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Volume 676: debated on Wednesday 3 June 2020

Tomorrow, I will open the global vaccine summit; the UK-hosted, virtual event will bring together more than 50 countries, as well as leaders of private sector organisations and civil society, to raise at least $7.4 billion for Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance. Tomorrow’s global vaccine summit should be the moment when the world comes together to unite humanity in the fight against disease.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

As the Prime Minister obfuscates over his adviser, the real scandal of the coronavirus pandemic has been exposed in the Public Health England report published yesterday on inequality and poverty. If you are black or Asian, if you are poor, if you have a low-skilled job, the mortality risk is up to double that of the rest of the population, with the poorest having the greatest exposure, risk and fate. Now the Government are seriously increasing that exposure and risk with their easement announcements. Why will the Prime Minister not publish a full health and economic risk assessment for scrutiny, to protect us all from this deadly virus?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. This Government commissioned the review from PHE and we take its findings very seriously, because there obviously are inequalities in the way the virus impacts on different people and different communities in our country. The Minister for Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch) will be looking at what next practical steps we need to do to protect all our country from coronavirus.

In the past few weeks, Blackpool has been inundated with visitors, and the images of people not social distancing and leaving our beach strewn with litter have angered my constituents, at a time when they are doing the right thing and following the Government’s advice. The fact that Blackpool has one of the highest local infection rates in the nation has only served to heighten these fears. What assistance are the Government providing to areas such as Blackpool to deal with the influx of visitors, at a time when local services are already under pressure?

My hon. Friend well represents Blackpool and his constituents, sticking up for the interests of Blackpool. In addition to the £3.2 billion we are already giving to local councils to help combat corona, Blackpool is receiving another £9 million, as well as the funding from the high street funds and the town fund to deal with the particular problems he rightly identifies.

May I start by expressing shock and anger at the death of George Floyd? This has shone a light on racism and hatred experienced by many in the US and beyond. I am surprised the Prime Minister has not said anything about this yet, but I hope that the next time he speaks to President Trump he will convey to him the UK’s abhorrence about his response to the events.

This morning, The Daily Telegraph is reporting that the Prime Minister has decided to take “direct control” of the Government’s response to the virus, so there is an obvious question for the Prime Minister: who has been in direct control up till now?

Let me let me begin by associating myself absolutely with what the right hon. and learned Gentleman had to say about the death of George Floyd. I think that what happened in the United States was appalling and inexcusable. We all saw it on our screens. I perfectly understand people’s right to protest at what took place, although obviously I also believe that protests should take place in a lawful and reasonable way.

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s more polemical point, let me just say that I take full responsibility for everything that this Government have been doing in tackling coronavirus, and I am very proud of our record. If you look at what we have achieved so far, it is very considerable. We have protected the NHS. We have driven down the death rate. We are now seeing far fewer hospital admissions. I believe that the public understand that, with good British common sense, we will continue to defeat this virus and take this country forward, and what I think the country would like to hear from him is more signs of co-operation in that endeavour.

The Prime Minister asks for a sign of co-operation—a fair challenge. I wrote to him, as he knows, in confidence two weeks ago, to ask if I could help build a consensus for getting children back into our schools. I did it confidentially and privately, because I did not want to make a lot of it. He has not replied.

This is a critical week in our response to covid-19. Whereas “lockdown” and “stay at home” were relatively easy messages, easing restrictions involves very difficult judgment calls. This is the week, of all weeks, when public trust and confidence in the Government needed to be at its highest. But as the director of the Reuters Institute, which commissioned a YouGov poll this weekend, said,

“I have never in 10 years of research in this area seen a drop in trust like what we have seen for the UK government”.

How worried is the Prime Minister about this loss of trust?

