital grants for the installation of low-carbon heating systems. She will also be aware that for lower-income households we have a £1.1 billion home upgrade grant, which will upgrade energy efficiency and increase low-carbon heating of non-gas homes across the country.

I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that off-grid customers’ gas and oil supplies are not covered by the price cap, and that they will therefore experience even higher price fuel price increases this spring than the £600 or so now predicted for on-grid customers. Is the Secretary of State intending to provide any special assistance to off-grid customers, or is he going to let them stew alongside their on-grid neighbours, as the Government seem happy to do at the moment?

I think that is a complete misrepresentation of all the work that the Government have done to help customers. There are the winter fuel payments, as the hon Gentleman well knows, and £300 for 8 million pensioners is worth £2 billion. We have the warm home discount, we have cold weather payments. We have a full range of measures that will help off-grid customers in a difficult time.

Life Sciences

As a result of this Government’s long-term life science strategy, now a 10-year strategy, I am delighted to be able to share with the House that the life science sector has grown, in terms of private investment, by 1,000% in the last 10 years and is creating jobs all around the UK—in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales. At the heart of our strategy for the innovation nation, in our life science vision last summer we set out a plan, with £5 billion in the comprehensive spending review of funding for life science research, and we intend to support those clusters all around the UK.

I welcome the effort that my hon. Friend has given to developing this important policy and his characteristic kindness in engaging with me on it. Clusters will be crucial to improving UK resilience and building our manufacturing capacity. In Ulverston we have an established base with GSK, but I want to see that grow, with new entrants like Lakes BioScience coming in, building high-skilled jobs and the supply chain. With that in mind, may I ask how the strategy will apply to south Cumbria? May I also invite him to the sunlit uplands of Ulverston to visit and see for himself?

I thank my hon. Friend and pay tribute to his tireless campaigning for Barrow and Furness and on this issue. I understand well the concerns following GSK’s movement from the Ulverston site. I would just make this point: quite often such moves of pharma from one site to another create an opportunity. As the Minister for Life Sciences, I launched the life science opportunity zones and we created thriving clusters at Alderley Park and Sandwich; it would be my ambition to do the same up at Ulverston. I very much look forward to coming up and visiting, and my officials are working closely on that as we speak.

Central Park in my constituency is furthering Darlington’s ingenious spirit as it drives forward UK life sciences, with firms on our golden mile creating and developing the medicines of the future, as the Secretary of State knows from his recent visit. Will my hon. Friend outline what steps his Department is taking to ensure that firms in Darlington use local talent in the pursuit of further scientific breakthroughs?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about talent and is right that a powerful cluster is taking shape in the north-east. Following my return to the Government two months ago, my first visit was to the north-east. From Darlington to North of Tyne, an incredible cluster is taking shape, with the National Biologics Manufacturing Centre, the Centre for Process Innovation and the National Horizons Centre all in that golden mile in Darlington. It is an incredibly exciting time and I look forward to going back up to see my hon. Friend’s constituency and how we can develop a skills plan so that the sector can grow in the next five to 10 years.

In his earlier answer, the Minister alluded to co-operation among the various parts of the United Kingdom; will he ensure that there is maximum co-operation so that sites such as the centre for drug discovery, which is linked to the life sciences faculty at the Coleraine campus in my constituency, can maximise their opportunities?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. With Queen’s University Belfast and the Randox cluster, Northern Ireland is a powerhouse in life sciences and both the Secretary of State and I have been to visit. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has made that point and will make sure that the Northern Ireland cluster is powerfully at the heart of our innovation strategy.

In York, we want to maintain momentum around the BioYorkshire project—York’s green new deal—so will the Minister set out when the project can apply for funding under the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council funding regime?

I have had meetings with the hon. Member since she raised this issue previously. We are in the process of allocating—I repeat—the biggest ever increase in science and innovation funding for a generation. Once that process has been completed, we will begin to allocate the money throughout the country. The hon. Member has made a powerful intervention on behalf of that cluster, which I am going to come up to see. There is an exciting cluster of companies in the York, Harrogate and east of Yorkshire area.

The Minister is absolutely right about the overall success of the Government’s life sciences strategy, but he will be aware of the chilling effect on UK manufacturers, including one in my constituency, of the outcomes of the coronavirus test device approval process. I know the Minister is a believer in agile regulation, so will he conduct a review, with the UK Health Security Agency, to understand what lessons can be learned to assist UK manufacturers in future?

As per usual, my hon. Friend makes an important point. I am not the Minister responsible for the vaccine taskforce, but I am already reaching out to my colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care on that very point to make sure that in the light of this pandemic we boost our manufacturing centre as well as our research.

British life scientists led the world in the battle against covid, and we need them to lead the fight against another great health challenge: dementia, which destroys so many lives and imposes huge private and public health and social care costs. This month, research published in The Lancet found that by 2050 worldwide dementia cases will treble and cases will go up by 75% in the UK. That is why Labour is promising to double research and development spend on dementia—a commitment that was also in the 2019 Conservative manifesto. Will the Minister confirm that dementia R&D spend has gone down since his Government took office?

I agree with the hon. Lady that that the dementia research and treatment sector is incredibly important, which is why, when then Prime Minister Cameron set up the G20 summit, I was incredibly proud, as Minister for Life Sciences, to launch the UK Dementia Research Institute. In the CSR, we announced another £340 million for motor neurone disease research. As I say, I am in the process of allocating the biggest ever R&D increase and we will look to make sure—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady is heckling me from a sedentary position; perhaps she will listen. We are in the process of allocating that money to make sure that dementia gets the recognition that it needs.

To ensure that our fantastic life science sector continues to prosper and lead the world, we need to inspire the next generation of life scientists. What more can the Minister’s Department do to show that there is a place for everyone in the sector, regardless of race, background or gender, and that their future efforts could change lives both at home and abroad and tackle some of the great challenges that we know exist.

Not surprisingly, my hon. Friend, who is an expert in this field, makes an important point. In the people and culture strategy that we set out this summer, we make that very point: we need to build a diverse eco-system. I have already reached out to the Royal Society and picked up and commended its work on science, technology, engineering and maths and diversity in the sciences. The truth is that our science sector is creating opportunities all around the country, and we are absolutely committed in the innovation strategy to make sure that every community in this country has access to those jobs and opportunities.

