House of Commons
Wednesday 20 May 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
The House entered into hybrid scrutiny proceedings (Order, 21 April).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Covid-19: Discussions with Scottish Government
I regularly attend cross-Government meetings, which include the devolved Administrations, to discuss how to minimise the impact of covid-19. There is a high level of co-operation between all Administrations and there will continue to be. We are committed to a UK-wide approach, as we have been from the start.
What justification does the Secretary of State have for ignoring the Scottish Government guidelines to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives, by undertaking an almost 700-mile round trip to Westminster when he could safely have worked from home today virtually? What kind of message does that send to the Scottish people? Will the Secretary of State be self-isolating on his return to his constituency?
To be absolutely clear, first, as the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), has made clear, Members of Parliament are key workers. More importantly, as a Cabinet Minister and a Secretary of State, it is right that I should be here in the Chamber so that I can be properly scrutinised and answer these questions. I came down at the weekend and travelled on a train very safely. I will return safely and I will be isolating myself when I do, but that is solely because I go back to family. I do not see why we cannot have proper scrutiny of Parliament when we have the virtual proceedings, which work for some, but for me it is absolutely about being here, being scrutinised and being at the Dispatch Box.
At last week’s Scottish Affairs Committee sitting, the Secretary of State made the welcome admission that the Prime Minister’s announcement on exiting lockdown did cause confusion, given that the advice applied only to England. The crystal-clear message in Scotland remains to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives. In that same spirit, will the Secretary of State accept that prematurely ending the modern ways in which we are currently working in Parliament would disregard Scotland’s clear public health guidance, increase infection in our communities and put our constituents at risk by forcing people to travel hundreds of miles back and forth to London?
I have already given the answer on the first point. On the messaging, the messaging in Scotland is different to that in England, which is fine, but the “stay alert” message in England is that people should stay at home and work from home if they can work from home, but if they cannot, they can go to work. That is very clear. In going to work, they stay alert, wash their hands and socially distance themselves—they do all those things. If Scottish Members of Parliament do not want to come back to be scrutinised or to scrutinise Ministers, that will be a matter for them, but at some point we will have to move to a stage where Parliament is operating on a virtual and covid-safe basis, and that is exactly as it should be.
That is very kind of you, Mr Speaker; thank you very much indeed.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the February outbreak of covid-19 at an international Nike conference in central Edinburgh. In a catastrophic error of judgment, the Scottish Government decided that the Scottish public would not be informed, despite that being contrary to Scottish public health legislation. The public could have helped with the tracing and used their own common sense, as the Prime Minister has said, to make choices about attending large events and gatherings. A BBC documentary reported that a lockdown then could have saved 2,000 Scottish lives. Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether the UK Government were informed; why the public were not told, given the subsequent disinfecting and closure of Nike outlets all over the UK; and how many UK lives could have been saved as a result?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to his rightful place on the Opposition Front Bench. I fear he spent far too long in the wilderness that was the previous regime’s Back Benches. That said, I must pay tribute to his predecessor, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who I am pleased is making good progress in recovering from a very nasty bout of coronavirus.
On the shadow Secretary of State’s question, I believe that maximum transparency is important when it comes to matters of public health, because it is important that we treat the public as adults. To that end, I wish to make it clear that the Scottish Government informed Public Health England—an agency, as Members know—of one case of covid-19 on 2 March and two further cases on 4 March. I should also make it absolutely clear at the Dispatch Box that the chief medical officers of the four nations agreed, before there were any confirmed cases, that each Administration would announce their own cases and take their own decisions about what was appropriate to release and when they released it, so it is a matter for the Scottish Government and how they handled it.
I accept that response from the Secretary of State, but the UK Government did have a responsibility, given that Nike outlets across the United Kingdom were closed and disinfected.
I thank the Secretary of State for his welcome and for what he said about my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), whom I spoke to shortly after being appointed; he is back and fit, with his old sense of humour—he has not lost that, thankfully. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) and I will work closely with the Government when they agree with us, but we will be a ferocious Opposition when we disagree. We should work collaboratively when we agree, but we will be ferocious when we do not.
In advance of a vaccine, the only way to ease lockdown measures is to test, trace, track and isolate. The key to that process is mass testing. Given that the UK Government consistently fail to hit their 100,000 a day target, and Scotland has one of the worst testing rates in the whole world, we need mobilisation of both Governments to have testing centres everywhere—mobile, workplace, home testing, in airports and so on—to make this strategy work. A “go it alone” policy, encouraged by the Prime Minister’s clumsy announcements, is counterproductive. What work is going on across both Governments to ensure not only that the capacity of testing is exponentially increased, but that there is a system in place for effectively testing and retesting the majority of the population, starting in our care homes?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The testing capacity in Scotland is 12,000 tests a day. On Monday, they only used 4,559 of those. That is a matter for the Scottish Government, because health is devolved, and they determine what tests are undertaken. I want to make it clear that the UK Government have funded for the Scottish Government five operating drive-through test centres in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and Perth. The Ministry of Defence is operating 30 pop-up units across Scotland. Again, they can go at the behest of the Scottish Government. There is plenty of capacity there. It is not being used. It should have been used more in care homes; I agree with him on that. There is a firm line between the Scottish Government being cautious and being slow, when in fact, they could be less cautious about easing the lockdown if they had been a lot quicker on testing.
I welcome the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), to his position. Given that England has decided to ease lockdown measures earlier than the other three nations of the UK, can the Secretary of State give assurances that the citizens of the devolved nations will still have access to the UK furlough scheme for as long as lockdown must continue in the devolved nations?
If this Parliament insists on following a policy of England’s way or no way and does not leave any leeway for the devolved nations, will the Secretary of State, as Scotland’s representative in Government, lobby the Prime Minister for the devolution of the fiscal powers necessary for the Scottish Government to implement their own furlough scheme?
This is not the time for the Scottish fiscal framework to be opened up and looked at again. The UK Government have given huge support to the whole United Kingdom through the furlough scheme, the self-employed scheme, the bounce-back loans and the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. There has been a huge package of measures to keep money in people’s pockets and to keep the economy as strong as it can be when we return to something near normal. Have I argued Scotland’s case? Yes, I have. We have an extension coming on 1 August, running to 31 October. I hope that we can get people back to work over that period and get the economy up and running, to save people’s livelihoods. While we are very focused on saving people’s lives, we must remember that after that comes saving their livelihoods.
It is so disappointing to see the Secretary of State and his “better together” shadow in the House of Commons in London today. Their Government are telling them to stay at home and not to travel unnecessarily, but there they are in the House of Commons today. The Secretary of State is right that virtual proceedings allow Scottish Members of Parliament to work from home, so why are the Government pulling the plug on the virtual proceedings today? He is the voice of Scots in the Cabinet. What is he doing to ensure that Scots’ voices continue to be heard in the House of Commons on behalf of our constituents and to allow us to do our work?
The hon. Gentleman might be jumping the gun on that, because discussions are ongoing between the Whips Office and the House authorities. I want to make it clear to him that we are not going to put anyone at risk. However, we have to recognise that if we are asking schools to go back and the public to go back to work, we should lead by example, and we should return to a covid-safe—I emphasise that: covid-safe—working environment.
Covid-19: Scottish Universities
Higher education in Scotland is, for the most part, a devolved responsibility. However, the UK Government very much recognise the difficulties faced by students, staff, and institutions across the UK, and we are working closely with the sector. The Department for Education has been engaging closely with ministerial and official colleagues in Scotland to discuss a range of higher education areas affected by the covid-19 outbreak.
Further and higher education needs to adapt to the long-term consequences of covid-19 in much the same way as our schools and other public services do. Although the crisis has taught us how well long-distance learning can be employed, will my right hon. Friend agree to discuss with the Scottish Government how such lessons can be implemented in the future to provide valuable education and, importantly, value for money for undergraduates and postgraduates?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The Department for Education has been engaging closely with ministerial and official colleagues in Scotland to discuss a range of higher education areas that are affected by covid-19. I am also pleased to say that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), is meeting Universities Scotland’s funding policy group later this week.
Scotland’s 19 universities are not immune to the financial hardship caused by the pandemic. They currently face immediate in-year losses of £72 million, and Universities Scotland anticipates that 18 of Scotland’s 19 universities will go on to report deficits in this financial year. May I press the Secretary of State further on what work he will do as part of a UK Government working with the Scottish Government to ensure that any detrimental impact to universities across Scotland is dealt with and that universities are supported and helped in relation to the pandemic?
Funnily enough, I have spoken to the Education Secretary on that very subject. The UK Government are providing considerable funds to support research by Scottish universities, as indeed they do for other universities in the UK. Regarding the shortfall for universities, which I believe has been highlighted, I am told that that is largely due to the policy of the Scottish Government over the past 10 years of giving free tuition to Scottish nationals and charging English students and overseas students more. I have to say that that element of the budget is, and always has been, devolved and it is absolutely the responsibility of the Scottish Government to rectify that problem.
Covid-19: UK-wide Response
I have regular discussions with all my Cabinet colleagues on the covid-19 outbreak, including on the co-ordination of a UK-wide response. The Government are absolutely committed to a UK-wide approach and we will continue to work together with the devolved Administrations to ensure a co-ordinated approach across the UK, while respecting the devolution settlements.
Because of the actions taken by this UK Government, the Scottish Government will receive more than £3.7 billion in extra Barnett funding to help deal with the covid-19 outbreak. Does my right hon. Friend believe that this demonstrates the importance of tackling the pandemic as one United Kingdom, and that it is in the best interests of all four nations to work together as we emerge from this crisis?
In places such as Carlisle and south Scotland, we have a substantial amount of cross-border activity, including travel to work. Does the Minister agree that it would be far better to have a UK-wide policy on movement rather than having the Scottish Government causing unnecessary confusion, which does not help people in this part of the country?
As we know, different parts of the United Kingdom are experiencing this pandemic at different rates, so it is right to be flexible and to move at different speeds, as we have seen. But will my right hon. Friend confirm that he remains fully committed to working constructively with the Scottish Government, so that we can, as he says, get through this crisis together as one United Kingdom?
Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, has said:
“We need to see the whole of the UK moving together—the alternative for business is additional confusion and cost. Avoiding divergence for the sake of politics is important.”
Does the Secretary of State agree?
Rescheduling of COP26
The decision on a revised date for COP26 in 2021 will be taken by the COP Bureau of the United Nations framework convention on climate change, in co-operation with the UK and Italy.
