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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 679: debated on Wednesday 2 September 2020

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

The Economy

While the Northern Ireland economy does have its challenges, I am confident that it has a promising economic future, with its talent, great companies, entrepreneurial spirit and world-leading sectors and universities, as well as world-class hospitality, leisure and cultural offerings. We will continue as a Government to work with businesses, the Northern Ireland Executive and local partners to ensure that we not only get the economy back up and running but are laying the foundations for a sustainable, growing and stable economic future.

In my constituency of Hertford and Stortford, the eat out to help out scheme has been a massive success and given our local economy a huge boost. Will my right hon. Friend let the House know what the uptake has been in Northern Ireland?

I have not tested all the venues in Northern Ireland that were taking part in the eat out to help out scheme, but I did my bit to support the sector, as I am sure many colleagues around the House did. Comprehensive figures are not yet available, but I do know that over 1,500 restaurants in Northern Ireland signed up to the scheme in the first week of operation, highlighting just how important the scheme has been to give people confidence to go out and businesses a chance to see their customers again.

The Secretary of State will be aware that Northern Ireland businesses are concerned about the impact of the Northern Ireland protocol. Businesses I have spoken to report very little or no progress on export health certificates for animal-related food products being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. That potentially means increased costs for Northern Ireland businesses, and those costs will be passed on to Northern Ireland consumers. What will he do to ensure that arrangements are put in place to prevent that from happening?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. We recognise the unique position of authorised traders, such as supermarkets, with stable supply chains and comprehensive oversight of warehousing and distribution operations, moving pre-packaged products for retail sales solely in Northern Ireland. We continue to look at specific solutions for the trade, working with the trade. EHCs and accompanying notes for guidance will be made available from 1 November on the EHC form finder, to allow exporters and certifying officers to familiarise themselves with the requirements.

I welcome that news, and I want to follow that up with a question about the formal guidance that is required from the Government on the definition of unfettered access. Can the Secretary of State explain how a trader in Northern Ireland will get qualifying status in order to benefit from unfettered access in shipping goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain and in the other direction? What extra processes would a trader in Northern Ireland face if they did not have qualifying status? The Secretary of State will be aware that this has significant cost implications for Northern Ireland businesses. Will he therefore commit to discussing this matter urgently with his colleagues in the Cabinet Office, to ensure that guidance is issued to Northern Ireland businesses on the definition of unfettered access as soon as possible?

I can confirm that we are very keen to give as much guidance and information to businesses as early as possible. We are committed, as I said, to providing Northern Ireland’s businesses with unfettered access to the rest of the UK market. I am very clear about what that means. It means no import customs declarations as goods enter the rest of the UK from Northern Ireland. It means no safety or security declarations as goods enter the rest of the UK from Northern Ireland, no tariffs to be applied to Northern Ireland goods entering the rest of the United Kingdom in any circumstances, no customs checks, no new regulatory checks and no additional approvals required for placing goods on the market in the rest of the United Kingdom. For further reassurance, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that we will introduce legislation for unfettered access shortly, and we will continue to provide that guidance.

I listened carefully to the very good questions put by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), but I do not think that that will reassure businesses. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee was very clear about what we already knew: the movement of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland will be subject to a number of administrative requirements; businesses will trade at a competitive disadvantage; and consumers in Northern Ireland are likely to see increased prices as a result. The economic facts are—and this is a real worry—that, for a population of 1.9 million, the burden on British firms will be too much, and they will cease wanting to export in large numbers to Northern Ireland. Export health certificates are a major concern and a major cost. I will check the record, but I think the Secretary of State just said that there will be more formal guidance. He has his own view. That is not an agreement, and there are additional costs, so what will the costs be for those businesses?

I did say that notes for guidance will be available from 1 November this year. We are very clear that we are one single market—we are one customs union within the United Kingdom—and that is why we are very clear about the fact that we want unfettered access and we will deliver unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to Great Britain. We have already said that there will be some limited checks from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. We have announced the trader support scheme. The guidance that we issued just before the recess was warmly welcomed by Northern Ireland businesses. We continue to work with them so that, as we develop our processes, we ensure that there is good, smooth, fast, efficient delivery, as the protocol outlines, that does not disrupt the lives of people in Northern Ireland, in a way that works for business as well as the people of Northern Ireland.

On 7 August the Cabinet Secretary flew into Northern Ireland to announce a business package of £335 million. That money is apparently designed to alleviate the costs of border checks and Brexit red tape that the Prime Minister has repeatedly said do not exist. As a signed-up member of the Brexit Cabinet, can the Secretary of State assure Scottish businesses that the same level of financial support will be put in place to meet all the costs of Scotland being dragged out of the European single market?

The support package that we put in place, which is £155 million for the IT systems we have outlined and £200 million for the Treasury support scheme, is in order to recognise the unique situation of Northern Ireland—one that Scotland has a rather different position to. I am very clear that one of the things we will be looking to deliver as we go forward is the ability for Northern Ireland to trade prosperously as part of the whole of the United Kingdom—something I am sure that Scotland will benefit from as well.