Scottish Businesses: UK Government

Business Ministers regularly engage Scottish businesses on policy making and to discuss business-related issues. In challenging times, the UK Government have provided significant taxpayer support to businesses across the UK, including in Scotland, and we will continue to work with them in the months ahead.

Just last week, the Federation of Small Businesses flagged up the grim realities of Brexit, citing that 74% have experienced a sharp fall in international sales and exports because of import checks on trade with the EU, yet that reality is completely at odds with the outpourings of Lord Frost who used the new year honours list to purport an opaquely upbeat metric on the success of businesses across these isles. How are Scottish businesses supposed to feel any shred of confidence in this Government when such comments are completely at odds with what is happening on the ground? Even Baroness Davidson, the face of the Scottish Tories for the past decade, says that

“I despair when I see people—even those of my own party—dismissing business or disrespecting the herculean efforts that people have gone to”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 December 2021; Vol. 816, c. 2021.]

I know that this is a surprise to the Scottish nationalists, but we have made the decision as a country to leave the European Union, and we are now in the process of ensuring that that is a success, not just for businesses in Scotland, but for businesses all across the United Kingdom as a whole, and we will continue to do that in the months ahead.

Given that shops in Scotland had a greater reduction in footfall than any other part of the UK, given that the Scottish Licensed Trade Association has called the additional restrictions in Scotland a “knock-out blow”, given that the Aberdeen and Grampian chamber of commerce has called on the Scottish Government to pay up or open up, and given the abandonment of the Scottish oil and gas sector and its workforce, will my hon. Friend be able to give an assessment of Scottish businesses’ confidence in the Scottish Government?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his apposite and very important intervention this morning. He is a huge and doughty campaigner for Scottish interests, unlike individuals on the SNP Benches. It is comments such as those from the Aberdeenshire chamber of commerce that demonstrate how the confidence of Scottish businesses should be in the UK Government rather than the Scottish Government.

Baglan Energy Park

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on ensuring that the power supply for Baglan energy park remains connected until a permanent connection to the national grid is secured. (904931)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and for raising this issue. I know that this has been a challenging time for some tenants on the energy park. Given that these issues are largely devolved, officials from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and I are regularly in touch with the Welsh Government on this matter and this includes, as he is aware, an exchange of correspondence in the past few days, along with regular meetings between officials.

The Minister knows that in just three days the official receiver is due to turn off the power on the Baglan energy park. The intransigence of the official receiver is putting huge pressure on local businesses and also creating massive environmental and public health risks. Section 400 of the Insolvency Act 1986 clearly gives the Business Secretary the power to direct the official receiver. Why will the Minister not step up, take urgent action and direct the official receiver so that the potentially catastrophic consequences for these businesses, houses and communities can be averted in just three days?

As I have said, I completely appreciate that this is a challenging time for tenants on the energy park. We have, as a UK Government, sought to review all of the powers that are available to the Government, including section 400 of the Insolvency Act. It is our view that it is not advisable to use that process at this stage. We have, as the hon. Gentleman knows, written to the Welsh Government giving a number of indicators about how we can mitigate the challenges and I look forward to speaking with the Welsh Government further, including in my meeting with the Minister for the Economy tomorrow.

Energy Transition Projects

May I start by welcoming the hon. Gentleman back to his place?

The Government support the energy transition by harnessing the industry’s existing potential to exploit new and emerging green technologies. As regards Scotland, we have a £20 million pot for tidal stream. The Acorn project has been allocated £40 million in carbon capture, usage and storage development funding so far, and in the hon. Gentleman’s own area, the Ayrshire growth deal has secured investment of £251 million, including up to £18 million for a centre for research and a low-carbon energy and circular economy.

I thank the Minister for his response and his kind wishes. The UK Government have decided not to rethink and reverse their decision not to fund the carbon capture, utilisation and storage facility at St Fergus, and the Chancellor has failed to match the Scottish Government’s £500 million investment in a just transition fund for the north-east and Moray. By deploying CCUS, hydrogen and direct air capture technology in Scotland, the Scottish cluster would support an average of 15,100 jobs between 2022 and 2050. Do major Scottish projects only have priority in the months ahead of an independence referendum?

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that I disagree with him on the independence referendum, but we engage regularly with the Scottish cluster and Acorn, and I met Storegga before Christmas. I have also met with my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid), the MP for St Fergus, and have been to his constituency recently. Just to be absolutely clear, the Scottish cluster is the reserve cluster, which means that it met the eligibility criteria and performed to a good standard in the evaluation criteria. We also recently published our track 2 update for CCUS, which highlights our increased ambition of capturing and storing 20 to 30 megatonnes per annum by 2030. I think there is a great future there for the Scottish cluster.

I welcome the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans) back to his place—even though he did kind of trample over my question a little bit. Will my right hon. Friend confirm the UK Government’s support for the oil and gas sector and its vital role in driving the energy transition to net zero? As part of that support, will he confirm what recent engagement he has had with the Acorn CCS project in my constituency of Banff and Buchan on its role as the first reserve cluster?

As I have mentioned, I met with Storegga before Christmas, and my hon. Friend and I also talked about this in his constituency in early December. I am looking forward to further engagement with the cluster. I also agree with what he said about oil and gas. We have a North sea transition deal, and the important thing is transition. It would be mad, particularly at this time of elevated gas prices, to do anything to close down the North sea, and it is not our objective to do so. Therefore, we should stick to the transition deal, support our key oil and gas sector in the North sea and absolutely reject a lot of the politics coming out of the SNP, which has turned to be anti-North sea, which is not holding Scotland’s best interests at heart.

Of course, it is not just on carbon capture underground storage where the UK Government have betrayed Scotland’s interests. As the Minister will be acutely aware, Scottish renewables projects continue to pay the highest level of grid charging anywhere in the entirety of Europe. Indeed, I was speaking to an operator just recently who told me that over the lifespan of his project, he anticipates that it will pay £1 billion in grid charging; meantime, a project in East Anglia will not pay a single penny. Is that a Union of equals?