I am surprised that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should take that tone, since I took the trouble to ring him up, and we had a long conversation in which I briefed him about all the steps that we were taking. He did not offer any dissent at that stage—he thoroughly endorsed our approach, and I believe that he should continue to endorse it today. I think that he is on better and firmer ground when he stands with the overwhelming majority of the British people who understand the very difficult circumstances we are in and who want clarity across the political spectrum but who believe that we can move forward, provided that we continue to observe the basic rules on social distancing, on washing our hands and on making sure that when we have symptoms, we take a test and we isolate. I think everybody understands that. That is why the incidence of this disease is coming down, and his attempts to distract the public from that have not been successful, because they continue to pay attention to our guidance.

The Prime Minister challenges me on the offer I made to him. This was a confidential letter. I think the best thing I can do is put it in the public domain, and the public can decide for themselves how constructive we are being.

Two weeks ago today at the Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister promised:

“we will have a test, track and trace operation that will be world-beating, and yes, it will be in place by 1 June.”—[Official Report, 20 May 2020; Vol. 676, c. 568.]

But it is not, and a critical element—the ability of local authorities to respond to local spikes—is missing. As one council leader put it to us, “We are weeks away from having this fully up and running. We simply were not given enough warning.” [Interruption.] The Prime Minister mutters that it is not true. Dido Harding, the Prime Minister’s own chair of the track and trace system, has said that this element will not be ready until the end of June. The Prime Minister must have been briefed on this problem before he made that promise two weeks ago, so why did he make that promise?

I am afraid that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is casting aspersions on the efforts of the tens of thousands of people who have set up the test, track and trace system in this country from a standing start. We now have 40,000 people engaged in this. As he knows, thousands of people are being tested every day. Every person who tests positive in the track and trace system is contacted, and then thousands of their contacts—people they have been in contact with—are themselves contacted. I can tell the House that at the moment, as a result of our test, track and trace system—which, contrary to what he said, was up and running on 1 June as I said it would be—and the efforts of the people who set it up, thousands of people are now following our guidance, following the law and self-isolating to stop the spread of the disease.

I welcome that news from the Prime Minister. He did not put a number on those who have been traced, but, as he knows, the number of people testing positive for covid-19 every day is only a fraction of those actually infected every day. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number actually infected every day is between 7,000 and 9,000. Assuming that up to five contacts need to be traced for every infected person, the system probably needs to reach 45,000 people a day, so there is a long way to go; and I am sure that if it is 45,000 a day, the Prime Minister will confirm that in just a minute. But the problem when the Prime Minister uses statistics is that the UK Statistics Authority has had concerns on more than one occasion. In a strongly worded letter to the Health Secretary yesterday, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority said that the statistics

“still fall well short of…expectations. It is not surprising that given their inadequacy data on testing are so widely criticised and often mistrusted.”

Can the Prime Minister see how damaging this is to public trust and confidence in his Government?

I must say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I really do not see the purpose of his endless attacks on public trust and confidence, when what we are trying to do is to provide—I think this is what the public want to hear from politicians across all parties—clear messages about how to defeat the virus. Test and trace is a vital tool in our armoury, and, contrary to what he says, we did get up to 100,000 tests a day by the end of May and to 200,000 by the beginning of this month. That was an astonishing achievement, not by the Government, but by tens of thousands of people working to support the Government; I think that he should pay tribute to them and what they have achieved.

The Prime Minister is confusing scrutiny with attacks. I have supported the Government openly and I have taken criticism for it—but, boy, he has made it difficult to support this Government over the last two weeks.

Another critical issue on trust and confidence is transparency about decision making. On 10 May, the Prime Minister said on the question of lifting restrictions:

“If the alert level won’t allow it, we will simply wait and go on until we have got it right.”

At the time that he said that, the alert level was 4, and the R rate was between 0.5 and 0.9. We are now three weeks on and some restrictions have been lifted, so can the Prime Minister tell us: what is the alert level now and what is the R rate now?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows perfectly well that the alert level does allow it. Indeed, he did not raise that issue with me when we had a conversation on the telephone. He knows that the reason that we have been able to make the progress that we have is that the five tests have been fulfilled. Yes, the alert level remains at 4, but as the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies will confirm, we have managed to protect the NHS, and we have got the rate of deaths and the rate of infections down. The personal protective equipment crisis; the difficulties in care homes; the question of the R figure—they have been addressed. The question for him is whether he actually supports the progress that we are making because at the weekend he was backing it, but now he is doing a U-turn and seems to be against the steps that this country is taking.