In line with the protocol, Border Force is currently recruiting for jobs in Northern Ireland advertised as open to UK nationals only. In the press this week, the Home Office claimed that this does not prevent those who identify as Irish from applying. But will the Minister accept, as indeed the Home Office did when this previously happened in 2018, that the words “Irish nationals are not eligible for reserved posts” does not reflect the rights framework in the Good Friday agreement, and will he ask the Home Office to rework the advertisement and the rules to make them compatible with Northern Ireland’s fair employment legislation?

I am very happy to have a look at that. Obviously, as the hon. Lady will know, the Home Office outlined an update to the citizenship situation to rectify it for people so that however they wish to identify they can have the full rights that they wish to exert. However, I will happily follow up on that and come back to her.

The Union

What steps the Government are taking to strengthen the Union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. (905441)

The UK Government will never be neutral in expressing our unequivocal support for the Union. We are committed to strengthening the link between our four great nations, levelling up the whole country. That is why the Prime Minister has created a Cabinet committee on Union policy implementation. Our commitment to Northern Ireland is demonstrated in the £2.2 billion we have provided to help fight coronavirus, including an extra £300 million announced at the summer economic update.

May I begin by welcoming today’s news on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland? Carshalton and Wallington residents have noticed that next year will be the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland, so what plans does the Northern Ireland Office have to commemorate the United Kingdom as we know it today?

I agree with my hon. Friend on both points. This centenary represents a significant national anniversary. In the New Decade, New Approach deal, the Government recognised that the centenary provided an opportunity to reflect on the past as well as to build for the future in Northern Ireland across the UK and internationally. We are committed to facilitating national recognition and international awareness of the centenary. On his recent visit to Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister announced the establishment of a centenary forum and a centenary historical advisory panel. This approach will offer us the opportunity to work with a broad spectrum of people to deliver an ambitious and exciting programme of events to mark this important national anniversary. Further details about the centenary programme will be set out in the autumn.

Northern Ireland Protocol: Infrastructure at Ports

What assessment he has made of the infrastructure that will be required at ports in Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland protocol. (905442)

With just four months left until the protocol comes into force, the National Farmers Union has warned that a clear lack of guidance is threatening the trade in agrifood products—Northern Ireland’s largest import. So can the Secretary of State clear one thing up—will each agrifood product require an export licence certificate, costing up to £200, or not?

As I have set out previously, the protocol obliges both the UK and the EU to seek to streamline trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and to avoid controls at Northern Ireland ports as far as possible. As the hon. Member may well know, discussions are ongoing about the process by which this is conducted and the frequency. We want to bring the level of checks down to a proportionate and pragmatic level, as we have outlined before, for agrifoods and live animals. At Larne and Belfast there have been checks of one form or another in place since, I think, about the 19th century, and that is what we are building on. But there will be no new infrastructure.

Border Control Posts

If he will publish details of the UK Government request to the EU to establish border control posts at Northern Ireland ports. If, as the Prime Minister has claimed, there will be no checks or border controls for British goods entering Northern Ireland, what exactly are the new border posts at Northern Ireland sea ports and airports for exactly? (905443)

I will answer the substantive and supplementary questions together and just repeat what I said a few moments ago—there will be no new infrastructure in Northern Ireland for borders.

Payments for Victims of the Troubles

What assessment he has made of the timescale for the implementation of the pension scheme payments for victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. (905444)

What assessment he has made of progress on implementing the payment scheme for victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. (905445)

What assessment he has made of progress on implementing the payment scheme for victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. (905450)

We welcome the formal designation of the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland to provide administrative support for the scheme. Victims should never have had to go to court to see such progress. The Executive must now move to ensure that the scheme can be opened as soon as is practical, so that applications can be processed and payments made to victims who have already waited too long. The implementation of the scheme, including timescales for delivery, is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, but I look forward to seeing them progress this issue as quickly as possible.

Paddy Cassidy and Raymond Trimble have died since the pension and payment scheme became law, and many other victims are extremely ill. I urge my right hon. Friend to do whatever he can to provide the Executive with confidence that money will be forthcoming in the usual way through the block grant. Will he also do everything possible to dispel the horrendous myths that have been peddled about the payment scheme over the past few weeks? The scheme will primarily benefit civilians on both sides of the community who are desperate to have the recognition that they have been promised.

My right hon. Friend makes a good point. He was intrinsically involved in driving forward this issue. Words fail me: it should never have taken this long to get to this stage and it should never have taken a court case. My right hon. Friend is quite right that the Northern Ireland Executive are funded for the scheme through the block grant, and he is also quite right that this is about recognising people who have suffered for far too long. He and at least four of the party leaders in Northern Ireland were keen to see this scheme move forward; thankfully, that will now happen—and yes, I will give all the support that I can and that the Northern Ireland Executive need to see the scheme deliver as quickly as possible.

I, too, welcome the news that the Department of Justice has been designated to implement the victims’ payment scheme, but does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that it took a court to tell Sinn Féin to stop playing politics and finally designate the Department?

My hon. Friend is right. I have consistently expressed my disappointment—to say the least—at the lack of progress in establishing the scheme, as have the First Minister and others. It was wrong for Sinn Féin to hold up the process of designating the Department. I am pleased that it has now happened, but it is a shame that it took a court case.

Last week, Sinn Féin’s Martina Anderson described victims of the troubles applying for the victims’ payment scheme as

“mainly…those who fought Britain’s dirty war”

or were

“involved in collusion.”

Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning those grossly insulting comments to the victims, many of whom live in my constituency?

The simple answer is yes. Particularly with people having waited so long, to see an insensitive, ill-advised and inappropriate comment like that was the last thing that anybody needed. It should never have been made in the first place, and we should all condemn it and move forward to make sure that victims get what they have morally and legally been waiting far too long for.

May I begin by reflecting on the fact that this summer we lost the great John Hume, a peace campaigner and politician who, more than any other, is responsible for the peace these islands enjoy today? I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to his extraordinary wife Pat, his family and our friends in the Social Democratic and Labour party.

Yesterday would have been the 40th birthday of Tim Parry who, along with three year-old Johnathan Ball, was killed by an IRA bomb in Warrington in 1993. The peace foundation set up in their name supports victims of terrorism nationwide, but at the end of this month that service will close unless Ministers deliver on the funding that they have promised in the House. In this week, of all weeks, will the Secretary of State step up and secure the future of this vital service?

First, I join the hon. Lady in her comments about John Hume and his family. I was honoured to be able to attend the funeral, which was a great example of how something can be done so sensitively, delicately and appropriately, even at a difficult time such as with covid. It was a real honour to be there.

As I said earlier, a range of victims have waited too long for things such as victims’ pensions and victims’ payments, so we need to see that moving on. We need to see a whole range of areas moving on. I hope that, with the work we can do with the Northern Ireland Executive, not least with the introduction of the independent fiscal council, we can see the Executive start to allocate their funding and move on with these projects.

I think the Secretary of State may have misheard me: I was talking about the Warrington Peace Centre, which previously enjoyed funding directly from the Home Office. I hope he will consider that and raise it with his colleague the Home Secretary.

The father of Tim Parry, Colin, has said, on the anniversary of his son’s 40th birthday, that the appointment of Claire Fox to the House of Lords offends him deeply. Given her continued refusal to apologise for defending the Warrington bombing, may I ask whether the Secretary of State was consulted on her peerage? Has he raised any concerns with his colleagues in No. 10?

As I think it has already been outlined, Claire Fox will be sitting as a Cross-Bench peer. She has already provided her own answer to that question, and I will let her words deal with the matter. I will certainly talk to the Home Secretary about the issue that the hon. Lady raises about the funding for the Warrington bombing. What we have seen over the past few weeks is that there is still a need and a determination for us to keep a focus on security issues. I also want to take a moment to pay huge credit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners for the amazing operation that they ran just two weeks ago, arresting some 10 people, which is probably the biggest step forward that we have seen in a generation in ensuring the peace and security of the people in Northern Ireland.

My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the £150 million that has been set aside in the New Decade, New Approach agreement with regard to legacy resolution issues, but the funding of the pension scheme is of concern to all parties, as it was to the Select Committee. Can he confirm that he will ensure that, through the block grant, moneys that are required on top of the £150 million will be forthcoming so that justice can be done and the money paid in a full and timely way?

My hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee is absolutely right. This matter is devolved and it is for the Northern Ireland Executive to pay for through the block grant. Those discussions will go ahead in the normal way, but, as I have said, as the money is already there, this is something that the Executive can be moving on with. They can start getting this process going and start getting these payments out to the people who have already waited too long.

I also thank the Secretary of State for all he has done with regard to the victims’ pension fund. Will he outline what steps have been taken to claw back the money from Sinn Féin that was spent on the court case that took place solely because of Sinn Féin’s refusal to do the right thing and appoint a Minister to oversee the fund? Sinn Féin should pay the legal fees.

The court was clear that the Executive, through their action of not designating, or refusing to designate, a Department, which was down to the Deputy First Minister, were acting illegally. The hon. Gentleman puts forward an interesting proposal, which I am sure that the Finance Ministry, in terms of wanting to make sure that Northern Ireland’s finances are well spent, will consider properly.

Leaving the EU: the Economy

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effect on the Northern Ireland economy of the UK leaving the EU. (905448)

What assessment he has made of the potential benefits to the Northern Ireland economy of the proposals set out in the Government’s July 2020 UK internal market White Paper. (905456)

By the end of this year, the process of transition to our new relationship with the EU will be completed. I and colleagues across the Cabinet are determined to ensure that Northern Ireland benefits fully from the opportunities that that will bring.

I am sure that all in business will welcome the announcement from the Secretary of State that there will be guidance given to all those trading in Northern Ireland by 1 November, but can he explain to the House how one formulates guidance for the implementation of a deal that has not yet been done, or will that guidance be written on the presumption that there will be no deal?

As we did with the guidance that we outlined just before the House broke for the summer recess, we have done it in conjunction with our partners in businesses across Northern Ireland through the business engagement forum that we have put together. We are consulting with businesses about what they need to live on the protocol, and that protocol does give confidence to businesses about what will be in place next year.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the UK internal market is the cornerstone of simplicity in terms of uncertainty over attracting investment to all parts of the United Kingdom, and any detractors from the Government’s plan and policy to maintain the integrity of the UK internal market would be undermining the potential investment in their community?

Absolutely right. My right hon. Friend makes a hugely important point. The UK internal market Bill will outline that integral structure of the United Kingdom as one customs union and one single market, which will give confidence to businesses and investors to the benefit of all our economies.

Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland Border

What recent discussions he has had with the Irish Government on the operation of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after the end of the transition period. (905449)

I and ministerial colleagues speak regularly with our counterparts in the Irish Government. The protocol itself provides for a practical solution that avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland in all circumstances, including in the event that we do not agree a free trade agreement, while ensuring that the UK, including Northern Ireland, can leave the EU as a whole.

I am very grateful to the Secretary of State. He will know that small and medium-sized enterprises with business across the border are in a state of uncertainty at the moment, given what is potentially going to hit them in four months’ time. Given that, the trader support service announced last month is particularly welcome. What discussions has he had with trade organisations in Northern Ireland about the trader support service? When does he anticipate the service actually providing services to SMEs?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We—not just myself, but ministerial colleagues—have had continual engagement with businesses. The Business Secretary and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster have both been in Northern Ireland engaging with businesses and representative organisations, as has my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office. We will continue to do that and we aim to have the scheme running in September.

Covid-19: Film and TV Quarantine Exemptions

If he will hold discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive on implementing exemptions from covid-19 quarantine rules for international film and TV productions in Northern Ireland similar to those recently implemented in England. (905451)

Self-isolation exemptions have been in place since 5 July for the whole of the United Kingdom for all international cast and crew working on qualifying TV and film productions. We have worked closely with the Northern Ireland Executive and the film and TV industry, which has been a major success in Northern Ireland and represents a significant part of its economy estimated to be worth £270 million a year. This has seen important projects such as “The Northman” and “Line of Duty” restart filming, bringing significant investment to Northern Ireland’s economy.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the quarantine exemption arrangements could be the catalyst for reigniting the Northern Ireland film industry, where 49 locations were used for “Game of Thrones”, including Winterfell? Although the days of House Stark have passed, I hope that the exemption will allow for Northern Ireland to continue to be a beacon for the film industry across the world.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I said, over the summer we introduced the exemptions. We absolutely recognise what a crucial and important sector this is, and the benefits of its success can be seen across Northern Ireland, not least for the tourism industry. Local success stories such as “Game of Thrones” and “Derry Girls” benefit every part of Northern Ireland. Programmes such as “The Fall” have firmly established Northern Ireland as an ideal destination for film and TV projects. The restart of filming in significant projects shows that the industry can continue to achieve global success.

Aerospace Sector

What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on support for the aerospace sector in Northern Ireland. (905478)

The Government recognise that this industry is key to Northern Ireland’s economic success, with the sector in Northern Ireland valued at over £1.8 billion. Like many sectors, aerospace has come under immense pressure during the pandemic. That is why we put unprecedented support in place through the job retention scheme and the Bank of England’s covid corporate financing facility. Last week, I met Bombardier at its Shorts site and Stratospheric Platforms to discuss the challenges and opportunities for developing the sector and how the UK Government can support their success.

Ministers seem to be doing little more than shrugging their shoulders as the UK’s world-leading aerospace sector goes to the wall. When will they step in with sector-specific support?

The UK Government have made available £2.1 billion to the UK aerospace sector through the covid corporate financing facility and additional flexibility for UK export finance, which is supporting £3.5 billion of sales in the next 18 months. I continue to work closely with my colleague the aerospace Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi). I am determined that we do support businesses in Northern Ireland, as across the UK.

I trust that the Minister’s visit to Bombardier last week was successful. He knows how important aerospace is to the Northern Ireland economy, but he also knows that there is a cliff-edge coming in the job retention scheme and in the support for our aerospace sector in particular. He also knows that should redundancies continue and the situation gets worse, the skills will be lost and they will not come back. The time is coming. Talk is talk. We need to see action. We need to see a bespoke package of support for aerospace in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom.

I absolutely sympathise with the point the hon. Gentleman is making, and the crucial importance of this sector and its skills to his constituency. The covid-19 outbreak has seen a severe impact on aviation and aerospace industries around the world. The UK Government have provided significant support to the sector, including the business interruption scheme and the job retention scheme. The Chancellor has confirmed that that commitment remains in place until October, but one of the things I discussed with Bombardier on my visit last week is the vital importance of maintaining that skills base. That is a point I will absolutely take to colleagues across government.

Security Situation

The threat from dissident republican terrorism continues to be severe in Northern Ireland. The Government’s first priority is to keep people safe and secure across the UK. Terrorism, paramilitary violence and criminality have no place in Northern Ireland. They must not hold us back from progress towards a peaceful and prosperous future. As I said earlier, thanks to the hard work and professionalism of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners, 10 people have recently been arrested and charged with a range of terrorism offences under the Terrorism Act 2006. Those arrests are the biggest step in tackling violent dissident republicans in Northern Ireland in a generation, and I thank the PSNI for its work.

What action have the Government taken to protect those who provided security in Northern Ireland, in both the police and military, from vexatious historical accusations?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We as a Government are clear: we will put an end to vexatious claims against our brilliant armed forces. We are also determined to address the legacy of the troubles, as I set out in my written ministerial statement on 18 March, and we will deliver on that.

Order. That is the end of Northern Ireland questions, so we now come to Prime Minister’s questions. As we await that, may I wish the Leader of the Opposition a happy birthday?