I am always pleased to take a question from the SNP Front Bench, although I notice that the hon. Gentleman did not say anything about nuclear, the North sea transition deal or the recent announcement of a £20 million funding pot for tidal. He did mention transition charges. He will know that Ofgem recognises the importance of transition charging arrangements, which is why it is currently considering responses to its call for evidence on transition charging reform. That is already being covered, but I would like to hear from the hon. Gentleman—he may have another question—that he is going to change his mind on nuclear and supporting the North sea transition deal.

Of course, the Minister’s continual deflection to Ofgem fails to meet the needs of businesses in Scotland. He will also be acutely aware that under the Energy Act 2004—section 185, I believe it is—he could take action to change the status quo, but he chooses not to, and the reason is quite clear. The National Grid is clear that in a couple of years Scottish projects will pay £465 million into the grid, while projects in England and Wales will cumulatively get a subsidy of £30 million—a renewables robbery in plain sight. Is it not the case that while Scotland has the energy as part of this United Kingdom, it does not have the power?

I am not sure quite how to respond to that, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that there is a call for evidence on this and we are awaiting the responses to that call. Once again, I remind him of the support being given by the UK Government to renewables in Scotland: the £20 million tidal pot; the quadrupling of offshore wind capacity across the UK over the next decade; support for CCUS—all these things. It is about time he had a word with his party colleagues back in Edinburgh and got them to have a sensible energy policy when it comes to both the North sea and nuclear before he comes here and lectures us.

Steel Industry

The steel industry plays a vital role in our economy. Through the Steel Council and regular engagements with steel industry, the Government are working with the sector to develop a plan to support its transition to a competitive, sustainable and low-carbon future.

For UK steelmakers, paying 61% more than their German competitors for industrial energy is not only a barrier to investment but a direct barrier to decarbonisation, with the future of this foundation sector being fundamental to our net zero ambitions, so when will Ministers commit to providing Government support to bridge the electricity price gap?

As the hon. Lady will know, because we have talked about it in other debates, the Government continue to look at options on this. We have very regular engagement and interaction with the steel industry, including the Steel Council, and other meetings, including ones just in the last few days. It is important to note the extensive support and help that has been given to energy-intensive industries, including the steel sector, since 2013 and beyond.

I thank my hon. Friend for work that he has done for steel. He will know that the Prime Minister himself has stood in this Chamber and spoken about the unfair historical energy costs that steel industries have faced in this country. What conversations need to take place between BEIS, the Treasury and No. 10 to bring forward a solution so that my world-class steelmakers can get on a fair footing?

My hon. Friend is an absolute champion for her constituents in Scunthorpe and for the continuing success of the steel industry in that area. We continue to work very closely with our colleagues across Government to determine how we can provide support and look at options around the temporary issues that have been caused in the past year or so and then the longer-term issues. I would be happy to talk to her further.

Topical Questions

Before we proceed, I think it is fitting and right to say that I was desperately sad to hear that the hon. Member for Erdington had passed away last week. It is particularly ironic in that he was on the original draft of today’s Order Paper, fighting for his constituents as a dedicated public servant who always took a keen interest in the work of our Department.

I know that households and businesses are deeply concerned about the effect of rising energy prices across the next few months. We already provide £4.2 billion-worth of support for the most vulnerable. I am working closely, as many people know, with energy companies, Ofgem and ministerial colleagues across the Government to mitigate the impact of further price rises.

May I echo the sentiments in regards to my late good friend and fellow trade unionist, the Member for Erdington?

Energy-intensive industries such as Tata Chemicals in my patch, and the Daresbury labs on the Sci-Tech site that the Secretary of State will be familiar with, need support and they need it now. Why does he not swallow his pride, support the windfall tax that Labour is proposing, plus the VAT measures, and help companies such as Tata and indeed British Steel?

My understanding of the Labour proposal—I might have got it wrong—was that the windfall tax would not be directed to companies; it was, as I read it, directed to consumers. He will know that I, as Secretary of State, have always engaged with energy-intensive users and companies, and I am looking at the moment to try to get a solution to this problem with colleagues across Government.

T2. I commend BEIS Ministers for their enlightened decision to locate part of their team in Darlington. At the same time as we level up with more jobs in Darlington, LNER is planning to reduce services to Darlington, which will have a detrimental effect on connectivity. What steps is my hon. Friend, in collaboration with colleagues, taking to protect connectivity vital to businesses in Darlington and right across the country? (904950)

As my hon. Friend knows, a decision has not yet been taken on the outcome of the timetable consultation. Transport connectivity is largely an issue for other Departments, none the less we appreciate the importance of connectivity and infrastructure. We know that my hon. Friend will be an absolute champion of that—he has done a huge amount in his short time in this location.

I welcome the tribute that the Secretary of State just paid to our friend Jack Dromey, who was a great champion of British industry and of British workers and simply an all-round great man.

Over the last decade, Conservative Ministers cancelled the zero-carbon homes programme, banned onshore wind development, launched the eco-insulation programme and tore it up within one year. They reduced the UK’s gas storage capacity and at one particularly silly moment, the current Foreign Secretary claimed that solar panels were a risk to domestic food production. All those decisions have made this country more dependent on volatile wholesale energy prices than we otherwise would be. We know that means that there is an extremely difficult situation for British households, but it also risks making large swathes of British industry uncompetitive. The Secretary of State says that he is working hard, so what is his plan?

I am delighted to see the hon. Gentleman take his place. I remember him being a prominent member of the economic team under the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). I am glad to see that there is life after death and that he is here today. My only regret is that the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) is not here. I am afraid that the split of net zero from business shows that Labour is not serious about the energy crisis. It is not serious about placing net zero in the context of business and growth and it is completely off the pace in terms of driving clean—

Order. I call Jonathan Reynolds. [Interruption.] Sorry, sit down and I will just explain once again. These are topical questions. They are not meant to have a “War and Peace” answer. I want to get Back Benchers on both sides of the House in. You are taking their time.

There was a lot of talk from the Secretary of State, but no answer. However, let us take up the point that he made. Earlier, one of his Ministers gave me an answer about UK steel production. The Secretary of State talks about net zero, but that cannot be achieved by exporting UK industry and jobs. We have pledged £3 billion of investment in steel, which would match fund pilots in hydrogen in place of coal and joint fund investment in electric arc furnaces. Domestic steel is essential to net zero; it is relevant to levelling up because it provides the jobs and the wages in many parts of the country; and it relates to Brexit because our producers now pay higher tariffs than companies in the EU to export to the US. Net zero, levelling up and Brexit amount to the Government’s entire agenda, so Secretary of State, again—

Order. Do you not both understand? Your Back Benchers are desperate to get in. If the shadow Secretary of State wants to come in, he should be brief. If not, he should come in early when he has got more time. Secretary of State, briefly.

