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Volume 678: debated on Wednesday 22 July 2020

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

Can I start by congratulating the Prime Minister on his one-year anniversary as Conservative party leader? As we look at our long-term economic recovery, can he assure me that Lincolnshire will receive the required funding to boost digital connectivity for all the people of Grantham, Stamford, Bourne and our local villages?

Yes, indeed I can, which is why we have pledged not only £5 billion in funding for gigabit-capable broadband across the country, including the hardest-to-reach areas, but additionally a £34 million package for Lincolnshire superfast broadband, helping 135,000 households to benefit from gigabit-capable speeds.

May I start by welcoming reports this week of significant progress in the vaccine trials in Oxford? We all know that there is a long way to go, but I want to record my thanks and admiration for everyone involved in this huge effort.

Under my leadership, national security will also be the top priority for Labour, so I want to ask the Prime Minister about the extremely serious report by the Intelligence and Security Committee, which concludes that Russia poses

“an immediate and urgent threat”

to our national security, and is engaged in a range of activities that include espionage, interfering in democratic processes, and serious crime. The Prime Minister received that report 10 months ago. Given that the threat is described as “immediate and urgent”, why on earth did he sit on it for so long?

Actually, when I was Foreign Secretary, and for the period I have been in office, we have been taking the strongest possible action against Russian wrongdoing, orchestrating, I seem to remember, the expulsion of 130—153—Russian diplomats around the world, while the right hon. and learned Gentleman sat on his hands and said nothing while the Labour party parroted the line of the Kremlin, when people in this country were poisoned on the orders of Vladimir Putin.

I stood up and condemned what happened in Salisbury, and I supported the then Prime Minister on record. I would ask the Prime Minister to check the record and withdraw that—I was very, very clear. The report was very clear that until recently the Government badly underestimated the Russian threat and the response that it required. They are still playing catch-up. The Government have taken their eye off the ball—arguably, they were not even on the pitch. After the Government have been in power for 10 years, how does the Prime Minister explain that?

I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s questions are absolutely absurd. There is no country in the western world that is more vigilant in protecting the interests of this country or those of the international community from Russian interference. In fact, we are going further now, introducing new legislation to protect critical national infrastructure and our intellectual property. I think that he will find if he goes to any international body or gathering around the world that it is the UK that leads the world in caution about Russian interference. I do not wish to contradict him, but he sat on his hands and said nothing. The previous Leader of the Opposition parroted the line of the Kremlin that the UK should supply—[Interruption.] I did not hear him criticise the previous Leader of the Opposition. If he did so, now is the time for him to set the record straight.

I was absolutely clear in condemning what happened in Salisbury, not least because I was involved in bringing proceedings against Russia on behalf of the Litvinenko family—that is why I was so strong about it. I spent five years as Director of Public Prosecutions, working on live operations with the security and intelligence services, so I am not going to take lectures from the Prime Minister about national security. [Interruption.]

Order. I think someone wants to go for a cup of tea—we do not want an early bath. Keir Starmer.

The Prime Minister says that he will introduce new legislation. I want to make it clear to him that we will support that legislation and work with the Government. It is not before time. The Prime Minister says that the Government are vigilant. Eighteen months ago, the then Home Secretary said that we did not have all the powers yet to tackle the Russian threat. He said that the Official Secrets Acts were completely out of date. Other legislation has been introduced in that 18-month period. This is about national security. Why have the Government delayed so long in introducing that legislation?

This Government are bringing forward legislation—not only a new espionage Act and new laws to protect against theft of our intellectual property, but a Magnitsky Act directly to counter individuals in Russia or elsewhere who transgress human rights. Let us be in no doubt what this is really all about: this is about pressure from the Islingtonian remainers who have seized on this report to try to give the impression that Russian interference was somehow responsible for Brexit. That is what this is all about. The people of this country did not vote to leave the EU because of pressure from Russia or Russian interference; they voted because they wanted to take back control of our money, of our trade policy, of our laws. The simple fact is that, after campaigning for remain, after wanting to overturn the people’s referendum day in day out, in all the period when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was sitting on the Labour Front Bench, he simply cannot bring himself to accept that.