I have supported the Government in the gradual easing of restrictions. That is why I wrote to the Prime Minister two weeks ago, because I could see the problem with schools and I thought it needed leadership and consensus. I privately offered to do what I could to build that consensus. That is the offer that was not taken up.

Finally, may I turn to the question of Parliament? Mr Speaker, I know you feel very strongly about this. The scenes yesterday of MPs queuing to vote and Members being unable to vote were, frankly, shameful. This should not be a political issue. Members on all sides know that this is completely unnecessary and unacceptable. If any other employer behaved like this, it would be a clear and obvious case of indirect discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, so may I urge the Prime Minister to stop this and to continue to allow online voting and allow the hybrid Parliament to resume?

Again, I do think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman needs to consider what is really going on throughout the country, where ordinary people are getting used to queuing for long periods to do their shopping or whatever it happens to be. I must say I do not think it unreasonable that we should ask parliamentarians to come back to this place and do their job for the people of this country. I know it is difficult, and I apologise to colleagues for the inconvenience. I apologise to all those who have particular difficulties with it because they are shielded or because they are elderly, and it is vital that, through the change we are making today, they should be able to vote by proxy. But I have to say that when the people of this country look at what we are doing, asking schools—the right hon. and learned Gentleman now says he supports schools going back—our policy is test, trace and isolate; his policy is agree, U-turn and criticise. What I can tell him is that I think the people of this country on the whole will want their parliamentarians to be back at work, doing their job and passing legislation on behalf of the people of this country, and that is what this Government intend to do.

Q3. I congratulate the Prime Minister on hitting the 200,000 daily capacity target for testing, which puts us at the top of the European league table for testing. He rightly said that he wanted a 24-hour turnaround for testing, so could he tell us how many of the tests are currently being turned around within 24 hours and whether he would be willing to publish that number on a regular basis? (902900)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the kind of detailed forensic question that we could have had earlier on. The answer is that we already turn around 90% of tests within 48 hours. The tests conducted at the 199 testing centres, as well as the mobile test centres, are all done within 24 hours, and I can undertake to him now to get all tests turned around in 24 hours by the end of June, except for difficulties with postal tests or insuperable problems like that.

Watching events unfold across America in recent days, and the actions and rhetoric from the American President, has been distressing and deeply worrying. We cannot delude ourselves into believing that we are witnessing anything short of a dangerous slide into autocracy. It is at times like these that people look to those they elect for hope, for guidance, for leadership and for action. However, in the seven days since George Floyd was murdered, the UK Government have not even offered words. They have not expressed that pain. They have shuttered themselves in the hope that no one would notice. The Prime Minister skirted over this earlier in Prime Minister’s questions. May I ask him what representations he has made to his ally Donald Trump? And at the very least, Prime Minister, say it now: black lives matter.

Of course black lives matter, and I totally understand the anger and the grief that is felt not just in America but around the world and in our country as well. I totally understand that, and I get that. I also support, as I have said, the right to protest. The only point I would make to the House is that protests should be carried out lawfully and, in this country, protests should be carried out in accordance with our rules on social distancing.

I am afraid the Prime Minister did not answer the question of what representations he has made to his friend Donald Trump. It is imperative that the UK is vocal on human rights, freedom to gather and protest, freedom of speech and upholding press freedom in other parts of the world. It would be nothing short of hypocrisy if we were to turn a blind eye to events unfolding in the US. However, actions speak louder than words. [Interruption.] The Prime Minister can shake his head, but the UK exports millions of pounds worth of riot control equipment to the US, including tear gas and rubber bullets. The Prime Minister must have seen how these weapons are used on American streets. With the Government’s own guidance warning against equipment being used in such way, will the Prime Minister urgently review such exports?