Very briefly, we have reduced carbon emissions by 45% since 1990, more than any other country in the world. We have grown the economy by 80%. We think that net zero and economic growth go hand in hand; the Labour party does not.

T4. Storengy is a company in my constituency that provides gas storage. It tells me that levels of storage in this country have been decreasing. Can the Minister tell me how many days’ worth of gas storage there is now on a cold day, as defined by the National Grid, and whether he thinks that is sufficient? (904952)

I am happy to meet my right hon. Friend and potentially the company, but let us be absolutely clear: the issue with gas is not supply or storage, but price. Storing more expensive gas would not lower the cost of gas. We have excellent security of supply in this country—50% from our continental shelf and 30% from Norway. The issue is very much price, not storage.

T3. Energy bills are crushing families in the cost of living crisis that this UK Government are presiding over. One million more UK households could fall into fuel poverty this year, but that is not inevitable. Will the Secretary of State ask the Chancellor to act by cutting VAT on energy, increasing the warm homes discount for vulnerable households, providing support to energy companies so that they can help consumers, making an emergency energy support payment and restoring the universal credit uplift? Will he also revisit the Department’s recent position and consider freezing the energy price cap? (904951)

The hon. Lady will know that I have extensive conversations with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor about that very issue. That is why we have kept to the energy price cap, increased the warm homes discount and got a winter fuel payment. The issue is squarely at the heart of our concerns as a Government.

T8. Will my hon. Friend join me and my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) in backing Intelligent Energy’s bid for investment from the automotive transformation fund, which will bring a hydrogen fuel cell gigafactory and highly skilled green jobs to Rushcliffe and the wider east midlands? Will he accept my invitation to visit Rushcliffe to learn more about those exciting plans? (904956)

I know that my hon. Friend is a huge advocate. I obviously cannot comment on individual applications. I am happy to come and visit and her support is noted.

T5. A recent survey showed that 91% of Wandsworth businesses are suffering negative effects from new Brexit regulations. Will the Minister commit to a region-by-region impact assessment of how businesses are adapting to the Government’s Brexit deal or are the Government leaving businesses to sink or swim? (904953)

This party of business will not let businesses sink or swim. We will continue to engage with businesses around the regions and around the sectors to understand exactly where they need to change and to help them in their transition.

I point out to the Secretary of State that HSBC, a British-registered bank, is being reported as having invested in Xinjiang Tianye, which is a subsidiary of Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which has been sanctioned by our allies the United States for committing atrocity crimes, including slave labour and genocide. Will he call in the bank and ask it to explain itself, as it is in breach of the modern-day slavery rules?

My right hon. Friend raises a very serious point. Clearly, HSBC’s dealings with China are of commercial interest to it, but those dealings also have a wider implication. He will know from his experience that the Treasury has direct ownership of that relationship; I am discussing it with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

T7. The Minister for Corporate Responsibility has spoken about the Horizon Post Office scandal and the need to compensate victims properly. He will agree that the object of the exercise is to put those victims in the position that they would have been in had the insult not occurred in the first place. Will he ensure that any such scheme adopts the common law principles of compensating for pain, suffering and loss of amenity; exemplary damages; and past and future pecuniary losses and costs to put those people in the position that they should have been in? (904955)

Consequential losses are included in the scheme, which is why we have an independent panel to add that expertise and ability to help those claimants to support their evidence for compensation.

At more than 2,000 acres, the Manor Farm solar park proposed for Rutland, the smallest county in England, is eight times larger than the existing solar plant. Can the Minister reassure me that when it lands on his desk, he will listen to the voice of Rutlanders and ensure proper scrutiny to protect our agricultural land and outstanding local biodiversity?

We always listen to Rutlanders and to my excellent hon. Friend who represents them. I very much agree that we want to bring communities with us when it comes to all renewables, but I think she knows that I cannot comment further at this stage. She can reassure her residents that she has been heard.

The Treasury has benefited hugely from the miners pension surplus over the years. Even though the Prime Minister pledged in the 2019 election that no miner would be left behind and out of pocket, they have been. Will the Government look again at giving miners their fair share or is that another example of the Prime Minister saying one thing and doing another?

The success of the current pension arrangements means that a pensioner in the scheme is 33% better off than they would be in a normal pension scheme. We continue to believe that the arrangements agreed in 1994 with the scheme’s trustees work well and are fair and beneficial to scheme members and taxpayers.

Regional mutual banks are key to the success of small and medium-sized enterprises in the world’s most productive economies, including Germany and the USA. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss that important opportunity?

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend. We have discussed that important issue on a number of occasions when I was wearing different hats in Government, but I am happy to meet him again.

For the last two months, people in Eccles in my constituency have had to wait weeks and weeks for their mail. Postal delays have meant people missing urgent hospital appointments, not receiving prescriptions and suffering hardship after not receiving their bank cards. It is unacceptable that Royal Mail has done so little to fix this problem. This appalling level of service is causing harm to my constituents. Will the Minister take action to ensure that Royal Mail resolves these letter delays?

I know that Royal Mail responded directly to the hon. Lady’s concerns in December 2021, and I responded just yesterday. However, I will continue to look at this, because covid sickness absences still remain, and Royal Mail is rotating deliveries so that its customers receive their mail as frequently as possible. There is clearly more that we can do, and I will ensure that we monitor that as best we can.

We all know the challenges those in the automotive sector have had in the last few years, but it is more than just them; it is the supply chains as well. Can I encourage the Secretary of State to come and visit Gestamp in my constituency, which supplies everybody from Volvo to Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan and so on, to understand its efforts in research and development, and how we can help it to develop its business?

My hon. Friend knows full well that, as Secretary of State, I have visited his constituency at least two or three times, and I would be very happy to do so again.

Households up and down the country are facing a cost of living crisis, with energy prices set to rise in April. While many are facing the choice between heating and eating, North sea oil and gas producers are posting record profits. Can the Secretary of State tell me why the Government are not backing the windfall tax on North sea oil and gas producers’ profits that would help measures to ease the burden on ordinary people?