Can I just gently say to the Prime Minister, as I did last time, he may have to go to Specsavers? The Chair is this way, not that way. If he could address me, we would be a lot better.

I see the Prime Minister is already on his pre-prepared lines. This is a serious question of national security. He sat on this report for 10 months and failed to plug a gap in our law on national security for a year and a half. One of the starkest conclusions in the report is that the

“UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns”.

The report also highlights that this is being met with a fragmented response across Whitehall and across the Government. The report refers to this as a “hot potato” with no one organisation recognising itself as having the overall lead. That is a serious gap in our defences. This is not about powers; it is about responsibility, Prime Minister. So, how is he going to address that gap and make sure the UK meets this threat with the joined-up, robust response it deserves?

There is no other Government in the world who take more robust steps to protect our democracy, to protect our critical national infrastructure and to protect our intellectual property, as I have said, from interference by Russia or by anyone else. Frankly, I think that everybody understands that these criticisms are motivated by a desire to undermine the referendum on membership of the European Union that took place in 2016, the result of which the right hon. and learned Gentleman simply cannot bring himself to accept.

There is a serious gap in our Official Secrets Act, laying bare for 18 months, and that is all the Prime Minister has to say about it. One way the Government could seek to clamp down on Russian influence is to prevent the spread of Kremlin-backed disinformation. Obviously, social media companies have a big role to play, but the report also highlights

“serious distortions in the coverage provided by Russian state-owned international broadcasters such as RT”.

The High Court has ruled that Russia Today broadcasts pose actual and potential harm. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is time to look again at the licensing for Russia Today to operate in the UK?

I think this would come more credibly from the Leader of the Opposition had he called out the former Leader of the Opposition when he took money for appearing on Russia Today. He protested neither against the former Leader of the Opposition’s stance on Salisbury nor against his willingness to take money from Russia Today. The right hon. and learned Gentleman flip-flops from day to day. One day he is in favour of staying in the EU; the next day he is willing to accept Brexit. The Leader of the Opposition has more flip-flops than Bournemouth beach.

Last week, the Labour party bravely abstained on a vote that attempted to tie us into the EU indefinitely, further highlighting the increasing detachment of Labour from its old heartlands, such as Rother Valley. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirm that we on this side of the House remain fully committed to delivering our promises to the British people and to restoring our full economic independence on 1 January, so that people in Thurcroft, Maltby, Dinnington and across Rother Valley get the Brexit bonanza and level-up that we so deserve? (905210)

I certainly can give my hon. Friend that assurance. That is what the people voted for and that is what we will deliver.

Pre-prepared gags on flip-flops. This is the former columnist who wrote two versions of every article ever published! In case the Prime Minister has not noticed, the Labour party is under new management. No Front Bencher of this party has appeared on Russia Today since I have been leading this party.

Finally, I want to ask the Prime Minister about the appalling persecution of the Uyghur Muslims in China. We have all seen the footage of the Uyghurs being herded on to trains and heard the heartbreaking stories of forced sterilisation, murder and imprisonment. We support the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Government in their strong and clear condemnation of China for that in recent weeks. What further steps will the Prime Minister take? In particular, will he consider targeted sanctions against those responsible? Will he lead a concerted diplomatic action with our international partners to make it clear that this simply cannot be allowed to stand in the 21st century?

That is why the Foreign Secretary, only this week, condemned the treatment of the Uyghurs. That is why this Government, for the first time, have brought in targeted sanctions against those who abuse human rights in the form of the Magnitsky Act. I am delighted that the right hon. and learned Gentleman now supports the Government, but last week, of course, he did not support the Government. I am glad he is with us this week. I do not know how many more questions he has got since you allowed him to come back, Mr Speaker, throughout this session.

We have been getting on consistently with delivering on our agenda. A year ago, this was a Leader of the Opposition who was supporting an antisemitism-condoning Labour party and wanted to repeal Brexit. I represent a Government who were getting on with delivering on the people’s priorities: 40 new hospitals, 20,000 more police, 50,000 more nurses. And, by the way, we have already recruited 12,000 more nurses, 6,000 more doctors and 4,000 more police. We are delivering on the people’s priorities. We are the people’s Government. And, by the way, we are the Government who support the workers of this country as well, with the biggest ever increase in the living wage.