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

Three weeks ago today, the community in my constituency of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, and indeed I think the entire country, was rocked by the events on the railway line just south of Stonehaven: the tragic events in which three men—Brett McCullough, Chris Stuchbury and Donald Dinnie—tragically lost their lives. I am sure my right hon. Friend and indeed the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the family and friends of those three men today, as well as our thanks and heartfelt gratitude to the incredible men and women of our emergency services and multiple agencies who worked in incredibly difficult conditions to help the survivors from that incident.

The interim report is on the desk of the Transport Secretary as we speak, and I know that the full report will take time to run its course, as is only right, but what assurances can my right hon. Friend give my constituents that the serious questions that they have will be answered, that any recommendations will be implemented and that the Government will do everything they can to prevent an accident like this from ever happening again?

I thank my hon. Friend, and I know the whole House will want to join me in sending our condolences to the family and friends of Brett McCullough, Donald Dinnie and Christopher Stuchbury. I would like to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the extraordinary work of the emergency services and the public for the bravery that they showed. Britain’s railways are among the safest in Europe, partly because we take accidents like this so seriously, and therefore we must ensure that we learn the lessons of this tragic event to make sure that no such incident recurs in the future.

Can I join the Prime Minister in those comments about the tragic events of just a few weeks ago? Can I also begin by paying tribute to John Hume, who passed away during recess? John was a beacon of light in the most troubled of times. He will be seriously missed.

Let me start today with the exams fiasco. On the day that thousands of young people had their A-level grades downgraded, the Prime Minister said, and I quote him:

“The exam results…are robust, they’re good, they’re dependable”.

The Education Secretary said there would “absolutely” not be a U-turn; a few days later—a U-turn. We learned yesterday that the Education Secretary knew well in advance that there was a problem with the algorithm, so a straight answer to a straight question, please: when did the Prime Minister first know that there was a problem with the algorithm?

Perhaps I could begin by congratulating the right hon. and learned Gentleman on his birthday? I say to him, on the exams and the stress that young people have been through over the summer, that both the Secretary of State for Education and I understand very well how difficult it has been for them and for their families, going through a pandemic at a time when we have not been able, because of that pandemic, in common with most other countries in the world, to stage normal examinations. As a result of what we learned about the tests—the results—that had come in, we did institute a change. We did act. The students, the pupils of this country now do have their grades, and I really ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman whether he will join me in congratulating those pupils on their hard work, and whether he agrees with me that they deserve the grades they have got.

I have already expressed congratulations to all those students and I do so again, but I want to go back to my question, which the Prime Minister avoided. I know why he avoided it, because he either knew of the problem with the algorithm and did nothing, or he did not know when he should have. Let me ask again: when did the Prime Minister first know that there would be a problem with the algorithm?

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows perfectly well, Ofqual made it absolutely clear time and again that in its view the system that was in place was robust. Ofqual is, as he knows, an independent organisation and credit had to be given to its views. All summer long, he has been going around undermining confidence and spreading doubts, in particular about the return to school in safe conditions—[Interruption.] It is absolutely true. And today is a great day because the parents, pupils and teachers in this country are overwhelmingly proving him wrong and proving the doubters wrong, because they are going back to school in record numbers, in spite of all the gloom and dubitation that he tried to spread. It would be a fine thing if, today, after three months of refusing to do so, as pupils go back to school, he finally said that school was safe to go back to. Come on!

The Prime Minister is just tin-eared and making it up as he goes along. I am surprised—[Interruption.] The Education Secretary stood at that Dispatch Box yesterday and acknowledged that Labour’s first priority has been getting children back to school. That has been our first priority. I have said it numerous times at this Dispatch Box, and the Prime Minister knows it very well. He is just playing games.

The Prime Minister is fooling nobody. Even his own MPs have run out of patience. The vice-chair of the 1922 Committee, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker), has said that the Government are

“saying one thing on Monday, changing its mind on Tuesday, something different presented on Wednesday.”

That sounds familiar doesn’t it? Another of his MPs, who wisely wants to remain anonymous, is perhaps in the Chamber today. He or she said—[Interruption.] I am speaking for you, because this is what was said by his own MPs. He or she said, “It’s mess after mess, U-turn after U-turn…It’s a fundamental issue of competence, God knows what is going on. There’s no grip.” His own MPs are right, aren’t they?

This is a Leader of the Opposition who backed remaining in the EU and now is totally silent on the subject. Now he has performed a U-turn. He backed that, and perhaps he still does. This is a Leader of the Opposition who supported an IRA-condoning politician who wanted to get out of NATO and now says absolutely nothing about it. This is a Leader of the Opposition who sat on the Front Bench—

Order. I think that questions are being asked, and we do need to try to answer the questions that have been put to the Prime Minister. It will be helpful to those who are watching to know the answers.

Mr Speaker, if I may say so, I think it would be helpful to all those who are watching to know that this Opposition, and this Leader of the Opposition, said absolutely nothing to oppose the method of examinations that was proposed and, indeed, they opposed the teacher accreditation system that we eventually came up with. Is he now saying that those grades are not right, or is this just Captain Hindsight leaping on a bandwagon and opposing a policy that he supported two weeks ago?

The problem is that he is governing in hindsight, as well as making so many mistakes.