As the hon. Lady knows, we remain absolutely committed to helping people through a difficult time. We have the warm home discount, which is worth £140, and the winter fuel payment, which is worth £200. We are doing all we can to make sure that we mitigate and alleviate the pressure of increased prices this winter.

My constituents in Consett in North West Durham are paying up to 10p a litre more at major supermarkets, including Tesco, for their fuel supplies than their neighbours just down the road in Bishop Auckland, 18 miles away. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss what I can do to stand up for my North West Durham constituents, who are fed up with being screwed by the big supermarkets?

My hon. Friend has done a great job representing his constituents. I know from when I visited his constituency in the aftermath of Storm Arwen how well he is appreciated. The RAC did a recent report on this, and I would be very happy to meet him at the earliest possible opportunity to discuss the issue.

Downing Street Garden Event

(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on reports of an event held in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020.

Both the Prime Minister and I came before the House in December to set out the details of the investigation being led by the Cabinet Office into the allegations of gatherings in Downing Street and the Department for Education in November and December 2020. As I did then, I again apologise unreservedly for the upset that these allegations have caused.

The Prime Minister has asked for an investigation to take place—[Hon. Members: “Where is he?”]

Order. I cannot hear what is being said. It is quite obvious that he is not the Prime Minister, so we do not need to keep asking that question. So please can I hear what the Minister has to say? He has got a tough job as it is; do not make it harder for him. Come on, Minister.

The Prime Minister has asked for an investigation to take place, and the terms of reference for the investigations that are under way have already been published and deposited in the Libraries of both Houses. The investigations are now being led by Sue Gray. She is the second permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and of course a former director general of propriety and ethics. The Government have committed to publishing the findings of the investigation and providing these to Parliament in the normal way. The terms of reference set out that where there are credible allegations relating to other gatherings, it is open for those to be investigated, and I can confirm to the House that this includes the allegations relating to 15 and 20 May 2020. It will establish the facts, and if wrongdoing is established requisite disciplinary action will be taken.

As with all internal investigations, if evidence emerges of what was potentially a criminal offence the matter will be referred to the Metropolitan police, and the Cabinet Office’s work may be paused. Matters relating to adherence to the law are, as ever, matters for the Metropolitan police to investigate, and the Cabinet Office will liaise with them as appropriate. As I am sure Members of this House will appreciate, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on an ongoing investigation, and the Government have committed to updating the House in due course.

I must again point out, as I did in December, and as I know the House will understand, that there is a long-standing practice of successive Administrations that any human resources matters concerning personnel relating to individuals does need to remain confidential. But Mr Speaker, both the Prime Minister and I came before this House in December; we set out the details of the investigation being led by the Cabinet Office into these allegations of gatherings, and those investigations are continuing. [Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. It is incredibly disappointing but not surprising that the Prime Minister, of whom I asked this question, is not here today despite not having any official engagements. His absence speaks volumes, as do his smirks on the media. The public have already drawn their own conclusions. He can run but he can’t hide.

I received an email this morning from a man called John. He told me that on 20 May 2020

“I found my long-time partner dead on the bathroom floor. I had been unable to get a GP visit for her and she had suffered terribly for some time before the blood clots stopped her heart.”

On that day the House heard from the Prime Minister himself that 181 NHS workers and 131 social care staff had died. Many people made huge personal sacrifices.

Frankly, the Minister hides behind the Gray investigation. There is no need for an investigation into the simple central question today: did the Prime Minister attend the event in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020? It will not wash to blame this on a few junior civil servants; the Prime Minister sets the tone.

If the Prime Minister was there, surely he knew. The invitation was sent to 100 staff, many of them his own most personal senior appointees. This was organised in advance, so did the Prime Minister know about the event beforehand, and did he give his permission for it to go ahead? If so, did he believe this event was in keeping with the restrictions and guidelines at the time, and was the chief medical officer consulted before it went ahead? What did the Chancellor know about the party given that he lives and works next door, and can the Minister confirm that no other Ministers were present? Finally, may I ask the Minister here today whether he still believes the Prime Minister to be a man of honour and integrity?

The right hon. Lady’s first point was that the Prime Minister is not here in person. She knows as well as everyone else in this House that it is not routine for the Prime Minister to answer urgent questions before the House, but that his Ministers are appointed to do so. However, he also attends this House more often than anyone else to answer questions and will be doing so tomorrow in the normal way at Prime Minister’s Question Time.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the appalling loss suffered by one of her constituents. My heart goes out to that constituent and, indeed, to all others from whom we have heard in this House—from all parts of this House—who have suffered tragic loss as a consequence of this appalling pandemic.

There is a need for investigation. The right hon. Lady said that there was not. There is a need, and that need is clear. The investigation is in progress. It is being conducted by someone in whom we have great confidence and who is, if I may put it this way, a paragon of independence and integrity in the civil service, of long standing. She is conducting that investigation.

The Prime Minister was himself affected by the consequence of covid-19 infection. He takes this matter very seriously, as does everyone in government. I will say this: the right hon. Lady asked if I have confidence in the Prime Minister’s integrity and honour, and I do.

We each of us, in this House and no doubt everywhere else, live our lives in the best way that we can. Those of us in positions of responsibility acknowledge that responsibility. That is why there is an investigation in progress, which will get to the bottom of all these matters. That is in progress.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) on obtaining this urgent question, but let us look around: where is the Prime Minister? The Prime Minister should be here to answer these serious questions. Where are the Government Front Benchers? Indeed, where are the Government Back Benchers?

This is the most serious of matters: this is a Prime Minister who has been accused of breaking a law that he himself set. It could not be more serious. I have sympathy with the Minister, the fall guy who has to answer the debate today. The harsh reality is that people around these islands watched loved ones dying and missed funerals, and the PM and his staff partied behind the walls of his private garden.

On that very day, on 20 May, there was a tweet from the Metropolitan police reminding people of their responsibilities, “You may meet only one person outside”. The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in the Cabinet, gave a press conference at No. 10 at 5 pm to reiterate that message. There was one rule for the rest of us and another rule for those in No. 10. The Minister seeks to hide behind the investigation, but let me ask him: was Sue Gray one of those invited to that party on 20 May, and did she attend?