Yesterday, the Tory party held a political Cabinet, with the Prime Minister in a panic about the majority and increasing support for Scottish independence. Apparently, their great strategy amounts to more UK Cabinet Ministers coming to Scotland. Can I tell the Prime Minister that the more Scotland sees of this UK Government, the more convinced it is of the need for Scotland’s independence? A far better plan for the Tories would be to listen to the will of the Scottish people. Before his visit tomorrow, will the Prime Minister call a halt to his Government’s full-frontal attack on devolution?

I really do not know what the right hon. Gentleman is talking about. The only Bill I can think of that is before the House, or will be coming before the House, and which I know enjoys cross-party support, is the UK Internal Market Bill. Although that is a massively devolutionary Bill, which gives huge powers straight back from Brussels to Scotland, its principal purpose is to protect jobs and protect growth throughout the entire United Kingdom to stop pointless barriers to trade between all four parts of our country. Anybody sensible would support it.

Anybody sensible would realise from that answer that the Prime Minister simply does not get Scotland. In 2014, the people of Scotland were promised devolution-max, near federalism and the most powerful devolved Parliament in the world. Instead, we got a Tory Trade Bill that threatens our NHS, an Immigration Bill that will devastate our economy, and a power grab that will dismantle devolution. Scotland’s powers grabbed by Westminster, workers’ rights attacked, the rape clause and the bedroom tax, our NHS up for sale—the overwhelming majority in Scotland’s Parliament, its MPs and its people oppose all those measures. How can the Prime Minister claim that this is a Union of equal partners when his damaging policies will all be imposed upon Scotland against its will?

I hesitate to accuse the right hon. Gentleman of failing to listen to my last answer, but it is clear that the UK Internal Market Bill is massively devolutionary, with 70 powers passed from Brussels to Scotland. It is quite incredible. Of course, its purpose is very sensible, which is to protect jobs and growth throughout the entire UK, but just on a political level it seems bizarre that the Scottish nationalist party actually wants to reverse that process and hand those powers back to unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels. Is that really the policy? I do not think it is sensible.

I welcome the Health Secretary’s call for a review of the reporting of coronavirus deaths, as I raised this point recently with the national statistician at a Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee evidence session. He said that the numbers themselves would not change the policy, but does the Prime Minister agree that having the true numbers will help improve confidence in the policy? As the Royal College of Pathologists has pointed out, determining the difference between dying with and dying of covid-19 is key to understanding and getting better information about this disease. (905213)

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. As I have said repeatedly at this Dispatch Box, it is very important that we wait until the conclusion of this epidemic and have a proper statistical assessment of where we are. That is the course I would recommend to him.

I was the first Member of this House to raise concerns about Russian interference in our democracy, four years ago. By blocking the publication of the Russia report before the election, on grounds that the Intelligence and Security Committee has said were spurious, and then trying to fix the Committee, is it not abundantly clear that this Prime Minister has knowingly and repeatedly put his own personal and party interests before the national security of our country? (905211)

No, and I think that is a pretty lamentable way of looking at it—it is a lamentable question. If the right hon. Gentleman thought there was genuinely something in the ISC report that showed that, for instance, the Brexit referendum had been undermined by Russia, he would now be saying it, but that does not appear. I am afraid that what we have here, as I have told the House several times, is the rage and fury of the remainer elite finding that there is in fact nothing in this report—no smoking gun whatever, after all that froth and fury. Suddenly, all those who want to remain in the EU find that they had no argument to stand on. They should simply move on.

I have visited nine schools in Peterborough in recent weeks. Heads, teachers and support staff are doing brilliant work facilitating e-learning and looking after vulnerable families, but their huge effort is no substitute for classroom learning. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is vital that we get children back where they belong, in the classroom, from September? (905214)

I do indeed agree with that. It would be a fantastic thing to hear the Labour party stand up to their friends in the unions and issue the same instruction—that would be a wonderful thing.