As a man born and bred in Glasgow, I welcome the fact that COP26 is going to be hosted there. However, the original plan included a proposal to house 30,000 delegates in cruise liners docked in the Clyde. Not only was that ludicrously expensive, but the pollution from the diesel from those vessels would have sent entirely the wrong message from the COP. What assurance can the Minister give that more suitable accommodation is now being prepared?
Clearly, decisions will continue to be taken on COP26 when it is rescheduled. The point about the 30,000 delegates is important, because that will make COP26 in Glasgow—a UK-secured summit—the biggest-ever summit, delegate-wise, in the United Kingdom, and that is something we should celebrate. We will continue to work on the valuable point that the hon. Gentleman has made. Glasgow will be ready to host this outstanding international conference.
I am pleased to confirm that we have agreed a city or growth deal for each of Scotland’s seven city regions. We have also agreed, or are in the process of agreeing, growth deals for Ayrshire, Borderlands, Argyll and Bute, Falkirk, the Islands, and my own home area of Moray. Together, this will mean that a city or growth deal will be part of every area of Scotland.
I thank my hon. Friend for his reply and for his Department’s excellent work in delivering these growth deals for Scotland. But does he agree that we now need a growth deal for the whole United Kingdom based on free enterprise, an export boost from new free trade deals, and locking in some of the productivity gains we have made during this crisis on a transition to a more digital and cashless economy?
I do agree that as we come out of this pandemic we have to ensure that steps are taken to protect and restore people’s livelihoods, which are clearly at the forefront of everyone’s minds at the moment, because a strong economy is the best way to protect jobs and fund vital services that are required. I am certain that city and growth deals in Scotland and across the UK will play their part in helping to achieve this.
Oil and Gas Industry
In my role in the Scotland Office, along with the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, there is regular UK Government engagement with the Oil and Gas Authority and with the wider industry to discuss the significant levels of Government support available to it as part of our unprecedented package of support to business.
This is an extremely difficult and uncertain time for oil and gas companies in Scotland and across the UK. I am sure my hon. Friend shares my concern about the impact this uncertainty is having on thousands of people who work in the sector, so will he outline what support is available to British oil and gas workers, and will he work with the sector to prevent job losses during this pandemic?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. This is an issue that has been raised in my own constituency. People in Moray travel around the world working in the oil industry. Clearly, the coronavirus job retention scheme is open to the oil and gas industry. Oil and Gas UK has reported that about 30% of respondents to its recent business survey said that they were successful in securing that funding. I would encourage others to look at that as an option to protect their workforce.
Covid-19: Strengthening the Four-nation Approach
I have regular discussions with the Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Scotland Office is in regular dialogue with Scottish Government Minsters to ensure that the most effective measures are put in place in all parts of the United Kingdom. Throughout the covid-19 outbreak, we have been committed to a four-nation approach.
From the Secretary of State’s comments earlier, we know that the Government accept that coronavirus will affect different places differently. What discussions has the Minister been having with other Ministers about getting an official, sub-regional transmission rate—a sub-regional R rate—for the whole United Kingdom to enable authorities in different parts of the country to respond in the way that helps them locally?
There have been ongoing discussions about this. As the Secretary of State said—indeed, the Prime Minister included it in the UK Government document—not only will different nations of the United Kingdom come out of the pandemic at different rates, but different regions of England may also come out of the pandemic at different rates. It is right that this Government are committed to supporting everyone, no matter where they live, to have the best chances to come out of coronavirus and its effects. We will continue to do that as a Government, in dialogue and constructive discussion with the devolved Administrations.
Is the Minister aware of a survey by the charity Radiotherapy4Life, which says that there may be between 2,500 and 7,000 avoidable cancer deaths in Scotland as a result of deferred treatments for cancer patients as a consequence of the NHS focusing on the covid-19 response? Will he work with his counterparts in the four nations to put the case to prioritise advanced radiotherapy by seeking to increase funding, and to remove bureaucratic barriers and restrictions to modernising radiotherapy and encouraging the use of advanced radiotherapy?
The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. We have to make it clear in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland that our NHS remains open. That message has been loud and clear. Cancer patients should be aware that we will do everything we can across the four nations of the United Kingdom to get the treatment they need and deserve, but the ultimate message is, yes, coronavirus has an impact on our NHS. Because of the actions of the Government and the public, we have been able to suppress the covid outbreak to ensure that we have not breached capacity, but we cannot allow important medical matters to go untreated for too much longer. That message is heard loud and clear throughout the Government.
I think we have seen a slight divergence in some areas, but together the four nations continue to work strongly in lockstep to ensure that we can beat coronavirus and save not only lives, but livelihoods. I am encouraged that Scotland will shortly announce similar measures to the rest of the United Kingdom to release some of the restrictions that are in place, but it is important that these decisions are taken in the devolved Administrations where public health is devolved to the respective Governments.
The UK Government are working tirelessly to procure PPE both internationally and domestically for UK-wide distribution. This is in addition to the Scottish Government’s own procurement processes. We are working with the devolved Administrations to ensure that the different parts of the UK do not compete against one another in the international market, and that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can make a single approach to foreign Governments.
The lack of PPE is a scandal. It is part of the reason for the high mortality rate in care homes across the UK. What discussions has the Minister had with the Scottish Government to ensure that nations are not competing against one another for the vital PPE that our essential frontline workers need?
As I said in my opening remarks, the UK Government are committed to ensuring that we work as a United Kingdom, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has taken a lead on this issue to ensure that that can happen. I have had regular discussions with Donald Macaskill of Scottish Care about PPE, but also about the outstanding work that our care workers are doing in care homes and around the community across Scotland and the whole of the United Kingdom; they deserve our praise for what they are doing.
PPE: Distribution to Scotland
We are working closely with the devolved nations to ensure that supplies of PPE, both domestic and imported, are distributed equally across the four nations. As I mentioned in my previous response, we are also working to ensure that different parts of the UK do not compete against one other when procuring PPE internationally.
Despite the England-only designation of some PPE imports, the grassroots medical association EveryDoctor has been collating a range of data on PPE availability, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the Scottish Government’s system of procurement and distribution of PPE for Scotland’s NHS has been more efficient and effective from its perspective than that experienced by frontline medical staff in the English NHS. Can the Minister advise the House of what discussions he has had—
I have had regular discussions with the Scottish Government about procuring PPE. Of course, it was the Scottish Government who had a delivery into Prestwick airport of PPE that was not properly labelled, which sat in the airport unable to get out into the care homes to protect the people we needed it to get to. The four nations across the United Kingdom continue to prioritise this issue. It is important for our NHS workers, our care workers and Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole.
The Prime Minister was asked—
One hundred and eighty-one NHS and 131 social care workers’ deaths have sadly been reported involving covid-19. I know that the thoughts of the whole House are with their families and friends.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my meetings in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
The Government keep saying that this virus does not discriminate, but that is not true. Office for National Statistics figures show that black people, African and African Caribbean people are four times more likely to die from covid-19. The figure is also disproportionately high for Bangladeshi, Pakistani or Indian communities. What is the Prime Minister going to do now about this, and will he act now to ensure that African, Asian and minority ethnic communities in Leicester East and across the country are supported in the next phase of this virus?
Yes. As the hon. Lady may know, we are looking at all the comorbidities associated with the coronavirus and all the reasons why people might be disproportionately affected. A rapid review is now being conducted by Professor Fenton, who will report at the end of the month about particularly vulnerable groups. We will take steps to ensure that they are protected where that is appropriate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his imagination and his plan for a new railway. It is entirely in keeping with our infrastructure revolution, and I can assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will be getting back to him. I note that Nexus has already identified several possible extensions of the Tyne and Wear Metro scheme, which may be of advantage to his constituents.
Last Friday, the Health Secretary said:
“Right from the start we’ve tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes.”
That caused quite a reaction. Yesterday, it was flatly contradicted by the chief executive of Care England. He was giving evidence to the Select Committee on Health and Social Care, and he said that we should have been focusing on care homes from the start and that despite what is being said, there were cases of people who either did not have a covid status or were symptomatic who were discharged into our care homes. The Government advice from 2 to 15 April was:
“Negative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into”
care homes. What is protective about that?
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows full well—of course he is right to draw attention to what has happened in our care homes, and we mourn the loss of every victim—no one was discharged into a care home this year without the express authorisation of a clinician, and they have the interests of those patients at heart. As I said to him last week—he does not seem to have remembered—actually, the number of patients discharged from hospitals into care homes was 40% down in March on January. The guidance was changed to reflect the change in the epidemic, and that guidance was made available to care homes—and, of course, since the care homes action plan began, we have seen a sharp reduction in the number of deaths in care homes. Indeed, since I last stood before the House, the number of deaths in care homes has come down by 31%. I think he should pay tribute to all those who have helped to fight that epidemic across the NHS and across our local services.
I think the Prime Minister rather missed the point. The question was whether people were tested going back into care homes. The chief executive of Care England says that because they were not, people who had no covid-19 status or who were symptomatic were discharged into care homes. That is a very serious issue that requires an answer.
Yesterday, the chief executive of Care England, in his evidence, was also asked when routine testing would start in care homes. This is the answer he gave yesterday: “I think the short answer is that we’ve had the announcement, but what we haven’t had is delivery, and we are not really clear when that will arrive.” This is the chief executive of Care England in his evidence. Even the Government’s Command Paper, published last week and introduced by the Prime Minister to this House, says within it—[Interruption.] The Health Secretary says, “He’s wrong.” I am quoting the Government’s paper. It says that
“every care home for the over 65s will have been offered testing for residents and staff”
by 6 June.
That is from the Prime Minister’s Command Paper. That is over two weeks away. What is causing the continued delay in routine testing in our care homes?
I am afraid the right hon. and learned Gentleman is simply in ignorance of the facts. The reality is that already 125,000 care home staff have been tested, 118,000—[Interruption.] Perhaps he did know that. One hundred and eighteen thousand care home workers have been tested, and we are absolutely confident that we will be able to increase our testing, not just in care homes but across the whole of the community. Thanks to the hard work of my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary and his teams, we will get up to 200,000 tests in this country by the end of this month. The right hon. and learned Gentleman may know this—perhaps it is one of those international comparisons he hesitates to make—but actually this country is now testing more than virtually any other country in Europe.
Again, the question was when would routine testing start, and the chief executive of Care England, who knows what he is talking about, gave evidence yesterday that it has not. [Interruption.] If the Prime Minister is disputing the evidence to the Select Committee, that is his own business. [Interruption.]
Order. Secretary of State for Health, please. I do not mind you advising the Prime Minister, but you do not need to advise the Opposition during this. [Interruption.] Sorry, do you want to leave the Chamber? We are at maximum numbers. If you want to give way to somebody else, I am more than happy.