This is a Prime Minister who has lost his moral authority. He does not deserve the respect and trust of the people of these islands. If he will not do the decent thing and recognise that he ought to resign, I say to the Minister and to the Conservative Back Benchers that they will have to do what the Prime Minister has failed to do—force him from office, and do it now.

I do not accept the characterisation that the right hon. Gentleman makes. In this country, it is clear that the same rules apply to everyone. That is why an investigation is in progress. I hope that he will not adopt the approach of questioning the integrity of any civil servant investigating this matter. Sue Gray is someone who has conducted previous investigations with thoroughness and vigour. We can rest assured that the result of her inquiry will be in the public domain in due course. She is a person of integrity and upstanding. I hope that he will not adopt that approach.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is important that this place debates such serious allegations, but that we do so once the evidence has been collected, and that—

Order. I hope this is not a question about me granting the urgent question, because it sounds like that is where it is going. I would not go down that road.

Sorry, Mr Speaker. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is important that we have a debate in this place about these issues once the final recommendations have been put forward by Sue Gray, because it is important that we look at the evidence?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. In fact, she is agreeing with the Leader of the Opposition, I think, because it was he who said:

“Let’s let the inquiry play out, let’s see what the findings are”.

Her point is a good one: we should wait to see the results of the investigation, rather than prejudging it.

Will the Minister set out what he thinks should happen if a Conservative MP is found to have flouted and broken a covid law?

It is not for me to pass judgment or pass sentence. The natural order of justice, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows, is that a fair and impartial investigation takes place before there is a judge, jury and executioner. That investigation needs to take its natural course in an orderly way, rather than guilt or innocence being judged beforehand.

I of course have great confidence in the Prime Minister and the way he has been governing the country, but does the Minister agree that the House needs to have the report urgently so that we can debate it and reach a conclusion? I was slightly worried when he said that this would have to be paused if there was a Metropolitan police investigation. Is he confident that the House will have the report quickly, and if so, could he indicate when?

The Prime Minister did ask for the investigation to be conducted swiftly, and I think that is on the record. As to how long it lasts, I do not know, because we have not stipulated a time. Sue Gray is conducting the investigation independently of the Executive’s directions, as my hon. Friend and the House would expect. We hope to have a result swiftly, but that will be a matter for her.

Perhaps it would be faster if Sue Gray were to investigate the days when there were not parties—[Laughter.] I have sympathy for the Minister, because he has been sent with his “gatherings” excuse to defend the utterly indefensible. We know, do we not, that an invitation to a “bring your own booze” party was sent out for 20 May, when 268 people died in hospital that day? We know that it was illegal to meet anyone outside one’s own household, except one person overnight. So what is there to wait for? The Prime Minister should come here now, fess up and tell us what happened.

If I may say so, the hon. Lady has an excellent reputation in this House for, among other things, fairness. I know that she would want a fair investigation to take place before any comment is made. All that we are asking is for the House to wait a swift period of time for the investigation to conclude. That is in the natural order of justice and fair play.

There is absolutely no doubt that this is an important matter, but there will be a full investigation into it, and that is the most important thing to remember at this time. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, as we recover from the pandemic, this House’s time would be better spent debating how we build back better and level up? That is what my constituents are looking for.

My hon. Friend is right to mention that in the governance of this country, and in the performance of the Executive in delivering for the people of this country, both in dealing with the exigencies of the pandemic and in matters such as levelling up, this Government are performing and prioritising. She is right to focus on that. This is, of course, a matter of concern to the House—that is accepted and it is why we are before the House today—but it will be investigated and that will take place in the proper order of events.

We know that the Prime Minister is socially distanced from accountability, responsibility and integrity. Can we be absolutely sure that he will be here tomorrow to face the music instead of hiding behind Sue Gray?

No one is hiding. The fact is that the Prime Minister will be before the House for Prime Minister’s questions in the normal course of events, so tomorrow, at this time, he will be in this Chamber. The reality is that, at the moment, we are awaiting the outcome of an investigation that is in progress. I know that he will want to approach this matter reasonably, and that is to wait for the result of an investigation.

Why cannot all the dirty linen be washed at once? Why are we getting this drip-feed of parties? Surely the civil service must have known that there was a party on 20 May and should have referred that already to the inquiry.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The reality is that we have a number of dates that have come out at different times. That will presumably have the effect of delaying matters, but we have commissioned the terms of reference of the investigation, which I told this House about on 9 December. It is laid in the Libraries of both Houses that any dates that the second permanent secretary feels are appropriate to investigate, she will. I have confirmed to the House that 15 and 20 May 2020 are now among those dates.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Does the Paymaster General agree that it would be utterly obscene if, at the same time that a support group for recovering alcoholics was contacting me, desperate to meet because they needed the mutual support to manage their addiction during the crushing isolation of lockdown, staff at No. 10 were not only being encouraged to gather, but being told to bring their own booze while doing so? I appreciate that the Prime Minister is not here to answer for his actions, but does the Paymaster General agree that that would be obscene?

I am not going to presuppose any conclusions of the inquiry. It is taking place and even the Leader of the Opposition has said that we should let the inquiry play out and see what the findings are. Conclusions can be drawn then.

The work of the second permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office is both important and urgent. Will my right hon. and learned Friend give any indication of when it might be completed?

I can say only that the Prime Minister has asked that the inquiry be swift and I have no indications other than that.

This is not the straw that broke the camel’s back; it is a 10-tonne weight being placed directly on the poor dilapidated beast’s posterior. Surely if the Prime Minister has a smidgen of self-respect or any sense of integrity, he will be listening to this and decide himself that it is time to go—for goodness’ sake, man, go!

The Prime Minister focuses on the primary purpose of running this country, which is to deliver on the manifesto promises of this Government. The primary purpose of the investigation will be to establish swiftly a general understanding of the nature of the gatherings that we have been hearing about, which will include attendance, the setting and the purpose. I know that the hon. Gentleman is inclined to presuppose the result, but the fair approach would be to wait until the results of the investigation, which has been commissioned for several weeks now.

It is an entirely hypothetical position. The Prime Minister is going nowhere. The right hon. Gentleman seeks to draw me into making a supposition about the result of any inquiry, but the Prime Minister retains the confidence of the people of this country, and he did so two years ago with the biggest majority in decades.