The Social Market Foundation report identified Hull as the area facing the worst economic hit and the slowest recovery from covid-19. I have stood here in this place and called on the Government for support for our caravan manufacturing, Hull Trains, The Deep, Hull City Council, excluded young entrepreneurs and many others. I received an inadequate response from the Government, which fails to address the gravity of the situation Hull faces. What the Prime Minister needs to recognise is that you cannot level up by shutting down, so what new support will he give to prevent job losses in Hull West and Hessle? (905212)

We have already given the East Riding of Yorkshire more than £21 million to deal with the pressures of coronavirus. We have supported 90% of caravan manufacturers, whom the hon. Lady rightly supports, with the furlough scheme. As she knows, we have not only the £2 billion kickstarter fund to help young people into work, but the furlough bonus scheme to retain people in their jobs, as part of a massive package—£640 billion overall—to get our country moving again and make sure that we bounce back stronger than ever.

Schools in Buckinghamshire have done a tremendous job in recent months, balancing online learning with physical classes for the children of key workers. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the teachers of the Aylesbury constituency, and does he agree that it is right to have increased funding for schools, providing more money for all pupils and giving them the best prospects for their future? (905215)

Yes, and I am proud that we have fulfilled our manifesto promise. We are levelling up school funding across the country so that every primary school pupil receives at least £4,000 per head and every secondary school pupil £5,150, and I pay tribute to all the teachers and all the schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency for the excellent work that they have done in the last few months.

Face coverings will become mandatory on public transport in Wales next Monday. A zero VAT rating has been applied to most PPE since 1 May but at present it does not apply to non-medical face coverings. Will the Prime Minister therefore extend the zero rating to these items so that members of the public, especially those on low incomes, are not financially penalised for following the rules? (905216)

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his question. As he knows, we have removed VAT from all PPE, including VAT on face masks that, as everybody knows, can protect from infection. That removed the burden of VAT in care homes, NHS trusts and for key workers. For home-made face masks, those that meet the Public Health England guidance will be covered, and will continue to be covered, by the zero rate, but I am happy to ask the relevant Minister to write to him to clarify the entire position.

Friday is the first anniversary of my right hon. Friend becoming Prime Minister and, over the last 12 months, his focus on record funding for the NHS, boosted funding for every schoolchild in England and great progress on recruiting more police officers has all enabled us to start to address some of the ingrained regional inequalities in our country. Can my right hon. Friend ensure that levelling up remains central to his vision for our country for every single year of his premiership? (905218)

I thank my right hon. Friend, and I can absolutely give her that guarantee. In the current circumstances, now is the time to double down on levelling up and that is what we are going to do. That is why we are rolling out a colossal programme of investment in infrastructure, massive investments in our public services and fantastic new technology, because that is the way to give every part of our country the opportunity to realise its potential.

On 10 July, the Prime Minister met Bethany from Crewe during the “People’s Prime Minister’s Questions”, when she took the opportunity to raise the campaign for the extension of maternity leave as a direct consequence of covid-19. During that session, the Prime Minister not only undertook to look at the petition, but understood the significant ramifications that lockdown has had on mums and parents who have missed out on childcare support, health visitor access, and the availability of building bonds with wider family members and the community. Ten days later, I ask the Prime Minister: has he considered that petition, and with recess fast approaching, can he give an indication as to when the Government will respond to the necessary request to get this precious time back for mothers and families? (905217)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I well remember Bethany and her question, and I know how difficult this problem is for many people. I can certainly commit to him to look at it in detail and see what we can do, and I will write back to him.

My right hon. Friend knows better than most that covid has an unequal impact on the black, Asian and minority ethnic community, on the elderly, on men and, indeed, on the overweight. Can he please update the House on the steps being taken across Government to empower people away from fat- shaming and away from an over-reliance on body mass index, which we all know is an inaccurate measure for individual wellbeing, and let us know what he is doing to enable people to take back control of their own wellbeing? (905219)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the extreme tact with which she expressed her question. She makes a very important point, because I am afraid that there are significant comorbidities associated with covid, and we do need as a country to address obesity and the sad fact that we are, I am afraid, considerably fatter than most other European nations apart from the Maltese, as far as I can tell—no disrespect to Malta; that is what the statistics told me—and we will be bringing forward a strategy, which I hope will conform to my right hon. Friend’s strictures.