I am happy to look into any complaints, but as the right hon. Gentleman knows, all exports are conducted in accordance with the consolidated guidance, and the UK is possibly the most scrupulous country in that respect in the world.

Q4. I have a number of businesses that serve the wedding market and would like to hold viewings to make bookings for the future. Church leaders of Loughborough have also contacted me about access to churches both for services and to help to tackle loneliness. Please could I ask that religious faiths be allowed to let people into their places of worship, observing social distancing within their premises, and that wedding venues be allowed access for bookings? (902901)

I very much understand the urgency that many people in this country feel about the need to reopen places of worship. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government is of course leading a taskforce on this very matter. It is a tough one: every time we do something like this, we push up the risk of infection and the risk of pushing up the R again. To repeat what I was saying earlier to the Leader of the Opposition, we are not there yet. We are getting there, but we are not yet there. It is vital that the people of this country understand the continued need to push down on the infection rate.

Q12. Our firefighters have been assisting in this covid crisis. They have taken 12 additional areas of work supporting our NHS, and while they are busier than ever, they are about to face another round of devastating cuts. My local fire authority in East Sussex is planning to remove 10 fire trucks from the county, with the loss of frontline firefighters. Is the Prime Minister planning to respond to the Fire Brigades Union letter sent to him on 22 May calling for a moratorium on cuts? Clapping on Thursdays is well and good, but will he put his money where his mouth is and ensure that no fire authority needs to cut frontline firefighters when they have been helping to save our country? (902909)

Q5. Does the Prime Minister agree that as we exit the pandemic, it is critical that we not only stimulate the UK economy, but also start the important process of levelling up? This should include stimulating the housing market to help excellent companies such as PWS at Newton Aycliffe, investing in rural broadband to help villages such as Killerby, and maybe moving the Treasury to Sedgefield, and also the acceleration of rolling stock investment to help companies such as Hitachi. May I also ask him to join me in opening the station at Ferryhill, which I am sure he will ask the Transport Secretary to approve? (902902)

What a brilliant idea. I think Sedgefield should be careful what it wishes for, but I will certainly investigate that possibility. My hon. Friend will know what we were doing, whether it is the 300,000 homes that we want to build every year, massive investment in gigabit broadband, or the huge investment in railways and roads, and I will make sure that I add to that an ambition to come and see Ferryhill station launched with him.

Will the Prime Minister address himself to the question of quarantine arrangements? Most European countries have had quarantine arrangements for quite a while now and are beginning to reduce them. This country has had no quarantine arrangements to date and is only now introducing them. Why is that?

For the simple reason that as we get the rate of infection down, with the efforts that we are making as a country, it is vital that we avoid reinfection from elsewhere. That is why we are doing it.

Q6. When my right hon. Friend attended the Liaison Committee last week, he very kindly committed to me to speak to the Chancellor about the possibility of including self-employment income received by way of dividend in the calculation of furlough support. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has had the opportunity to have that conversation and whether he has some good news for the House, because there are hundreds and thousands of self-employed people up and down this country who need that support. (902903)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who raises a very important point. I have an answer of fantastic complexity here before me, but the gist of it is that at present HMRC would be forced to rely on all sorts of information that it would not be able to verify very easily in order to comply with his wishes. I am happy to discuss it more fully with him and to write to him in detail.

Q15. In front of the Liaison Committee last week, the Prime Minister was clearly shocked to learn that many migrants living and working lawfully in the UK have no recourse to public funds. Without support, many have been forced to continue working in unsafe conditions or have been pushed into extreme poverty. He promised the Liaison Committee that he would do all he could to help. Scrapping the policy would be the best step, so will he update the House on his progress? (902912)

What I can tell the House is that everybody knows that no recourse to public funds is a long-standing condition that applies to people here with temporary immigration status, but it is a term of art; it does not mean that they are necessarily excluded from all public funds. For instance, they may be eligible for coronavirus job retention scheme funds or self-employed income support scheme funds. Indeed, if they have paid into the benefit system, they may be eligible also for certain benefits.