A survey by the Alzheimer’s Society shows that the health of 82% of people affected by dementia deteriorated during the first lockdown. Reduced social contact was a significant contributory factor. Does the Minister therefore agree that it would be unforgivable for the Prime Minister to prevaricate, obfuscate, seek to evade or distract, joke, take refuge in an industrial refrigerator or perhaps just lie about parties at No. 10?

More than 150,000 covid deaths, the highest toll in Europe; a cost-of-living crisis, with universal credit slashed and bills rocketing; a second jobs scandal; an attempt to let his corrupt mate off the hook; a dodgy flat donation; accusations of cash for access; and now this, a Downing Street party that was against the law and that the Prime Minister claimed did not happen but that he reportedly attended. After all this, does the Minister not feel embarrassed that the Prime Minister does not have the decency to resign?

I would say to the hon. Lady that she is fond of making unsubstantiated accusations that are devoid of evidence, and she should wait for the due course of events before doing so. She has particularised certain items that are part of her allegations, about which she has no evidence, and she should be very cautious about doing that.

The Paymaster General has been given an unenviable task this morning—he really, really has—but perhaps he could use his experience as a former Solicitor General and Attorney General to explain to the House what advice he would give to a hypothetical Prime Minister: someone who has perhaps lied to the country, someone who has perhaps lied to this House, someone who has laughed at times when people have died in their communities. What advice would the Paymaster General offer to that hypothetical Prime Minister?

The advice that I would always offer as a Law Officer, as I did as a barrister in practice, is to be fair to all sides. That includes listening to evidence, collating evidence properly and acting judiciously at all times. That is what we expect in this country, rather than prejudging matters and jumping to unwarranted and unfair conclusions. That applies to justice to all in this country.

Assaults on police officers in 2020-21 in England and Wales saw a 20% increase to over 25,000. I personally know of police officers who have been spat at, pushed, shoved and punched while doing their job, which includes enforcing the covid regulations, so I think police officers up and down the country will be appalled to hear that the Prime Minister and Downing Street staff were allegedly partying while they were doing their job during the worst of the pandemic. Given that all the evidence suggests that the party took place and that the Prime Minister was present, does the Paymaster General agree that the Prime Minister should write a letter of apology to every one of the police officers assaulted while enforcing covid regulations?

As the hon. Lady knows, this Prime Minister has always been a very strong supporter of the police. As Mayor of London, unlike the present incumbent of that office, he oversaw a reduction of crime in London. As Prime Minister, he has increased the number of police officers serving on the streets. This Prime Minister believes in law and order, and he supports the police—they know that. In fact, he visited a police station in my Northampton constituency only last week. The Prime Minister is very supportive of our police service and will continue to be.

My beloved mum died of covid in March 2020. She died alone in hospital while I sat in the car outside trying to be as close to her as I could. Even burdened with our grief, my family obeyed the rules. Just three days after the Downing Street party, we marked a solemn Eid—the first without my lovely mum.

When asked by Sky News about the parties, the Prime Minister did little but smirk and laugh. He should be here today but, as he is not, will the Minister confirm whether the Prime Minister will be apologising to bereaved families like mine for the anguish, pain and torment caused not just by hosting these parties but by continuing to lie about them?

Order. The last of that is not the language we should use, but I think we can let this one go. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not want it to stand on the record.

I am appalled at the hon. Gentleman’s tragic loss, and I am so sorry to hear about his mother. My heart goes out to him and his family.

The Prime Minister knows the seriousness of covid-19 and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, he was in intensive care as a consequence of it. The Prime Minister also knows, having spoken to innumerable individuals who suffered loss themselves, that it has resulted in the death of many people in this country and around the world. He knows that, and he will never forget it.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept my assurance that the Prime Minister is someone for whom his responsibilities are writ large. He works hard in the interest of this country and he will be subject to Sue Gray’s investigation, together with her inquiry into all of these parties. I ask him to wait to see the result in, I presume, the relatively short time until we hear from Sue Gray.

A constituent of mine, who I will call Malcolm, got in touch this morning having been fined with a £100 fixed penalty notice for breaching the coronavirus regulations. He accepts his wrongdoing, but it strikes me as incredibly unfair that, at the same time as the Downing Street parties were happening and Ministers and MPs seemed to be flagrantly breaching the rules, constituents like mine should have to pay. When will Malcolm and everyone else who has been fined for breaching the regulations be getting their money back?

I presume that the hon. Lady’s constituent, together with others who have been penalised for breaching the regulations, was either duly convicted or accepted their responsibility. If I may say so, she is prejudging the matter. She should wait for the result of the investigation, just as Malcolm presumably did.

There is an expression, “the buck stops at the top,” which is usually applied by people in leadership when they take responsibility. In April last year my 58-year-old friend Ray lost his battle with covid and died. We went to his funeral online via video link. In August my father passed away and I was fortunate enough to be in the room to hold his hand as he passed away. In the intervening months, I lost count of the number of conversations I had with families and council officers who were trying to negotiate more than six or eight people at a funeral. Will the Paymaster General please explain why the Downing Street social world is more important than those lives and the law of the land?

May I start by saying that I am very sorry for the hon. Gentleman’s loss of his friend and of his father? I think it would be only fair to challenge him on his point about what Downing Street staff think. Downing Street staff work very hard for the people of this country—[Interruption.] It would not be fair to characterise all the work they have done over the course of years in the way that he does. We do not want to prejudge what occurred on that occasion. The reality is that we should take the approach that, unless proven to the contrary, most people in public life, no matter what their party political persuasion, work in the public service and do the best they can.

The Minister has come here today—pretty lonely, on his own—for the Prime Minister, to deal with the serious questions that have been raised, but no self-respecting Minister would come here without knowing the facts about what happened. The question is simply this: did the Prime Minister attend the gathering on 20 May? There is a simple yes or no answer to that. I am assuming that the Minister, in coming here to answer for him, has put the question to the Prime Minister and that he knows the answer. He is here to tell this House. Can he give the answer to that question to this House, and do so now?

That is a matter for Sue Gray and her investigation. It is not a matter for me. I am supported by my colleagues throughout Government in this matter.