To assure the Prime Minister, I am not expressing my own view; I am putting to him the evidence of experts to Committees yesterday.
Testing was referred to by the Prime Minister. That on its own is obviously not enough. What is needed is testing, tracing and isolation. At yesterday’s press conference, the deputy chief scientific adviser said that we could draw particular lessons from Germany and South Korea, which have both had intensive testing and tracing. The number of covid-19 deaths in Germany stands at around 8,000. In South Korea, it is under 300. In contrast, in the United Kingdom, despite 2 million tests having been carried out, there has been no effective tracing in place since 12 March, when tracing was abandoned. That is nearly 10 weeks in a critical period without effective tracing. That is a huge hole in our defences, isn’t it, Prime Minister?
I must say that I find it peculiar, because I have given the right hon. and learned Gentleman repeated briefings on this matter. He is perfectly aware of the situation in the UK as regards testing and tracing in early March. It has been explained many times to him and to the House. I think his feigned ignorance does not come very well. However, I can tell him that today I am confident that we will have a test and trace operation that will enable us, if all the other conditions are satisfied—it is entirely provisional—to make progress. I can also tell him that we have already recruited 24,000 trackers, and by 1 June we will have 25,000. They will be capable of tracking the contacts of 10,000 new cases a day. To understand the importance of that statistic, I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that today the new cases stand at 2,400. We are making vast progress in testing and tracing and I have great confidence that by 1 June, we will have a system that will help us greatly to defeat this disease and move the country forward. I therefore hope that he will abandon his slightly negative tone and support it.
Thirty-four thousand deaths is negative. Of course I am going to ask about that, and quite right too. The Prime Minister says “feigned ignorance”, but he knows that for 10 weeks there has been no tracing, unlike in Germany and South Korea. Tracing is critical—there is no getting away from that. The Prime Minister knows it is vital—he made a great deal of it in his speech to the nation a week ago last Sunday. He said,
“we cannot move forward unless we satisfy”
the tests that he has set, one of which is a “world-beating” test and trace system. World-beating. Leaving aside the rhetoric—“effective” will do—there now appears to be some doubt about when the system will be ready. This is the last Prime Minister’s questions for two weeks. Can the Prime Minister indicate that an effective test, trace and isolate system will be in place by 1 June—Monday week?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman seems to be in the unhappy position of having rehearsed his third or fourth question but not listened to my previous answer, brilliant forensic mind though he has. He has heard that we have growing confidence that we will have a test, track and trace operation that will be world-beating, and yes, it will be in place by 1 June.
To repeat the figures, since the right hon. and learned Gentleman has invited me to do so, there will be 25,000 trackers, who will be able to cope with 10,000 new cases a day. That is very important because currently new cases are running at about 2,500 a day. They will be able to trace the contacts of those new cases and stop the disease spreading. I hope very much, notwithstanding the occasional difficulty of these exchanges—and I totally appreciate the role that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has to fulfil—that he will support us as we go forward, that he will be positive about the test, track and trace operation and that we can work together to use it to take our country forward. That is what the people of this country want to see.
I am very happy to work with the Prime Minister on that. He knows that from our previous exchanges.
Every Thursday, we go out and clap for our carers. Many of them are risking their lives for the sake of all of us. Does the Prime Minister think it is right that care workers coming from abroad and working on our frontline should have to pay a surcharge of hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds to use the NHS themselves?
I have thought a great deal about this, and I accept and understand the difficulties faced by our amazing NHS staff. Like the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I have been a personal beneficiary of carers who have come from abroad and frankly saved my life. I know exactly the importance of what he asks. On the other hand, we must look at the realities. This is a great national service—it is a national institution—that needs funding, and those contributions help us to raise about £900 million. It is very difficult in the current circumstances to find alternative sources, so with great respect for the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point, I think it is the right way forward.
I am disappointed, because the Prime Minister knows how raw this is. The fee in question, the immigration health surcharge, is currently £400 a year. From October, that goes up to £624 a year. For a care worker on the national living wage, that will require working for 70 hours to pay off the fee.
The Doctors Association and a number of medical groups wrote to the Home Secretary this week, and they set it out this way:
“At a time when we are mourning colleagues, your steadfast refusal to reconsider the deeply unfair immigration health surcharge is a gross insult to all”—
“who are serving this country at its time of greatest need.”
We agree, and Labour will table amendments to the immigration Bill to exempt NHS and care workers from this charge. Can I urge the Prime Minister to reconsider his view as we go through this crisis?
I have given my answer, but what I will say is that I think that it is important that we support our NHS and that we invest massively in our NHS. This Government—this one nation Conservative Government—are determined to invest more in our NHS than at any time in modern memory. We have already begun that, and we will want to see our fantastic frontline workers paid properly. That is, I think, the best way forward. I want to see our NHS staff paid properly, our NHS supported, and I want to continue our programme of not just building 40 more hospitals, but recruiting 50,000 more nurses and investing hugely in our NHS, and I believe that will be warmly welcomed across the whole of our establishment of our fantastic NHS.
Indeed I can, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Hyndburn and Haslingden will indeed continue to receive funding for their town centres—indeed, the high streets taskforce will be increasing that support—in addition to 118 km of safe new green cycleways thanks to the Lancashire local growth fund, for which I know she has also campaigned.
Our thoughts this morning are with the communities in India and Bangladesh dealing with the landfall of super cyclone Amphan. I am sure the Government will be monitoring the situation and will seek to give all necessary support.
Every week, members of this Government applaud our truly heroic NHS and care staff, who have been on the frontline of this pandemic, regardless of whether they were born here or elsewhere. Indeed, the Prime Minister has thanked the nurses who cared for him, who were from New Zealand and from Portugal. The UK has the highest number of deaths in Europe, and without their sacrifice, we would be facing something much worse. I know the Leader of the Opposition has already asked the Prime Minister about overseas careworkers, but on Monday the Prime Minister ordered his MPs to vote for an immigration Bill that defines many in the NHS and care sector as low-skilled workers. Given their sacrifice, is the Prime Minister not embarrassed that this is how his Government choose to treat NHS and care workers?
This is a Government who value immensely the work of everybody in our national health service and our care workers across the whole community. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the reason for having an immigration Bill of the kind that we are is not to keep out people who can help in our NHS; on the contrary, we want an immigration system that works for the people of this country and works for our NHS. I think what the people of this country want to see is an immigration system where we control it, we understand it and we are able to direct it according to the needs of our NHS and the needs of our economy, and that is what we are putting in place.
I know it is rejected by the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), and indeed by the right hon. Gentleman himself, but it is the right way forward.
The harsh reality is that the Prime Minister does not even pay NHS and care staff the real living wage and wants to block many of them from working here at all. We need an immigration system that is fit for purpose. The Home Secretary and the Prime Minister seem hell-bent on implementing a purely ideological immigration policy with no basis in fairness or economics. The Government have talked about giving back to our NHS and care staff. It is time for him to deliver. People migrating to these nations and choosing to work in our NHS and care sector must have the Government’s cruel NHS surcharge removed immediately. Will he make that pledge today, or will he clap on Thursday, hoping that no one really notices that he is giving with one hand and raking it in with the other?
First, the right hon. Gentleman mentions the living wage. This is the party and Government who instituted the living wage and have just increased it by a massive amount. Secondly, this is the party that is putting £34 billion into the NHS—the biggest investment in modern times—and believe me we will continue with that investment. He talks about discriminatory policies at the border. The logic of his policy is to have a border at Berwick.
The Defence Committee heard recently that France is conducting a root-and-branch review of its defence supply chain following concerns that China is buying up defence-related companies that are going bust during the pandemic. Does my right hon. Friend think it might be wise to consider doing the same thing here in addition to rowing back from his plans to allow Huawei to roll out 5G?
I am sure there is a legal term for imputing to me a policy that I have not yet announced, but my hon. Friend is right to be concerned about the buying up of UK technology now by countries that may have ulterior motives, and we are certainly introducing measures to protect our technological base. He will be hearing a lot more about that in the next few weeks.
In Ireland, both jurisdictions are working hard to organise contact tracing on a north-south basis, but the Prime Minister’s obsession with avoiding a Brexit transition extension means we risk crashing out without a data-sharing framework, which will critically undermine our ability to protect people from covid-19. When will he put the lives of people in our community above petty, narrow Brexiteer politics?
I must respectfully disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We are working very closely not just with our colleagues in the Government in Northern Ireland but with our colleagues in Dublin. I had a very good conversation with Leo Varadkar the other day and we saw eye to eye on the way forward. There is a huge amount shared between the UK and Ireland, and it will continue to be so.
As a stunning coastal destination built on hospitality and tourism sectors hard hit by the impact of the virus, Eastbourne is none the less looking to bounce back when it is safe to do so and is part of work on a covid-secure kitemark to inspire public confidence. Does my right hon. Friend see merit in this, and when the coast is clear, will he visit?
I am sure the coast is always clear in Eastbourne. I will do my utmost to get there as soon as I can within the social distancing rules that we must all observe. We will look at the kitemark idea. The best I can say is that my hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for Eastbourne and its attractions, and I look forward to supporting her in any way I can.
Actually, I think that the hon. Lady has an extremely important point, and I have taken dramatic action, even before a reshuffle. The most important appointment that we have made recently, after Lord Deighton doing the personal protective equipment, was Dido. One of the reasons we are making such fast progress, I think, now on test and trace is that Dido Harding has come on board, and Kate Bingham is leading the national effort to co-ordinate our search for a vaccine with other countries.
I am very grateful for my right hon. Friend’s hard work, and in particular, his commitment to doing whatever it takes to help people to make ends meet during this pandemic, but in West Dorset I have many constituents who were employed before 19 March who are not eligible to be furloughed under the job retention scheme—particularly those who have changed jobs. Will he look at this area again to see, please, what he can do to help those who have slipped through the net and those who have no financial support at this time?
Yes. We have pushed back the cut-off date in order to help people, but we are also looking to support people who are in difficulties with some temporary measures on welfare, as he knows—the significant £1,040 increase in universal credit standard allowance and the working tax credit basic element. If there are particularly hard cases, and there will be hard cases, I say what I have said before to the House: I am happy to take them up on my hon. Friend’s behalf.
My constituent, Elizabeth Gull, has proposed the creation of a medal for NHS workers and others to recognise their distinguished service in their work against coronavirus. I think that this idea has merit. Will my right hon. Friend consider a medal or other accolade in the fullness of time for those who have gone above and beyond in the last few months?