I do not know whether the Prime Minister has had a chance yet to read the report commissioned by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on the standard of homes delivered under permitted development. The report found properties with no windows, that three quarters of the properties did not meet the national space standards, and “studio flats of just 16m2 each were found in a number of different PD schemes”.To put this in context for the Prime Minister, 16 square metres is just about the size of the base of the ministerial limousine that he gets driven around in each day. Will he now change the rules and ensure that we never again allow slums to be built and people to be asked to live in a space as small as his ministerial car? (905220)

I was proud as Mayor of London to change the London plan to ensure that we went for Parker Morris plus 10% for our space standards. We will ensure that we not only build back better and more beautifully, but that we give people the space they need to live and grow in the homes that we will build.

As the Prime Minister takes a well-earned staycation, does he mind if I suggest some holiday reading? “How Innovation Works” by Matt Ridley will give new ideas for how we can recover from covid. “The Happiness of Blond People” by my dear friend Elif Shafak is about our stories of immigration and the fragility of belonging. Finally, as the MP for the Hundred Acre Wood, may I suggest that it is never too early to read “Winnie-the-Pooh” to Wilfred? As Pooh says:“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”That is sage advice, from Wealden, to children everywhere. (905221)

That is wonderful advice, which I will take to heart. I look forward to joining my hon. Friend for a game of Poohsticks in the Hundred Acre Wood. Would it not be a wonderful thing if the Labour party abandoned the spirit of Eeyore that currently seems to envelop it?

Tonight I will be supporting Luton Town FC, who are fighting for their life in the championship, as are businesses across Luton South. If Luton needs to go back into lockdown, will the Government introduce targeted financial support so that local people can afford to adhere to health guidance? (905222)

Yes indeed. I thank the local authorities and people of Luton, who are obviously working very hard to ensure that they contain the epidemic, as are other local authorities around the country. We are supporting them, as the hon. Lady knows, with £3.7 billion of investment, as well as £600 million for the infection fund and a further £300 million to support local track and trace. Of course, if local communities do have to go back into lockdown, we will take steps to support them as well.

I wholeheartedly support this Government’s plans to level up our country and build, build, build. Many of my constituents are concerned, however, about a proposed housing development in Chorleywood. Although it is important that we build more affordable homes, this cannot come at the expense of our beautiful countryside. Can the Prime Minister tell me how the Government will balance local authority obligations to build housing under local plans with protection for the green belt?

Of course, and I thank my hon. Friend very much for his question because it allows me to point out that there is massive opportunity to build back better on brownfield sites. That is what we should prioritise, and that is certainly what we will be telling local authorities.

Parliament will return after the summer recess to what manufacturing group Make UK describes as a “jobs bloodbath” because the Chancellor is ending the furlough scheme. We can see the impact on jobs and livelihoods coming over the horizon because of that furlough cliff edge. A meal deal does not cut it. What will the Prime Minister do to support strategic sectors and prevent unemployment from reaching 1980s levels? (905223)

As the hon. Lady knows, we already have in place the job retention scheme and the bonus of £1,000 for employers keeping on furloughed workers. She also knows about the £2 billion kickstarter fund that we have instituted, the “eat out to help out” programme, the VAT cut and the many other things that we have done, on top of the £160 billion that we have invested in incomes, jobs and livelihoods throughout this crisis. But of course we will continue to do more as the economic ramifications of covid unfold; of course we are preparing for that. As the Chancellor has said, we must be clear with the country that we cannot protect every job, but no one will be left without hope or opportunity, and this country will bounce back stronger than ever before.

St Mawes in my constituency was recently placed first in the Which? survey of the best coastal destinations in the UK and the coastal town of Falmouth constantly punches above its weight with very little. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government are looking at further financial measures to help the coastal towns that have been hardest hit in their time of need?

Indeed I can. We are funding 178 projects throughout England through our £180 million coastal communities fund, and Truro will receive at least £500,000 from the towns fund this year to support the high street and local community.

I chair the new all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, and we are leading a cross-party rapid inquiry to ensure that we have learnt the lessons from the UK Government’s handling of this pandemic before a second wave. We have had over 900 submissions so far, including from bereaved families, from people who have long covid and from professional bodies such as the British Medical Association and the NHS Confederation. We will be releasing recommendations as we go, throughout the recess. I simply ask: will the Prime Minister take our recommendations seriously, with a view to acting on them when we come back in September?