Q7. As we come out of lockdown, it is vital that we get our economy firing on all cylinders. In Bolsover, to level up we need more skilled jobs, so will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister meet me to discuss my proposal for Bolsover to lead the country with a green enterprise zone so that we can bring low-carbon manufacturing and research to our region? (902904)

My hon. Friend has exactly the right vision for Bolsover. Indeed, it is the vision that I have for the whole country. The green recovery will be essential to this country’s success in the next few years. I am happy to meet him to discuss it.

The Communities Secretary has admitted unlawfully overruling his own planning inspector to allow the Westferry development to go ahead, potentially saving the developer, Richard Desmond, who is a Conservative party donor, £40 million in tax. The Secretary of State did so just weeks after sitting next to the developer at a Tory fundraising dinner. Given that this was the same scheme that the Prime Minister tried to push through when he was Mayor of London and which reappeared after he entered Downing Street, will he now tell the House what conversations he has had with the Secretary of State about the scheme? Will he publish all relevant correspondence between No. 10 and the Department?

I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that I have had no conversations on that matter whatever, nor any exchanges of any kind.

Q8. The lock- down has seen a rise in antisocial behaviour in my area, including at Lullingstone castle, where a man sadly died last Thursday evening. My sincere condolences are with his family and friends at this time. This incident shows the need for more visible police in Sevenoaks. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the 147 new police officers promised to Kent will not be delayed and they will be focused on frontline policing to tackle antisocial behaviour? (902905)

Yes, indeed. That is why the Government are going to get on with our agenda of uniting and levelling up the country with 20,000 more police officers. In fact, we have recruited thousands already, and I am pleased to say in terms of the 147 that she identifies coming to Kent that I think they have already got there. If they have not, they are getting there very shortly.

In view of the Health Secretary admitting yesterday that covid outbreaks are worse in deprived areas and that our great cities have been hardest hit—the Prime Minister said earlier in the session that he takes these inequalities very seriously—will he now promise me that Liverpool City Council and Knowsley Council will get the full costs of their covid spend reimbursed, as they were told they would, instead of only half, which is what they have been allocated? I raised the issue with him on 11 May, and he promised he would look into it. I have written to him, but I have not had a reply.

The hon. Lady has raised this before. I pointed out that we have given an extra £3.2 billion to local government and another £600 million to deal with the particular costs of care homes, but I am happy to write back to her about the particular needs of Liverpool and Knowsley councils.

Q9.   Buckinghamshire Council has been able to help thousands of local businesses thanks to the £91 million grant from the Business Department, but despite the very best efforts of its staff, £13 million remains unclaimed. I and the council would like all that money to be able to be given to small businesses that need it to survive, but at the minute that is not allowed. Will my right hon. Friend seek to persuade his Cabinet colleagues that this would be a win-win—more help for businesses in need without costing the Government a penny more than has already been allocated? (902906)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; he represents his businesses in Aylesbury well. We are certainly talking to all councils about how they can properly utilise the allocations that they have.

The Public Health Minister told me in an email on 22 May that the justification for a 14-day quarantine is

“where local Covid incidence and prevalence is much lower relative to international incidence and prevalence”.

It is not, is it? So why is the Prime Minister inflicting, from Monday, a blanket quarantine with no basis in science that will devastate our travel industry and rob British families of their foreign holidays?

I am surprised to hear that criticism from the Labour Benches. I thought that the Opposition were in favour of the quarantine policy. The simple reason is to protect the British people from the reimporting of that disease once we have driven infection rates down.