As I am sure the whole House can imagine, we are indeed looking at the excellent suggestion made by my hon. Friend’s constituent, Elizabeth. We are thinking how to recognise the work of healthcare staff, carers and many others, and we are engaging with staff and employers at the present time.
Perhaps I can just say that I continue to be very happy with the level of co-operation, in spite of what we sometimes hear in this Chamber, between the Governments of all four nations, particularly Scotland. I just remind the hon. Lady, of course, that Scotland has benefited from about £1 billion of coronavirus funding in the last period and will get about £3 billion overall, which is perhaps a material consideration on which she might like to reflect.
Unemployment in the under-24 age group has already doubled in Telford compared with this time last year, and it is clear that the aftermath of the pandemic will hit our young people hardest, with disruption to education and training, as well as job losses. I know that my right hon. Friend is passionate about opportunities for young people, particularly in areas such as Telford, which has suffered disproportionately in previous recessions. Will he ensure that the recovery strategy focuses on young people and equipping them with the skills they need to survive in a post-pandemic economy and, indeed, thrive in the longer term?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to speak up for the young people of Telford and their immense potential, and that is why we will be supporting her and them with a new national skills fund worth £2.5 billion, so that young people can be at the very forefront of our effort to come out of this epidemic.
That is the end of PMQs. Before the urgent question, I should say that I plan to allow a statement by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on the UK’s approach to Northern Ireland protocol as part of the scrutiny proceedings. I will allow less time for the urgent question and the business statement as a consequence.
We now come to the urgent question to the Leader of the House. I will end the urgent question at 12.55. I call the Leader of the House, Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, to answer the urgent question from Alistair Carmichael. The Leader of the House should speak for no more than three minutes.
Conduct of Business After the Whitsun Recess
(Urgent question): To ask the Leader of the House if he will make a statement on the conduct of business after the Whitsun recess and if he will bring forward the necessary motions to continue the online participation of Members in the business of the House.
Mr Speaker, may I first recognise your commitment to ensuring that the House operates as fully as it can while adhering to guidance from Public Health England? Your dedication and that of the House Clerks and digital team have been instrumental in establishing the hybrid proceedings that allowed us to return after Easter but as you have always agreed, the present arrangements were only ever envisaged as temporary, because they fundamentally restrict the House’s ability to perform its functions fully. Complaints about our debates becoming stilted, scripted affairs are one thing, but the impact on legislative scrutiny is another.
Under the hybrid proceedings, the time this House is able to spend debating legislation faces being cut by around two thirds. I am sure all Members will agree that each and every one of the 36 Bills put forward by the Government in the Queen’s Speech deserves the proper level of scrutiny. We have to recognise that if we persist with the present arrangements, it will become harder to make progress in a timely fashion. That is why, in line with Government advice for those who cannot do their jobs from home, I am asking Members to return to their place of work after Whitsun.
We will not be returning to the crowded, bustling Chamber of old. We will be observing social distancing. As a member of the House of Commons Commission, I was reassured yesterday by the progress being made in making the parliamentary estate a covid-19-secure workplace. That work has been expertly led by Marianne Cwynarski, the head of governance and central services, and I particularly commend her for her efforts in ensuring that staff already coming in to work in the Palace have the support they need.
Only yesterday, Mr Speaker, you organised the test of a new system for Divisions that will ensure Members can vote while remaining 6 feet apart. We will minimise the number of other passholders on the estate, strongly encouraging MPs’ staff and others to continue working from home. We will continue to work closely together in consultation with Members across the House, not least the Select Committee on Procedure, on the appropriate next steps.
We will need to understand from the House authorities where adaptations can be implemented, as the Procedure Committee itself acknowledges is key, without prejudice to the House’s ability to carry out its business effectively. At the same time, we will want to ensure that any steps taken are in line with the Government’s advice to the country at large.
I will consider the Procedure Committee’s views very carefully and keep these issues under review, but I would finally like to reassure those Members with underlying health conditions who have been told to shield or are receiving specific Government advice about their health that we are working with the House authorities to see how they can continue to contribute to proceedings within the House.
Thank you for allowing this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I do not want this debate today to be all about Members of Parliament. Let us remember what has brought us to this point. Yesterday, the number of recorded deaths from covid-19 reached 35,341—a rise of 545 from the day before. Today, the Government’s response to that is to insist that Members of Parliament should undertake non-essential journeys—in my case, that is almost the entire length of this country—to stay in second homes. When that was done by leading Government advisers, it led to their resignation. If ever there was a case of do as I say and not as I do, then this is it.
None of us is blind to the inadequacies of online scrutiny. Like many Members I find it stilted and artificial, but if it is a choice between that, and putting the safety of Members, their families and the staff of the House at risk, that is no choice at all. This system should end only when it is safe to do so—and safe for all Members, not just those who live within driving distance of Westminster.
As trade union representatives explained to the Commission yesterday, the House of Commons is supported by approximately 3,000 employees. Is the Leader of the House really satisfied that we can bring MPs back from 2 June while discharging our duty of care towards those staff? How many staff will be able to return to work without risk to themselves or those with whom they live?
It is widely reported that the motivation for this over-hasty return is to get a support pack behind the Prime Minister on Wednesday afternoons. Today, it has even been reported that yesterday, the Leader of the House suggested to the Commons Commission that to get more MPs in, perspex screens should be installed between the Benches and between Members—someone has obviously told him how things are being done in Tesco these days. In recent weeks we have demonstrated that the business of this House can be done from behind a screen, as we do right now, but it is from behind a computer screen, not a screen of perspex, the only purpose of which would be to shield the Government from scrutiny and the Prime Minister from ridicule. The Leader of the House must think again.
The point made by the right hon. Gentleman about Prime Minister’s questions is fundamentally trivial and beneath him, and therefore I shall ignore it. I am very sorry that he does not think that proper scrutiny of the Government is an essential task in a democracy. I think that is an extraordinary position for a former member of a Government, and a leading figure in the Liberal party—if it has leading figures—to take. Democratic accountability is fundamental to how our system works.
The right hon. Gentleman, from his eyrie in the Shetland Islands, tells us that a remote system does not work well enough. He then says that we should none the less continue with it. As Members of Parliament, I think we have a duty to return to doing our work thoroughly, properly, and effectively, and that is what we will do, in line with Government advice and the five tests, and by ensuring a safe working environment. I reiterate my thanks to Marianne Cwynarski for what she has done. People working in the House, employees of the House, are able to work safely, and the numbers expected to come in are not thought likely to rise significantly when the House returns after Whitsun.
I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), and you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. Last week the Leader of the House gave a fantastic performance about democracy and parliamentary sovereignty, but it was all style and no substance. If this was not so serious, I would have nominated him for a BAFTA.
We have had a joint Commission with the other place, and at a Commission meeting we had a briefing from Public Health England. Before his unilateral declaration that the Government will not renew the temporary hybrid proceedings, did the Leader of the House hold a discussion with Public Health England? What was its advice, and will he publish it?
May I correct the Leader of the House again? He keeps saying that if others are going to work, the Government expect us to go to work, but we are at work. We are at work at all times. The Government’s own advice is that those who can work from home should do so—that is still the Government’s advice, on grounds of working and travelling safely. Will he confirm that he is not contradicting Government advice, and will he say how Members are expected to travel down when there is a reduced service?
Everyone knows someone who has been a victim of this disease, including those who have not just suffered from it, but who have died. This is not a bounce-back virus, as the Prime Minister said; it is not about the survival of the fittest. We have a diverse workforce in our community here, which we encourage. What risk assessment has the Leader of the House asked to be made, to ensure that Members, and the extra House staff required for return, can return safely? Will he confirm that on returning to physical-only proceedings, proper social distancing measures will have been worked out and will be sustainable in the Chamber? What was the extra waiting time for voting at the practice voting?
This is not a battle of “Government good; everyone else bad”, or of “shirkers versus workers” as some Ministers have said. This is about Parliament being a good model employer. We need a phased return, so as not to overpower the NHS or House staff, and where everyone can be safe.
Finally, can the Leader of the House confirm that the parliamentary estate is covid-free? Does he agree with the scientific advice that it is about observed levels of infection and not a fixed date?
Most of those questions were actually answered at the Commission meeting—the right hon. Lady is a member—that we had on Tuesday. Unfortunately, because of a dodgy connection, we could hardly hear her during the proceedings of the Commission and perhaps she could not hear all the points that were made.
We had reassurance from the House authorities that, yes, this will be a covid-19-secure workplace by the time we come back after the Whitsun recess; that a risk assessment has been carried by the parliamentary authorities; and that enormous steps are being taken to help and to assist parliamentary staff. What is the House doing? Well, there is extra cleaning going on. The same mechanisms will be used to clean pads as are used on the London Underground to try and ensure there is safety there; the congestion charge is being paid for members of staff so that they can drive to work and the Abingdon car park is being made available. Considerable steps have been made by the House authorities, as the right hon. Lady knows, to ensure that it is safe to work here.
Is this in line with Government advice? Yes, of course it is. The key question for right hon. and hon. Members to ask themselves is: do they think that proper scrutiny and proper legislative processes are essential? If they are, we need to be here. If they are not, they can work remotely. It seems to me, unquestionably, that those proper processes are an essential part of our country functioning. Therefore, we cannot do our jobs properly from home and therefore that is in line with the Government’s advice.
I would like to thank my right hon. Friend for the work being done to ensure that Parliament is a safe working environment for all. Does he agree that while we have had to improvise due to the unprecedented situation we find ourselves in, we cannot effectively do our jobs from home? We should lead by example when asking the country to return to work. We could improvise further in Westminster, for example by taking advantage of more of the space available to enable more of us to participate fully and safely.
The Government’s advice is clear: work from home if you can. But what I and many others have increasingly realised is that this House cannot work effectively without meeting physically. Take last week for example: no debates on secondary legislation; no Public Bill Committees; no Delegated Legislation Committees. Compare that to a fairly standard and not particularly busy physical sitting week, such as the week commencing 2 March. That week the Commons considered the stages of four Bills instead of one and nine statutory instruments instead of none. In addition to Chamber time, the House held seven Delegated Legislation Committees and four Public Bill Committee sittings. I therefore very much welcome my hon. Friend’s valuable point that MPs’ work is absolutely essential and that we cannot do it from home.