Mr Speaker, before I go on, the Prime Minister said something about the IRA, and I want him to take it back. I worked in Northern Ireland for five years with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, bringing peace. As Director of Public Prosecutions, I prosecuted serious terrorists for five years, working with the intelligence and security forces and with the police in Northern Ireland. I ask the Prime Minister to have the decency to withdraw that comment.

It is the same every time: pretend the problem does not exist, brush away scrutiny, make the wrong decision, then blame somebody else. This has got to change, because the next major decision for the Prime Minister is on the furlough scheme. The jobs of millions of people are at risk. The longer he delays, the more they are at risk, so will he act now, finally get this decision right and commit to extend the furlough scheme for those sectors and those workers that desperately need it?

What we are doing in this Government is getting our pupils back to school, in spite of all the doubts that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has tried to sow, and we are getting people back to work. What he wants to do is extend the furlough scheme, on which this country has already spent £40 billion. What we would rather do is get people into work through our kickstart scheme, which we are launching today—£2 billion to spend to support people, young people in particular, to get the jobs that they need. He wants to keep people out of work in suspended animation. We want to move this country forward. That is the difference between him and us.

There was a question about the allegation regarding Northern Ireland, and I was very concerned—that was the point I was making. I think that, in fairness, I am sure you would like to withdraw it.

Mr Speaker, I am very happy to say that I listened to the protestations of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and I think they would have been more in order, throughout the long years in which he supported a leader of the Labour party—

When the Prime Minister has worked with the security and intelligence forces on prosecuting criminals and terrorists, he can lecture me. I asked him to do the decent thing, but doing the decent thing and this Prime Minister don’t go together.

This has been a wasted summer. The Government should have spent it preparing for the autumn and winter. Instead, they have lurched from crisis to crisis, U-turn to U-turn. To correct one error, even two, might make sense, but when the Government have notched up 12 U-turns and rising, the only conclusion is serial incompetence. That serial incompetence is holding Britain back. Will the Prime Minister take responsibility and finally get a grip?

I take full responsibility for everything that has happened under this Government throughout my period in office. Actually, what has happened so far is that we have succeeded in turning the tide of this pandemic and, despite the negativity and constant sniping from the Opposition, we are seeing a country that is not only going back to school but going back to work. Britain is in the lead in developing vaccines and in finding cures for this disease—dexamethasone—and treatments for this disease. Not only that, but we are taking this country forward, despite the extreme difficulties we face. What I think the people of this country would appreciate is the right hon. and learned Gentleman and I, the Labour Front-Bench team and everybody across this House coming together, uniting and saying that it is safe for kids to get back to school. I must say that we still have not heard those words from him. Will he now say, “School is safe”?

I have said it so many times. School is safe. My own children have been in school throughout. There is no issue on this. The Prime Minister is seeking to divide, instead—[Interruption.] I wrote to him on 18 May, in confidence and in private, offering my support to him to get kids back to school. The only reason they were not back before the summer was because of his incompetent Education Secretary.

The Prime Minister will recall that before the recess I asked him whether he would meet the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK group. I had the privilege of meeting the families on 15 July. They gave me incredibly moving accounts of how covid-19 had taken their loved ones from them. On Sky News last week, the Prime Minister was asked whether he would meet the families and he said:

“of course I will meet…the bereaved—-of course I will do that.”

But yesterday they received a letter from the Prime Minister saying that meeting them was now “regrettably not possible”. The Prime Minister will understand the frustration and the hurt of those families that he said one thing to camera and another to them. May I urge him to reconsider, and to do the right thing and find time to meet these grieving families?

May I say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that it is absolutely typical of him that he should frame it in that way? Of course I am very happy to meet the families and the bereaved and I sympathise deeply with all those who have lost loved ones throughout this pandemic; we all feel their pain and their grief. But it turns out that this particular group he refers to are currently in litigation against the Government, and I will certainly meet them once that litigation is concluded. I say to him that it would be a better thing if, rather than trying to score points in that way, he joined together with this Government and said not only that school is safe to go back to—[Interruption.] By the way, that is the first time in four months that he has said it, so I am delighted to have extracted it from him over this Dispatch Box—[Interruption.] He has never said it to me in the House of Commons. I hope he will also say that it is safe for the workforce of this country to go back to work in a covid-secure way.

We want to take this country forward. Not only are we getting the pandemic under control, with deaths down and hospital admissions way, way down, but we will continue to tackle it, with local lockdowns and with our superlative Test and Trace system, which, before Opposition Members sneer and mock it, has now conducted more tests than any other country in Europe. The right hon. and learned Gentleman might hail that, rather than sneering at this country’s achievements.

Discussions in the Joint Committee established under the withdrawal agreement will have the most crucial bearing on the future of trade, not only between the UK and the EU but within the UK itself. Unless otherwise agreed in that Committee, goods passing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be subject to the full rigour of the European customs code and to the imposition of tariffs. That would be quite unacceptable, so will my right hon. Friend commit to do whatever it takes to ensure that it does not happen? (905330)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the concern that he does. We must, of course—and will—deliver on what the protocol says, which is that there shall be unfettered access between GB and NI, and NI and GB, and there shall be no tariffs. We will legislate in the course of the next months to guarantee that.

May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on the tragedy that we witnessed close to Stonehaven, and indeed with the Leader of the Opposition’s tribute to John Hume—a man who did so much for the delivery of peace in the island of Ireland?