Q10. Aviation was one of the first sectors to take an immediate negative impact from the coronavirus pandemic and will probably be one of the slowest to recover. Will my right hon. Friend consider an extension to the furlough for air industry employees through the low season and into 2021? (902907)

I am not going to make a commitment, alas, to extend the coronavirus job retention scheme now, but my hon. Friend represents the aviation sector, which has been very hard hit, and we will look at all the ways we can to support it throughout the crisis.

I hope that the Prime Minister will join me in standing together not only in grief at the killing of George Floyd but in determination that we will work together against racism, both in the US and here in the UK. In Putney, black teachers have told me that they are scared of going back to school because of the higher rates of death, and today’s figures from the Metropolitan police show that more than a quarter of lockdown fines have been for black people, although they are an eighth of our London population. Will the Prime Minister condemn the actions of the American police, will he freeze sales of tear gas and rubber bullets, will he review the lockdown fines, and will he act on the report on covid deaths, so that there are not more black people dying than white?

The hon. Lady raises a very important series of points. I certainly condemn the killing of George Floyd, and we will certainly make sure that everything that we export to any country around the world is in accordance with the consolidated guidance on human rights.

Q13.   This Government have taken the lead on tackling domestic abuse, but there is an ugly dimension that remains unresolved, where men who kill their partners in appalling acts of sexual violence establish in court that “she asked for it” and avoid a murder conviction. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the time is now to end the rough sex defence? (902910)

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. We are committed to ensuring that the law is made clear on this point, and that defence is inexcusable.

The virus effectively turned summer into winter for Cumbrian tourism. Ending Government funding in October, though, will mean three winters in a row, causing severe hardship on top of the 312% increase in unemployment we have already had locally. Will the Prime Minister provide a support package for tourism and hospitality in the lakes, the dales and elsewhere to see them through the spring of 2021?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. We are certainly looking at all sorts of packages—creative ideas—to help the tourism industry over the winter period so that its winter, as it were, can continue to be a kind of summer once we can get things open again. There are all sorts of packages that we will be bringing forward, but I do not want to extend some of the schemes that we currently have.

Q14. I am very proud to tell the House that we have 2,500 world-class steelworkers in Scunthorpe. Like steelmakers across this land, they stand ready to make steel for High Speed 2. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said in the House that he wants to see that happen. Will he reassure me that he will press for HS2 to sign the UK steel charter, and that steel for HS2 will be made in Britain? (902911)

We are doing everything we can to support the UK steel industry and to make sure, as HS2 goes forward, that it maximises the use of UK steel. I am proud to say that 98% of the companies that have signed up to deliver for HS2 are based in this country.

When the Prime Minister was forced to publish the review of the risks covid-19 poses to black and minority ethnic groups yesterday, why did he remove reference to the 1,000 responses to the review, many of which cited structural racism and discrimination as root causes of higher risk? If, unlike Trump, he seeks to represent the whole country that he is elected to lead, what action is he going to take to show that in tackling covid-19 and wider racism in society, black lives matter?

I think that the hon. Gentleman may have missed some of the earlier answers I have given, but he is wrong when he says that this Government were somehow forced to publish a review. This Government commissioned the review because we take it incredibly seriously. It is our review, and yes, I do think it intolerable that covid falls in such a discriminatory way on different groups and different communities in our country, and that is why we are going to ensure that our Minister for Equalities takes up that report and sees what practical steps we need to take to protect those minorities.

My right hon. Friend has rightly been focusing on keeping people safe, but that task goes beyond covid-19, so can he give me the reassurance that as from 1 January 2021, the UK will have access to the quantity and quality of data that it currently has through Prüm, passenger name records, the European Criminal Records Information System and SIS—Schengen Information System—II, none of which, I believe, should require the European Court of Justice jurisdiction in the UK?

That depends, I am afraid, on the outcome of our negotiations, as my right hon. Friend knows well, but I am absolutely confident that our friends and partners will see sense and the great mutual benefit in continuing to collaborate in exactly the way that we do.

We now come to the end. In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I suspend the House for five minutes.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—