The position taken by the Leader of the House is reckless, cavalier and downright dangerous. Surely it is his job to make sure that elected Members can represent the views of their constituents, yet he now proposes to force Members to make a choice between not standing up for those who elected them and putting their own health and the health of others at risk. The Leader of the House talks of an ancient right to enter Parliament, but what good is that right if it cannot be executed without endangering the lives of one’s family and constituents? Switching off the computer and barring Members from participating online will reduce the ability of Members of Parliament to scrutinise the Government. It is simply Orwellian to pretend that it will enhance it. Moreover, this will not affect everyone equally. Those who are older and suffer ill health will be disproportionately affected, as will those who live farthest away. Has he undertaken an equalities assessment of this proposal, and does he think that removing the existing arrangements is compatible with the laws of equality of treatment of persons in the United Kingdom?
May I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the remarks I made some moments ago when I said that I would like to reassure those Members with underlying health conditions who have been told to shield or who are receiving specific Government advice about their health that we are working with the House authorities to see how they can continue to contribute to proceedings within the House? We recognise the importance of that, but we also recognise the need for business to continue. I understand that the Parliament in Holyrood is still meeting, although with a third of Members turning up and moving all over Scotland to get there, so I slightly think that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
If the Leader of the House thinks that this is safe, he is trying to kid everyone but he is fooling no one. This is about those Members of Parliament who have underlying health conditions, those over 70 who absolutely should not be going anywhere, those of us who have family members with underlying health conditions and those of our staff who face the same challenges. With so many Members with underlying health conditions, of that age or with family members who are at risk, how on earth can this possibly be right or democratic, and how can our constituents possibly be represented properly?
I think the issue is that members of staff of MPs do not need to come in. They clearly can carry on working from home. There is no change there, and numbers coming on to the estate will be limited. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that we are facing exactly the same issues as other workplaces where working from home is not good enough. These are not unique to us. We are in the same situation as the rest of the nation, and we should not think that Members of Parliament are some special priestly caste who must be treated differently. We should stand with our own constituents.
I welcome the comments of the Leader of the House. It is clear to me that although the House authorities have done a fantastic job in seeing us through the last few weeks, this is not a sustainable way to run Parliament in the future. May I seek my right hon. Friend’s reassurance that this model, which some people seem to think can be a model for the future, will not now be applied to projects such as restoration and renewal, which, in my view, would again create a situation in which Parliament simply could not function properly?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has experience as a former Leader of the House and knows and understands how this place ought to work. The measures that we are using currently are a remarkable achievement by the House authorities in a very particular circumstance, and it is very unlikely that this way of operating would be suitable to other circumstances.
Just like our communities, this House is made up of people with a range of different situations who are following Government advice and Public Health England advice and shielding or self-isolating or who have childcare or elder care responsibilities arising from these unique covid circumstances, yet they are continuing to represent their constituents although they cannot be here in person. Will the Leader of the House tell us what arrangements will be in place to ensure that all Members can continue to take part fully in the work of Parliament, in person or virtually?
The point that the hon. Lady makes is a serious one, and it is being considered by my office and by the House more generally. Discussions will continue over Whitsun to try to work out how those people who are receiving specific medical advice or being instructed to shield may be helped to participate in proceedings once we return, and how the technology may work with regard to that, but the importance of the point is one that we understand.
I welcome the commitment from the Leader of the House to ensure that those Members who are vulnerable will not be disadvantaged and will be able to continue to represent their constituents in the House. Can he confirm that these arrangements will also be available to Members who, like many working parents, rely on grandparents who might be in the vulnerable category to supplement their childcare and therefore cannot travel to Westminster at this time?
We are listening to the representations that people are making about the difficulties that they face with regard to attending the House. The Procedure Committee has looked at a number of these issues and written to you, Mr Speaker, about the return to physical proceedings, and I have had representations from a number of Members.
The reality is that Parliament is most effective when it meets physically. The hybrid parliamentary proceedings have allowed only a small proportion of Parliament’s functionality to take place. As we have seen in this sitting, with Members being cut off, the hybrid proceedings have limited Members’ ability to represent their constituencies across the country. What we will do is to return physically in a way that is advised, and properly orchestrated and organised, in accordance with the recommendations from the Government and, indeed, from the House of Commons authorities.
I am grateful to be called in this urgent question. I am thankful to the Leader of the House, because I know that he recognises that we all have an equal duty to represent our constituents, but the travel to and from Westminster is not equal for us all. Indeed, taking a plane from Belfast is not as socially distant as we would like. I ask the Leader of the House to consider the issue that will be most vexatious and difficult to solve, which is voting. I ask him whether remote voting can continue, given that the ability to travel between Westminster and Northern Ireland is severely constrained, with less than two planes per day from Northern Ireland to London when ordinarily there would have been more than 20.
The issue with voting, as you have made clear, Mr Speaker, is that we can run one system or the other. The two systems are not compatible. We are looking to have a physical return of the House, and therefore to have physical voting. I think that is an important way of getting back to being a normal Parliament, with all the benefits that come from having physical voting.
Thank you, Mr Speaker; I am audio only, I am afraid. I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I firmly believe, as Chair of the Procedure Committee, that the House should be allowed to have its say on these changes. It is important that an opportunity is provided for the House to do that.
Will the Leader of the House reflect on the resolution that the House passed on 21 April, which stays in place while Public Health England advice remains, and which allows for both virtual participation and parity of treatment for all Members? Is the Leader of the House intending to amend or rescind that resolution, or does he believe that it no longer applies?
I thank my right hon. Friend for the invaluable work that she and her Committee have been doing, and for the suggestions that they have made about how we can make the hybrid work and how we can get back to a real Parliament. We see in her absence the difficulties with a hybrid Parliament. I am glad that the technology was able to reconnect her, in voice only, but being here in the flesh does have advantages.
The motion of the House stands, but to allow it to be effective requires subsidiary motions that will lapse. Of course, the Government take motions of the House very seriously and wish to ensure that their details are reflected in the way the House operates, although sometimes these are matters more for Mr Speaker than for the Leader of the House.
I am pleased that the Leader of the House has announced that measures will be considered to protect MPs who have been shielding or carrying out caring responsibilities for vulnerable family members who are at high risk of coronavirus. Will we be advised on what the new measures will be before people decide whether they can come back early?
I will continue, as will others across the House, to listen to and reflect on the views of hon. and right hon. Members from across the House. Yesterday afternoon, the Procedure Committee wrote to me and the Speaker to set out its views on how we should return to physical proceedings. I welcomed the opportunity for further discussions with the Committee on Monday, and I am grateful for its work. I have also had representations from many other Members. This is a work in progress to finalise the details. Any changes in our procedures will need to be made by a motion in this House, and those cannot be made until the House meets again, so the assumption must be that we continue as we usually continue until such time as, or if, anything changes.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Across Scotland, we are dissuading people from travelling large distances, for fear of spreading the virus further and overloading rural communities. Does the Leader of the House understand that there are real concerns, beyond threatening the safety of MPs, that by removing votes unless we are physically present and insisting we return to that place we will undoubtedly undermine the public safety message, which has been key to preventing covid from spreading even more widely in our communities?
What is being proposed for the House is completely in line with what is being proposed by the Government generally; it is a question of working through the five tests and of those who can go back to work, because they cannot work effectively from home, being encouraged to go back to work. We are in the same situation as everybody else. Measures are being taken, have been taken and will continue to be taken to ensure that coming to the House of Commons is as safe as it possibly can be.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 1 June will include:
Monday 1 June—The House will not be sitting.
Tuesday 2 June—Second reading of the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill.
Wednesday 3 June—Consideration of a business of the House motion, followed by all stages of the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill.
Thursday 4 June—Remaining stages of the Sentencing (Pre-consolidation Amendments) Bill [Lords], followed by debate on a motion relating to the EU’s mandate for negotiating a new partnership with the UK.
Friday 5 June—The House will not be sitting.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business statement. There we are, we are sitting up until Thursday with a hybrid, virtual Parliament, so it can be done. First, will he ensure that the Government make a statement on the guidance on people returning to work here safely on the first day back? The advice from the scientists is that lockdown should not be eased until track and trace is in place and that we should look at the observed levels of infection, not just at the fixed date. Does he agree that even the testing has not been got right and that the Government have extended it? Can he say whether there are enough home tests for the House and whether enough masks will be available? At this point, I, too, want to pay tribute to Marianne Cwynarski and everybody on the House staff, who have worked so hard to keep us safe.
Like us, following the Leader of the House’s outburst last week, which came with no consultation, what our teachers want is a discussion and time to prepare. They have been given a confused message, because the British Medical Association has said that the children are not safe to go back. Let us remember that teachers have been at work looking after our children now—they have been looking after key workers’ children—and they are the best people to say whether they are ready or not. The Government cannot compare this country to Denmark, because Denmark has not had as many deaths as we have had here. So what advice have the Government given teachers, particularly on the inflammatory disease affecting children? Given that a poll of almost 30,000 members of the NASUWT found that just 5% said that the schools were safe to return to and 81% of parents said that they did not want to send their children back, may we have an urgent statement from the Education Secretary when we return on the evidence that it was safe for children to return? I say that given that a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies told the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee that the decision on schools was “political” and not based on science.
On Monday, we voted on the Second Reading of the immigration Bill, which contains swathes of Henry VIII powers. As the Leader of the House is a believer in parliamentary sovereignty and parliamentary democracy, does he think that is appropriate? Will he guarantee that Government time will be given to debate any statutory instruments that are prayed against by the Opposition? We clap our care workers into the NHS, but with this immigration Bill the Government are, in effect, clapping them out of the country.
A constituent of mine is the general manager of an SME—small and medium-sized enterprise—employing 65 people. Indirectly, they support the NHS, the Nightingale hospitals, manufacturing valuable items that people need quickly. They had a five-week wait, and their bank refused them a loan—just 20%—though they are a profitable company. They and many other businesses are struggling to find a way to stay open. If I forward details to the Leader of the House, will he take that up with the Chancellor, please?
Last week I asked about dentists. Will the right hon. Gentleman follow that up with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care? It was mentioned in the House on Monday, but we did not get a response. The regulatory body has been checking on personal protective equipment for dentists returning—again, small businesses hoping to help our country return to normal. There is an issue about their PPE. Will he ensure that major PPE companies fast-track the powered air-filtered PPE face masks particular to dentistry? We have not had an answer to that. Dentists could get back to work to protect our constituents, some of whom are having to pull out their own teeth.
I thank the Leader of the House for his response last week on Nazanin and Anoush. It was very helpful. Will he make sure that the Foreign Secretary ensures that all British citizens abroad are able to get consular visits and advice? No one is asking for a fanfare when the ambassador visits, but we want Nazanin, Anoush and Kylie to be visited. At this time, they deserve clemency, and the Leader of the House knows that this is an important day for them. I remind all hon. Members to light a candle for them all today.