Around 20 May, my life was saved by doctors, nurses and non-medical staff who came forward, often without personal protective equipment, and were prepared to take that risk because they did their duty. Does the Paymaster General honestly believe that the Prime Minister’s behaviour, as evidenced in our newspapers, would give confidence to those people who saved my life? Did they not deserve better?

Those people who have served the people of this country and the national health service deserve everything we can give them. To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, of course they deserve everything we can do to support them, and they get that—[Hon. Members: “No, they don’t!”] They do get that support from this Government. The reality is that we would be wrong to prejudge and to make assumptions about what happened on any given day based on unknown sources, so I think he will wait to find out for sure what occurred.

During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims across all four nations gather for iftar events to break their fast. In May 2020, they did not. In the evenings during Ramadan, Muslims gather at the mosque to pray Taraweeh. In May 2020 they did not. And on Eid al-Fitr, they pray Eid Namaaz together and celebrate with family. On 24 May 2020, they did not. Yet on 20 May, just days before Eid, those who were making the rules at No. 10 were breaking them. If Muslims and people of different faiths listened to the rules and did not celebrate religious events, why were the rules different for those in No. 10 for social events?

I acknowledge that people of the Muslim faith and indeed people of the Christian and Hindu and other faiths, including the Jewish faith, have all suffered considerable interruption to their high holy days. I absolutely accept that, and for many people of strong faith that is very painful. They did so around the world, in other countries too, in the wider public interest, to support the public health of all. They were asked to do that and they did so in order to protect their fellow citizens. We respect that and admire that. We asked people to do that with a heavy heart, but we did so for the best reasons.

The unavoidable truth is that the public believe the Prime Minister is a liar who treats them with contempt. There is a crisis of public confidence. Is not the only way to restore public confidence for the Prime Minister, for once, to act in the public interest and resign now?

I have raised this matter previously with the Paymaster General, and I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question. In January last year, I almost missed the birth of my son; my wife was 9.5 cm dilated before I was allowed in. She was found in a freezing cold bath, having uncontrolled contractions. We followed the rules to protect midwifery staff. Since I raised this matter before Christmas, I have been inundated with emails from my constituency and across the UK. I and many parents—fathers, mothers, partners—would like an apology from the Prime Minister. As we followed the rules to protect NHS staff, he partied. Can the Paymaster General show some grace and be up front with this House over what he knows, because the public really have had enough?

I am very sorry that the hon. Gentleman nearly missed the birth of his child, and I know that many parents will have missed the birth of their children during the course of this appalling pandemic. The purpose of the investigation is to establish the facts, and if wrongdoing is established there will be requisite action.

I thank the Paymaster General for coming to the House today, but the people of Newport West expected to see the Prime Minister. It is a shame that the Paymaster General has to cover for his boss and I really feel sorry for him because he has a rotten job today, but can he tell us why anyone in this House, or this country, should ever believe a word that the Prime Minister says again?

The Prime Minister will be here tomorrow, at Prime Minister’s questions, in the normal course of events; that is more frequent than almost any other Minister answers departmental oral questions here. I think it is only fair to point out that the Prime Minister answers these questions himself. I have the support of the entire Government in this matter, in the answers that I can give, and my answers are predicated on the fact that in the order of natural justice, we wait for the results of the inquiry and investigation that is taking place. That would be the case with anybody else—it is not special treatment—against whom an inquiry is taking place. I am sure the hon. Lady would accept that.

I wonder whether the Paymaster General can simply clarify for us—has he asked the Prime Minister about this party?

I will not disclose personal conversations, or otherwise. What I will say is that it is my—[Interruption.] I am answering the questions on behalf of the Government today and the reality is, the investigation will take its course and the hon. Lady will have answers then.

My good friend and constituent, Will, whose father was ill with cancer, only saw him through a window for his 50th birthday, the day after the Downing Street party. Five weeks later his father sadly passed away, and only 15 were allowed at the funeral. What do the Minister and the Prime Minister have to say to Will and his family, because quite frankly they feel that there is one rule for them and another rule for everyone else?

I offer my condolences to the hon. Lady’s friend and constituent and her friend’s father for their loss. When I speak from this Dispatch Box, I do so as an individual who understands the loss that others have suffered. We all know that; everyone in this House knows that. We all are equal under the law in this country, and as a Law Officer I recognise that first and foremost. She will no doubt also recognise that in the interests of fairness, when the inquiry or investigation is under way it should be allowed to come to its natural conclusion.

It pains me that Muslims could not celebrate Eid with their families, but what pains me more is the fact that on 20 May one of my constituents was being buried at Nab Wood cemetery. Her daughter, Maxine Elliot, told ITV today that, when Barbara Elliot was being laid to rest, she and her family were behind barricades as the coffin went past. Only 10 members of the family were allowed to attend, and they were not allowed to kiss the coffin or put a flower on it. All this was happening while 40 people, including the Prime Minister and his wife, were at a party in the garden of No. 10 Downing Street which people could attend as long as they brought their own booze. What has the Minister to say to Maxine Elliot, and will he ask the Prime Minister to apologise personally to her and her family?

I cannot begin to imagine the personal tragedy and loss of the family, friends and relatives the hon. Member described, and there is no attempt to do so on my part. All I can say is that my heart goes out to them for their loss. We have had to suffer considerable impositions in this country as a consequence of the pandemic, but those impositions have been placed on society with good reason, to protect the wider public interest.

This morning, I received a phone call from Jill McCulloch in my constituency. She was greatly angered by the overnight news and by recent reports about parties in Downing Street. Her father, who would have been 100 this year, passed away in the summer of 2020. She was not able to visit him in May 2020 because, like so many people up and down the country, she was abiding by the rules. Is it not a simple fact that this Government live by one rule for themselves and another for the rest of us?

Certainly not. If that were the case, there would be no investigation. The very fact that there is an investigation in progress—the very fact that this matter is in the public domain and is being inquired into—is a clear indication that the same rules apply to everyone.

When one of my constituents gave birth to her first child in May 2020, her husband could be there only for the final stages of labour, and had to leave two hours after the birth of his son. Mum and baby had to stay in hospital owing to complications, and they were not allowed any visitors. She was lonely and isolated, and her baby was struggling to feed. Her husband did not see the baby again until he was four days old.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) has asked the Minister if he will apologise to the parents of lockdown babies who did the right thing, at great personal cost, while No. 10 partied. Will the Minister now give that apology?