Yesterday the Prime Minister told his Cabinet:

“I am no great nautical expert but sometimes it is necessary to tack here…in response to the facts as they change”.

It was surprisingly honest for the Prime Minister to admit that his Government are all at sea—a UK Government now defined by eight U-turns in eight months. But if the Prime Minister is true to his word, surely he must see sense and change tack for a ninth time. With the clock ticking for struggling businesses and workers, will the Prime Minister commit today to extend the job retention scheme beyond October—or are Boris’s Government making the political choice to accept levels of unemployment last seen under Thatcher in the early 1980s?

Opposition Members of all parties seem to want to extend the furlough scheme, which has already cost the country £40 billion. It has supported 11 million people, but, after all, keeps them in suspended animation and prevents them from going to work. We want to get people back to work, and that is why I hope the right hon. Gentleman will instead support our kickstart scheme to get young people into jobs and support them in those jobs. How much better is that than languishing out of work?

My goodness, “languishing out of work”; the furlough scheme is there to protect people so that they can come back to work when the time is right. France, Germany and Ireland have extended their furlough schemes until 2021. They have made a moral choice. They are not prepared to punish their people with record levels of unemployment. People in Scotland are seeing a tale of two Governments. While the Tories are cutting furlough scheme support, yesterday Nicola Sturgeon was announcing new investment to protect jobs, including a youth guarantee. We all know that jobs are under threat if the furlough scheme ends in October. The power to end this threat lies with the Prime Minister. Will he do his duty and extend the furlough scheme, or are we going to return to levels of unemployment last seen under Thatcher, with the resultant human misery?

We are not only continuing with the furlough scheme until the end of this month, as the right hon. Gentleman knows—a scheme that is far more generous, by the way, than anything provided in France, Germany or Ireland. We are continuing with that scheme, but after it lapses we will get on with other measures to support people in work. Starting today, there is the kickstart scheme to help young people to get the jobs that they need. That is in addition to a £160 billion package that we have spent to support the economy throughout this crisis. The Government have put their arms around all the people of this country to support them throughout the crisis. That is what we are doing, and we will now help them to get back into work.

I share my right hon. Friend’s enthusiasm that those who can get back to work safely in their offices should do so, but realistically many will only want to do so for two or three days a week. May I urge him to use his considerable powers of persuasion to encourage the rail industry to introduce flexible season tickets immediately so that those people are not tied into traditional work patterns—both to help many thousands of commuters in areas such as mine in Ashford, but also to help to save the rail industry? (905331)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are working at pace with rail companies to try to deliver new products in terms of ticketing that would ensure better value and enable people to get back to work in a flexible way.

May I thank the Prime Minister and the Chancellor for the financial and economic interventions the Government have made to date? The Prime Minister will be aware that, as much as we want to see people back in work, there are certain sectors, such as tourism, travel, hospitality and aerospace, where that will not be possible in the short to medium term. Therefore, may I encourage the Prime Minister to look at a targeted extension for those sectors, and also to look at a specific UK-wide scheme to help those who have so far been excluded from the current schemes, including the newly self-employed?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there are a great number of schemes in addition to the job retention scheme that support people in work in all sorts of sectors—the coronavirus loans, the bounce back loans, and the grants that we have made to businesses of all kinds. He mentions the tourism and hospitality sector, and we have made huge investments in those, including the very successful eat out to help out scheme that we have been running. But it is also very important that we get people back into the workplace in a covid-secure way and, unlike the Leader of the Opposition, we do everything we can to give them confidence that it is a good idea to go back. An ounce of confidence is worth a ton of taxpayers’ money.

The bounce back loan scheme has been a huge success, delivered by the Prime Minister and, indeed, the Chancellor, with 1.3 million loans being granted in vital support for small and medium-sized enterprises. The all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking, which I co-chair, has established that 250,000 businesses who currently bank with FinTechs and alternative lenders do not have access to those loans because they cannot get access to the Bank of England’s term funding scheme, and lenders who do have those loans are not accepting loan applications from new customers. Will the Prime Minister use his best offices to persuade the Governor of the Bank of England to open up the term funding scheme to those alternative finance organisations or open the doors of other lenders who can provide those loans to other SMEs? (905332)

I thank my hon. Friend, who raises an important point. As he will know, the rules around access to schemes for alternative finance are not the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, but of the Bank of England. I am sure the Governor will have heard my hon. Friend today.

Over the summer months many people undertake a range of activities. For some it is camping, for others it is festivals and events. In my constituency, we have a number of highly successful employers in audio-visual technology, hospitality and creative industries, none of whom can currently undertake their normal activities. In the face of this, when furlough ends, those companies could face collapse. What should I tell them—that the Government will extend the scheme to ensure that the industry can get back on its feet, or have the Government completely given up on them? (905325)

Not at all. We have supported the arts industry alone with about £1.7 billion of support. In Scotland, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman never tires of saying, the overall support for tackling coronavirus has been in the order of about £4 billion. We will continue to give support, but we happen to think—and I hope it is common ground across the House—that it would be better for the UK economy and better for all the people he rightly cares about to get back into work.