Finally, Mr Speaker, it is National Epilepsy Week. I thank you for your statement on Mental Health Awareness Week, which was very helpful. Let us hope that we can all encourage everyone to look out for each other.
I completely endorse what the right hon. Lady said about Epilepsy Week and mental health: we do indeed need to look out for each other, particularly at a time of lockdown, when many people are suffering, and loneliness is a particular and difficult problem, especially for people who are shielding and must take particular care. That is obviously at the forefront of the Government’s mind.
With regard to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, consular work continues, but it is not always best to argue this on the Floor of the House, if the right hon. Lady will forgive me for not giving more details on this occasion.
To come to the more politically controversial issues, on the guidance for Members coming back, they know what the national guidance is—the guidance provided for people returning to work, on how they should try to come back to work, what the procedures are and how they should try to distance themselves socially. Members who are already here will see in the House how much marking out has been done to help people to stick to the guidelines.
The work done with members of staff has been exemplary. It is reassuring to know that the number of House staff expected back with MPs returning after Whitsun is not expected to change significantly from the number currently coming in to facilitate the hybrid Parliament. The burden on our staff is not the burden; the burden is on us as Members of Parliament and therefore it is one that we should undertake, because we are like the rest of the country in these circumstances.
The right hon. Lady asked questions about schools and wants a statement from the Secretary of State for Education. He responded to an urgent question last week. I hope it is not indiscreet of me to say, but he was himself very keen to make a statement, although the scheduling did not allow for that. He is keen to report to Parliament, and to keep Parliament up to date. There is, however, a real issue with the widening attainment gap, with schools not being open. That is why it is important for schools to open—if they can—in accordance with the five tests that the Government have set out.
With regard to praying against SIs, most Henry VIII powers are subject to affirmative SIs, rather than negative SIs, and are therefore automatically subject to a process in the House. The general policy of the Government, however, as of many previous Governments, is that when SIs are prayed against by the official Opposition, usually, if it is a reasonable prayer, debating time will be found. That is an important constitutional matter, but it is also why we need a physical Parliament back because there would not be any time for praying against statutory instruments if we were not back. I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for making my argument about the essential need for Parliament’s returning reasonably soon.
I am obviously sorry to hear about the difficulties that the right hon. Lady’s constituent is facing. I would point out that £11.1 billion is being paid out in furlough money and £7.5 billion in loans backed to 80% by the Government. That is major support for industry, and I think the Chancellor has done a quite phenomenal amount in getting support to businesses, but I would happily take up the specific case with the right hon. Lady, and likewise for the dentists in her constituency. I cannot claim to be an expert on the type of PPE that she is referring to, but I am sure there are people in Government who are and who can get her a proper response.
During this lockdown, we have seen numerous cases of broadcast media interviewing people in a manner that suggests they are independent experts, whereas they are in fact partisan political activists. That, of course, culminated in the notorious “Panorama” programme last month, but there are many other examples. Can we therefore have a debate on the guidelines that broadcasters are meant to use in order to provide their viewers with an informed picture of what they are actually watching?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has written to the BBC asking for an explanation of that “Panorama” programme, which seemed to have Communists in the background giving advice on how the programme was structured. I did not realise there were any Communists left in this country, but the BBC managed to dredge them up. He is absolutely right to ask for a for a debate—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) heckles, Mr Speaker. It is so unlike her; she is normally so ladylike and does not heckle. I would say that yes, it is a free country, but the BBC is obliged to be impartial. It has charter obligations. The issue regarding debates is that when the House is back in real form, there will be more opportunity and more time for debates, which I hope will satisfy many hon. and right hon. Members.
Let me take up where I left off 25 minutes ago. I have still not had an answer on whether the Leader of the House believes his proposals for Parliament’s return are compatible with the equalities legislation of the United Kingdom, and I would like him to comment on that matter. I also have two further points, Mr Speaker.
First, we are told that Public Health England will again inspect the building during recess and advise on whether and how business can be conducted safely. What happens if Public Health England says that that cannot happen? Do the Government then intend to override the public health advice given by their own agency? Would it not have been more sensible to make these decisions after rather than before determining whether they can be implemented safely, or is this a case of wishful thinking taking the place of evidence-based policy? If the advice is that the number of hon. Members must be restricted, on what basis will the Government determine who can attend and who cannot?
Finally, I turn to the question of remote voting. While everyone can see that online participation in debates is not ideal, although it is better than no participation at all, that is not the case with online voting. The process is simple and secure. This is not an abstract or theoretical question: the system is there. It works. Why on earth switch it off when there is no need to do so? It is accepted that voting cannot be the same as it used to be, with hon. Members crammed into Lobbies, queuing to give their name to a Clerk. I know that a physical vote has been trialled; indeed, I have seen the pictures, and I think once the public see how that is proposed, we will be in danger of exposing this Parliament to even greater ridicule. So why is the Leader prepared to go to any lengths, it seems, no matter how ridiculous, not to continue with the system that is already in place and that works?
The hon. Gentleman is, of course, a separatist, and he gives the game away when he refers to “even greater ridicule”, because he does not wish this Parliament to be the Parliament of the United Kingdom. He wants to separate himself from it and therefore uses every opportunity to ridicule it, which I am not sure is entirely helpful or reflects the views of the majority of Members.
As regards remote voting, there was a very clear undertaking that it would be temporary. The consensus reached within the House to allow the hybrid Parliament was based on consent, on the basis of it being temporary. If people want to make an argument for the longer term about remote voting, they are absolutely entitled to do so, and no doubt the Procedure Committee will look at it, but that is an argument for another day. I would be acting in bad faith if I did not deliver on the commitment to those who never wanted remote voting in the first place that it will stop at the point at which we return to a physical Parliament.
As regards how numbers will be kept down, there is a well tried and tested pairing system, and discussions are going on between the Whips. I expect that any Member who is concerned about coming here will not have to attend or will not be whipped to attend.
With regard to Public Health England, Mr Speaker, you and the spokesman for the Commission are probably better placed to answer these questions, but Public Health England has been involved in many discussions. The House authorities have liaised very closely with PHE throughout the whole process. That is why these markings are down on the floor. That is why, Mr Speaker, your plan for effectively a roll-call Division is being tested—it worked rather well yesterday—rather than using the Division Lobbies. That is on advice, which is being followed, and we are acting in line with other businesses that are planning to come back to work. Finally, as regards the hon. Gentleman’s question on whether we are obeying the law, of course the House of Commons and Her Majesty’s Government are obeying the law.
My right hon. Friend was undoubtedly correct in his answer to the shadow Leader of the House a moment ago when he said that the Government’s support for employment, business and industry has been extraordinary and hugely impressive, especially in the retail, leisure and hospitality industries. However, many companies that supply those industries are not covered by those provisions, which risks risking the future of those industries, because they are experiencing difficulties. Can we have a debate in Government time on the future of the UK hospitality and leisure industries and the companies that supply them?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s reference to the support the Government have given. I really think that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has managed to be stunningly innovative in providing support for businesses in a way that, historically, is not what Finance Ministers across the world manage to do. His achievement is of historic proportions, and I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said. As regards a debate in Government time on the hospitality industry, that is one of the great virtues of our coming back to a physical House—there will be more opportunity for debates, and we will have to see whether such a debate can be slotted in or will fit into any of the other discussions that will be taking place.
Welcome to a very warm and sunny Gateshead. I note from the Leader of the House’s statement that a general debate on Thursday 4 June has been facilitated. The members of the Backbench Business Committee and applicant Back-Bench Members across the House will be disappointed to learn that there is no place for any Backbench business debates if the House returns in the first week of June. In particular, there are many aspects of the Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic that Members across the House wish to see aired, with answers to concerns and questions gained from Ministers. Could the Leader of the House facilitate that as soon as possible? Could he confirm that, if we return on 2 June, Select Committees—one of which I sit on—will still be meeting virtually, so I will have to travel 300 miles to attend Select Committee meetings virtually from my office in Westminster?
If the hon. Gentleman’s background is anything to go by, the sun is very bright in Gateshead—almost blindingly so. On the last point, the motion for Select Committees runs until 30 June and is then renewable at your discretion, Mr Speaker; that is therefore a matter for you, and it would be wrong of me to trespass on your prerogatives. [Interruption.] I am being heckled by Mr Speaker!
As regards the debate on 4 June and the motion put forward in relation to the European negotiations, there is a statutory obligation on the Government to provide time for that, so it is not like a Backbench business debate. However, I have a great deal of sympathy for what the hon. Gentleman says. I understand that there is a widespread demand for a wide range of Backbench business debates, as we see in these sessions every week, and once we get back to normal, there will be more opportunity to ensure that we get back to complete normal, rather than semi-normal.
I thank the Leader of the House for the reassurances he has given on safety so that Parliament is able to return physically as soon as possible. Areas of the country such as Stoke-on-Trent, where we need to level up our economy, could be hit hard by the impacts of coronavirus, so may we please have a debate in Government time on continuing and redoubling the levelling up agenda, so that we see investment into areas that have historically missed out?
I am grateful for the points made by my hon. Friend from, I assume, his wonderful constituency, which I visited for a Conservative tea last year, when we were still able to move throughout the country. There is serious economic disruption as a result of coronavirus and, as the Office for Budget Responsibility has outlined, without the package of unprecedented measures, the impact would be much worse. Councils have been given £3.2 billion of extra money and there is a further £2.6 billion in deferred business rate payments coming from central Government, but I agree with my hon. Friend entirely that we have to think of ways in which to grow the economy of our whole nation. I encourage him to speak to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but I add once again that once we are back normally there will be the opportunity to have these important debates.
Hull’s proud status as a maritime city is at risk of being tarnished because of the damaging actions by P&O Ferries, which appears to be using the covid-19 crisis to replace UK seafarers with exploited Filipino workers who are paid much less and forced to work much longer hours, putting at risk the safety of everybody aboard the ferry. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) has raised this issue before, and the situation is now even more urgent. May we please have a statement in the House from the maritime Minister on how the Government are going to protect UK seafarers’ jobs?
I am sure the Leader of the House will have seen the sad news today of potentially thousands of redundancies at Rolls-Royce’s Derby plant. In the light of the large amount of redundancies that might keep happening, will he be able to find time for a debate on how we can best support people to find new work after this crisis is over?
My hon. Friend raises a point that will affect many of us in many constituencies. As the Chancellor explained to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, the effect of the coronavirus is of the greatest seriousness and depth, and the Government and Parliament will want to consider and debate very carefully how we recover from it. Of course, I reiterate that once we are back normally, there will be so much more time for debate.
May we have a statement on the importance of having a disability-inclusive covid-19 response? It is Mental Health Awareness Week, and a letter written to the Prime Minister by the all-party group on disability, which I chair, has been co-signed by 101 parliamentarians from both Houses. The letter advises that people with disabilities need additional support at this time. Many are lonely, anxious and isolated. This is an urgent matter that the House should address.
I absolutely accept that it is a very important issue and that support for people with disabilities is crucial. The Government have a good record of supporting people with disabilities over the past few years, and that is something we will continue. The instance of covid-19 is a further reason to remember and to help people with disabilities.
May I appeal to the Government for a statement on the plight of people, many approaching retirement, with endowment mortgages that are due to mature in the middle of this covid crisis? Such a statement would give the Government the opportunity to urge companies such as the Prudential to extend the maturation date until normality returns and the yield enables people’s mortgages to be cleared in the usual way.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to refer to people with endowments and the difficulty that they face. Having spent a lifetime—before politics intervened—in financial services, I can say that there is never an obviously right time to redeem investments, so the difficulty would be the Government intervening and setting a new time and that time not necessarily being any better than the existing time. I think that my giving financial advice from the Dispatch Box would be singularly unwise, but I will take up his point with the Treasury.
The Leader of the House has said that MPs being in Parliament will enable proper scrutiny. If that return to Parliament has to be physical, can he tell us what provision will be made for MPs and their staff who have childcare or caring responsibilities? I know that he is not a fan of the nanny state, but not all of us have nannies.
Not all have six children, either, which I am very lucky and fortunate to have. I absolutely understand, therefore, child caring responsibilities—all my children are quite young. The nursery in the House of Commons is open. Members of Parliament are key workers and therefore schools are available in England for their children. As regards MPs’ staff, they do not need to come back to Parliament. Speaking for my own staff, they are working extremely well and extremely hard from home. This is the first time that I have ever had the opportunity to thank them publicly for the remarkable work that they do for my constituents in North East Somerset. I am sure that many feel the same about their parliamentary staff, and they do not need to come back to the parliamentary estate.
Northern Ireland Protocol: UK Approach
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the Government’s approach to implementing the Northern Ireland protocol as part of the withdrawal agreement with the European Union.
The protocol exists to ensure that the progress that the people of Northern Ireland have made in the 22 years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is secured into the future. The Belfast agreement is built on the principle of consent. It was ratified by referendums in both Northern Ireland and Ireland, and the agreement is crystal clear that any change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom can come only if the majority in Northern Ireland consent to any change.
The vital importance of consent is recognised in the provision for any alignment in the protocol to be disapplied if Northern Ireland’s political representatives conclude that it is no longer desirable. Embedding that recognition of consent in the protocol was intrinsic to its acceptance by the Government. Therefore, for the protocol to work, it must respect the needs of all Northern Ireland’s people, respect the fact that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the customs territory of the UK, and respect the need to bear as lightly as possible on the everyday life of Northern Ireland.
Although there will be some new administrative requirements in the protocol, these electronic processes will be streamlined and simplified to the maximum extent. As the European Commissioner’s own negotiator, Michel Barnier, has spelled out, the protocol’s procedures must be as easy as possible and not too burdensome, in particular for smaller businesses. As is so often the case, but not always, Monsieur Barnier is right. The economy of Northern Ireland is heavily dependent on small and medium-sized enterprises. Subjecting traders to unnecessary and disproportionate burdens, particularly as we wrestle with the economic consequences of covid-19, would not serve the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, for whom the protocol was designed. The protocol text itself is explicit that implementation should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities.
In that context, it is important for us all to recall that the clear majority of Northern Ireland’s trade is with the rest of the United Kingdom, so safeguarding the free flow of goods within the UK’s internal market is of critical importance to Northern Ireland’s economy and people.
Today, we are publishing a Command Paper that outlines how the protocol can be implemented in a way that would protect the interests of the people and the economy of Northern Ireland, ensure the effective working of the UK’s internal market, and also provide appropriate protection for the EU single market, as well as upholding the rights of all Northern Ireland’s citizens. Delivering on these proposals will require close working with the Northern Ireland Executive, underscoring once again the significance of the restoration of the Stormont institutions in January. I would like to put on record my gratitude for the constructive approach that has been shown by Northern Ireland politicians, including the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as well as by hon. Members from across this House.
There are four steps we will take to ensure the protocol is implemented effectively. First, we will deliver unfettered access for NI producers to the whole of the UK market. Northern Ireland to Great Britain goods movements should take place as they do now. There should not be export declarations or any other processes as goods leave NI for GB, and we will deliver on unfettered access for Northern Ireland goods through legislation by the end of this year.
Secondly, we will ensure that there are no tariffs on goods remaining within the UK customs territory. In order to ensure that internal UK trade qualifies for tariff-free status, there will need to be declarations on goods as they move from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but these systems will be electronic and administered by UK authorities. It will be for our authorities to determine any processes that are required, using the latest technology, risk and compliance techniques to keep these to an absolute minimum.
That will also allow us to deliver on our third key proposal, which is that implementation of the protocol will not involve new customs infrastructure. We acknowledge, however, as we have always done, that on agrifood and live animal movements, it makes sense to protect supply chains and the disease-free status of the island of Ireland, as has been the case since the 19th century. That will mean some expansion of existing infrastructure to provide for some additional new processes for the agriculture and food sector, but these processes will build on what already happens at ports such as Larne and Belfast, and we will work with the EU to keep these checks to a minimum, reflecting the high standards we see right across the UK. There is no such case, however, for new customs infrastructure, and as such there will not be any.
Fourthly, we will guarantee that Northern Ireland businesses will benefit from the lower tariffs that we deliver through new free trade agreements with third countries. This ensures that Northern Ireland businesses will be able to enjoy the full benefits of the unique access that they have to the UK and EU markets.
These four commitments will ensure that, as we implement the protocol, we give full effect to the requirements in its text to recognise Northern Ireland’s place in the UK and in its customs territory. As we take the work of implementation forward, we will continue to work closely with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, with Northern Ireland MPs from across parties, and with the business community and farming groups that have provided such valuable feedback for our approach.
Of course, we have already guaranteed, in the “New Decade, New Approach” deal, that the Northern Ireland Executive have a seat at the table in any meeting where Northern Ireland is being discussed and the Irish Government are present. Alongside that, there will be a new business engagement forum to exchange proposals, concerns and feedback from across the community on how best to maximise the free flow of trade, and we will ensure that those discussions sit at the heart of our thinking.
We recognise that there will be a wide range of voices and responses to our Command Paper. We will listen to these respectfully while we continue to put our own case with conviction at the Joint Committee. Our approach will of course continue to be informed by extensive engagement with businesses, politicians and individuals right across communities in Northern Ireland. We stand ready to work with the EU in a spirit of collaboration and co-operation so that a positive new chapter can open for Northern Ireland and its people in every community, and it is in that spirit that I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement and the Command Paper.
During the election campaign, the Prime Minister told Northern Irish businesses that if they were asked to fill in any extra paperwork, they should call him personally and
“I will direct them to throw that form in the bin”.
On 22 January, when the Prime Minister was asked in this House whether that meant unfettered access between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland and Great Britain, he said: “Emphatically it does.” But today, for the first time, the Command Paper states that there will be “some new administrative requirements”.
Checks on animals and agrifood will be a significant escalation of what currently takes place and will mean a border management system that is quite new in terms of its scope and scale. The document published today states that we will need to
“expand some existing entry points…to provide for proportionate additional controls.”
Will the Minister confirm what proportion of animal and agrifood products he expects will require additional physical checks? Will those checks take place at ports in Northern Ireland? Physical checks require a product to be taken off the lorry, opened, inspected, tested and quarantined until deemed legitimate. That is quite a burden. Can the Minister confirm that there will be physical checks, or, indeed, that there definitely will not be physical checks?
The document published today states that
“some new administrative process for traders,”
“electronic import declaration requirements, and safety and security information, for goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK”
This is no small matter. Import declarations can require 40 separate data points, and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has estimated that each declaration for shipment will cost between £14 and £56. Can the Minister confirm the number of checks and the costs of those checks to businesses? For the 1.8 million goods vehicles that crossed from Great Britain into Northern Ireland last year, that certainly adds up.
On tariffs, the Government have previously promised that there would be no tariffs on goods traded either way between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Indeed, they have said that there will be no tariffs, fees or charges or quantitative restrictions. But today, for the first time, the Government have accepted that there will be tariffs on goods entering Northern Ireland. The Command Paper says that
“goods ultimately entering Ireland…or at clear and substantial risk of doing so, will face tariffs.”
So can the Minister say who will be levying or administering those tariffs, what “clear risk” means, and who will define it? Could tariffs be applied and later reimbursed, and if so, what would the timetable for that be? The Command Paper says:
“We will produce full guidance to business and third parties before the end of the transition period.”
That does not give much time for businesses to prepare for what could be quite profound changes.
The Minister says that goods moving from Great Britain do not need to be checked because the majority will remain in the UK. This is a hugely important point. Indeed, 70% of goods that flow from Great Britain are destined for the high street. I hope that a way forward can be found so that those goods can move freely. However, the Command Paper accepts that
“some new administrative process for traders, notably new electronic import declaration requirements, and safety and security information, for goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK”
will apply. So can the Minister confirm that that will include rules of origin checks, safety and security checks and import declarations, and if so, where and how will those checks take place? There is no mention in the document published today of a trusted trader scheme, which is surely essential for ensuring the free flow of goods without tariffs from Great Britain into Northern Ireland that we all want to see.
We welcome this statement, but it does expose the broken promises made by the Prime Minister. Today, for the first time, there has been an admission that there will be additional checks and that there will be tariffs on goods at risk of entering the single market. Even now, many fear that the Government are not willing to admit the full extent of those. We have seven months to get this right, and we must.
I am grateful for the welcome that the hon. Lady gives to the approach that we are taking, and grateful also for her commitment and her party’s commitment to supporting the implementation of the protocol in a way that safeguards the gains of the Good Friday agreement.
The hon. Lady says that as a result of the implementation of the protocol there will inevitably be checks on not just animals but agri-food products, but, as she is aware, those checks already exist for live animals. Checks are already carried out in the port of Larne and the port of Belfast. We will of course exercise any new checks on agri-food products in a proportionate way, but in doing so we imagine that the proportion of goods that will need to be checked will be very minimal. Of course, because of the very, very high standards that we will maintain in this country on SPS—sanitary and phytosanitary—matters, people can have absolute confidence that the quality of goods that are being placed on the Northern Ireland market is of the highest level.
The hon. Lady asked about the cost of the checks. We will be working with HMRC in order to ensure that the checks are as light-touch as possible and integrated, for example, into the operation of VAT returns and other processes with which businesses are already familiar. We are confident that Northern Ireland’s businesses and HMRC can work collaboratively in the course of the remaining seven months before the transition period ends in order to have a system that is operational, light-touch, effective and unobtrusive.
The hon. Lady makes a point about tariffs. Of course, tariffs would apply only in the case of there being a zero-tariff, zero-quota free trade agreement with the European Union. The European Union is committed in the political declaration to securing such a zero-tariff, zero-quota arrangement, in which case the provisions in the protocol for the remittance of tariffs would not be required. I refer her to paragraph 27 of the Command Paper, which makes it clear that if it were the case that there were no agreement and that tariffs did have to be levied, the Government would
“make full use of the provisions in the Protocol giving us the powers to waive and/or reimburse tariffs on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, even where they are classified as ‘at risk’ of entering the EU market.”
So there would be no additional costs for businesses.
The approach that we have taken, as the hon. Lady knows, is designed to ensure the maximum level of security for the businesses of Northern Ireland. If the protocol is implemented in line with our approach, that means that they will have unfettered access to the rest of the UK’s internal market and also free access to the EU’s single market. That is a great prize and one that I believe all businesses in Northern Ireland would want us to help them to grasp.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his statement. Will he confirm that, as from 1 January 2021, Northern Ireland —that is, a part of the United Kingdom—will be required to abide by EU regulations on certain goods until at least 2024 and potentially indefinitely?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question. Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to her for her work during her time as Prime Minister to ensure that the position of Northern Ireland could be secured within the United Kingdom even as we left the European Union. It is the case that there will be EU regulations and aspects of the acquis that will apply in Northern Ireland until 2024, but of course she draws attention to a very important point. If the workings of the protocol are viewed by the people and parties of Northern Ireland as onerous, too much, intrusive and unacceptable, they have the opportunity to vote them down in 2024. That is why it is so important that we design an approach that can continue to command consent.
Ninety seconds? Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Today, we seem to be presented with another episode of Schrödinger’s border—one that is both there and not quite there, all dependent on what side of the EU negotiations a person happens to be on. UK Ministers have repeatedly said that there will be no border or any checks down the Irish Sea. We now know that that is not exactly the case, as we heard in the last response. From the very beginning, the possibility of that was crystal clear given what is in the withdrawal agreement and the need for a level playing field between the EU and Northern Ireland. We all know that there will be customs checks between the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland, so why do the UK Government not just acknowledge that fact? The EU has said that there must be the introduction of customs procedures and formalities in Northern Ireland for all goods traded between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
There have been no discussions about this with the Scottish Government, even though we will be placed at a competitive disadvantage with Northern Ireland because of these arrangements. We would give our national right hand to have the arrangements and competitive advantage that Northern Ireland will have, so why can we not get some of this if Northern Ireland does not want it?
These negotiations need skill, guile and dexterity, and I think we have seen again today a Government who are singularly not up to it.
Skill, guile and dexterity are all virtues that we associate with the hon. Gentleman, so if he wants to join the Government negotiation team, he would be more than welcome on board. The point about customs infrastructure and customs checks is a misunderstanding on his part. We want to ensure, as he recognises in his question, that the people and businesses of Northern Ireland have the opportunity to benefit both from their secure position within the United Kingdom and from access to the EU market. Northern Ireland’s history, its traditions and its geography put it in a unique position, but the proposal that we put forward today means that there is no need for new customs infrastructure and at the same time Northern Ireland stays within the customs territory of the United Kingdom. I know that the hon. Gentleman is an enthusiast for border posts and would want to have them not just at Belfast but at Berwick, but my own view is that our United Kingdom is better off without them.
If we are correct to presume that any paperwork will be digital, can my right hon. Friend assure me that there will be compatibility between the IT systems of HMRC and those of the European Union in order to ensure that that system can work swiftly and smoothly? He mentioned consultation in his statement. We have been hearing in the Select Committee inquiry on this important issue of precious little engagement with the business community by his Department. May I urge him to sharpen his pencil and engage with the community to ensure that it is understood and that his Department understands that most businesses are mostly focused on dealing with covid and trying to survive?
We will of course work to make sure that IT systems are efficient and compatible and consult with business. In fact, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has a business roundtable this afternoon. Engagement with Northern Ireland’s citizens and its many small and medium-sized enterprises is critical to making everything work.
We all hope there will be an exit agreement with the EU, but if there is not, how will the Government stop goods, such as cars made in the EU, which in those circumstances would attract a 10% tariff, from entering Great Britain tariff-free via Northern Ireland? The right hon. Gentleman has told the House that goods would have unfettered access moving from Northern Ireland to GB. Would there in fact have to be checks if people tried to do that?
The way the UK and the EU seek to address “Ireland’s unique geographic situation” in the negotiations could have constitutional and practical implications for Northern Ireland’s status within the UK. Could my right hon. Friend reassure me that he can square that circle, or is it, on the current trajectory of the talks, an impossible objective?
The Minister will be aware that we voted against the withdrawal agreement because of the Northern Ireland protocol, but we welcome the clarity that this statement brings—that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK customs territory, that there will be no new customs infrastructure, that there will be no tariffs on goods flowing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and that Northern Ireland businesses will have unfettered access to the Great Britain market. Will the Minister and his team continue to work with us and the business community in Northern Ireland to ensure that these matters are taken forward and that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the UK single market?
Yes, we absolutely will. Our whole approach is about making sure that the protocol, which of course was unwelcome in many quarters in Northern Ireland, is implemented now that it is law, but in a way that goes with the grain of Northern Ireland opinion and reflects the interests of Northern Ireland’s peoples, whom the right hon. Gentleman so eloquently defends.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement confirming Northern Ireland’s continued position as an integral part of the United Kingdom and customs territory and that he will deliver on the apparently contradictory demands of the protocol, which requires that the single market be respected and its integrity not damaged. The Alternative Arrangements Commission came up with very sensible suggestions that would conform with these requirements and square the circle through the use of enhanced authorised economic operators. Will he work with leading companies that ship goods across the Irish sea in both directions to set up trials in the next few weeks so that by the autumn, whether we have a free trade agreement or not, we are in a position to present the EU with a practical solution to ensure continued unfettered trade across the Irish sea in both directions?
My right hon. Friend, who was a brilliant Northern Ireland Secretary as well as a brilliant Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is absolutely right. Building up the capacity of authorised economic operators and other trusted traders can make the protocol and the economy of Northern Ireland work better.
The Minister has finally confirmed that there will be a large increase in the amount of red tape and therefore the costs to consumers and businesses in Northern Ireland. Although I welcome latterly from the Minister language around commitment to the Good Friday agreement, I do not believe the rhetoric in the statement reflects the uniqueness of the place. Does he accept that every divergence and further political choice that his Government choose to make in pursuit of castles in the air—trade deals with the United States—increases the checks required in the Irish sea and that the only way to ensure that there is no fettering and barriers to trade is to soften Brexit?
No, I do not accept that. The primacy of the interests of Northern Ireland’s businesses and indeed the primacy of Northern Ireland’s people is at the heart of our approach to implementing the protocol. The Good Friday agreement depends on consent across Northern Ireland, from Unionist, from nationalist and from non-aligned individuals. We want to ensure that their interests come first through the light-touch approach that we propose.
I welcome the Command Paper, but we now, as my right hon. Friend has said, need quickly to reassure the Unionist grassroots on their fears about the exact nature of the processes referred to, and nationalist and non-aligned voters who have serious concerns about leaving the EU. Above all, on business, I am not sure that we have got seven months. Businesses in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the UK, have got their backs against the wall with covid. Please, please will my right hon. Friend use all his energy to work with them on exactly what they will need and a constructive approach with the EU to getting a practical solution?
Yes. I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend—we would not have able to make progress in this way if it had not been for him and the “New Decade, New Approach” document, which he was responsible for bringing to life in the Northern Ireland Executive, which he helped to restore. He is absolutely right: we have got to get cracking. That is why I hope that we will have positive engagement from the EU as well as the positive engagement that we will have with Northern Ireland’s businesses.
Last November, the Prime Minister told Northern Irish business leaders that there would be no forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind. He said that he would recommend that any such forms be put in the bin. Of course, the Secretary of State’s paper today does refer to new administrative processes and acknowledges the potential for them to be disproportionately burdensome. Does he therefore appreciate that the need for clarity on what the Government actually mean and how it might be implemented is yet another reason why we must have an extension to the transition period?
The arrangements that my right hon. Friend has described are potentially good news for businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland and a great opportunity, but may I press him on what he describes as very minimal checks? Does he mean the 4% of imports that are currently checked coming into the United Kingdom and the 1% that are physically checked? Does he mean more or less than that? Clearly, the European Union thinks that substantial checks will be required, presumably exceeding those levels, because it is setting up a bureaucracy in Belfast to cope with it.
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point about the number of checks that are currently required as goods move into the United Kingdom, often from jurisdictions that do not have such high SPS standards as we uphold. We will continue to have high SPS standards, so the proportion of physical checks required is almost certain to be fewer than are currently required for goods coming from outside.
The withdrawal agreement and its separate arrangements for Northern Ireland will always be offensive to Unionists, regardless of what allowances the Government try to make. Will the right hon. Gentleman give us an assurance that at least any of these arrangements will be totally in the control of the UK Government and not the EU, and that the Government will resist all attempts by the EU and the European Court of Justice to dictate how business regulations and human rights laws should be applied in Northern Ireland?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It is the case that it is for the UK Government to be responsible for the application and delivery of the protocol. We are one customs territory; we are one United Kingdom; and it is in that spirit that we have said to the EU that we do not think it is a good idea for it to establish a new mission in Belfast because, again, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, that would be seen by many in Northern Ireland as unnecessary and not in keeping with the spirit of the Belfast agreement.
When I was in business in the 1990s, exporting all over the world, I just wanted to know what the rules were, then I would comply with them and then sell my goods. Could the Secretary of State assure the House that the rules will be made available to businesses in Northern Ireland at the earliest possible opportunity? Then they will get on with doing business.
Twice this year, I have come to Northern Ireland oral questions and asked both the Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland the same question: will there be checks? Twice I was told no, but now the Minister today is saying, yes, there will be checks in some form. Will his colleagues come to the House to correct the record and also to detail their assessment of the financial impact such checks are likely to have on the Northern Ireland economy?