One positive among the gloom of the covid pandemic is that this year’s “I’m a Celebrity” will be filmed not in New South Wales, Australia, but in our own north Wales. Even if I cannot tempt the Prime Minister to take part in a Welshtucker trial, would he commend ITV on its choice of venue and welcome the positive impact that that can have on the regional economy? (905333)

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the wonderful attractions of north Wales, which I know very well, as I tried to get elected there many years ago—unsuccessfully. I congratulate him on his success, and may it be long repeated.

Earlier this summer, the Treasury floated a story in the Telegraph suggesting a public sector pay freeze to save money. Given that so many public sector workers, such as nurses, police officers, firefighters, teachers and others have put their lives on the line to fight covid, surely that would be an unconscionable betrayal? Will the Prime Minister therefore unequivocally not only rule out a pay freeze but commit to fully funding a package to ensure that they are remunerated to reflect their sacrifices? (905326)

I must say that I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said, but he seems to have ignored the fact that we have just had an inflation-busting public sector pay rise. As part of the package that we agreed in 2018, nurses alone have had a 12.5% pay increase since then. I appreciate his sentiments—he is on the right lines—but he should look at what is actually happening.

Alexander Dennis has been manufacturing buses in Guildford for more than 100 years, with exciting new low and zero emission vehicles. I am sure my right hon. Friend will be as saddened as I was to hear that 200 people have been made redundant locally. Does he agree that those workers’ fantastic skills are vital as part of our green recovery? Will he work with me and colleagues to ensure the long-term success of UK bus manufacturing for both domestic and export markets? (905334)

I thank my hon. Friend for her apposite intervention on behalf of Alexander Dennis. I was a keen customer of Alexander Dennis’s fantastic machines. I cannot guarantee this, but I hope that our green recovery and our massive investment in green buses will be of benefit to the workforce of Alexander Dennis.

The Prime Minister is stumbling forward into mass unemployment with the sudden and universal removal of furlough, and towards a further spike and resurgence of coronavirus due to making people who are working from home travel to work. To minimise further and future bad decisions and U-turns, will he fully restore the online Parliament so that all voters can be fully represented in all debates and law making, as happens in the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government and the Lords, whether their MPs are shielded or unshielded, so that we make the best decisions with the least harm during the pandemic and the recession through the reintroduction of proper online democracy? (905327)

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I encourage him to return from New York, Shanghai or wherever he is and join us in this House as fast as he can. Actually, what the people of this country want to see is their representatives back on their seats as fast as possible in the Palace of Westminster. That is what we should work for, and that is why we are working together to drive down this virus and create a covid-secure environment.

When I buy a copy of the Mirror, the Mail or the Telegraph, I am not required to buy a copy of The Guardian, yet when I want to watch live TV on Sky, Amazon Prime or ITV, I am forced to pay for the BBC. Does the Prime Minister believe that that is a sustainable situation in the medium or longer term? (905335)

My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point, and I am sure that point of view is shared by many people in this country. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will be setting out a road map for reform of the BBC shortly and addressing the very issues he mentions.

Last week, the Financial Times published a list of the 12 Government U-turns made under this Prime Minister, from the exam results fiasco to the contact tracing app and the wearing of masks. He has just said that he takes full responsibility, so I wonder which of those 12 U-turns is the Prime Minister’s favourite. (905328)

It is a rare privilege to ask a question in the House, so you would have thought, Mr Speaker, that they could have come up with something better than that. This is a global pandemic, which this Government are dealing with extremely effectively at a medical level. What we want to do now, in a covid-secure way, is to get our children back into school. That is happening today, in spite of the Leader of the Opposition and his colleagues; I do not know where the hon. Lady has stood on this issue. We also want to get our country’s economy back on its feet again and get us back to work. So I hope that she and her colleagues will say that it is also safe to go back to work in a covid-secure way.

My right hon. Friend will be well aware that, welcome though it is, the start of the new term this week will be challenging for all schools. It will be particularly so for Burton Green Church of England Academy in my constituency, where HS2 has just closed the road that many parents use to access the school. It has done that for several months, with little notice or consultation, and contrary to assurances given during the passage of the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Act 2017. This is not, as my right hon. Friend well knows, the first or only example of high-handedness or poor communication on the part of HS2. So will he please help me to require of HS2 that it does better for the people of Burton Green and elsewhere on the route? (905336)

I heartily endorse, I am afraid, the sentiments that my right hon. and learned Friend has expressed. Anybody who has worked with HS2 over the past few years will know that it does treat local residents with, I am afraid, a high-handed approach—or has done. What I can tell him, however, is that where there is damage to local roads HS2 will pay compensation. I will certainly take up his point with HS2.

Low public confidence in social distancing measures means that many businesses are struggling. If the job retention scheme ends in October, there will be catastrophic consequences for workers, businesses and the economy. So despite earlier waffle from the Prime Minister, I am asking him again: will he commit to extending the job retention scheme or are we to expect more governmental incompetence, resulting in unnecessary redundancies and further strains on our already collapsing economy? (905329)

I direct the hon. Lady to what I have said already, which is that there will always be those who argue for an infinite extension of the furlough scheme, and who want to keep people off work, unemployed, being paid very substantial sums, for a very long time. I do not think that is the right thing. I think the best way forward for our country is, as far as we possibly can, to get people back into work. As she knows, there is the job retention bonus at the end of the year, and there are abundant schemes. Already £160 billion has been spent to support the economy throughout the crisis, and we will continue, as I said, to put our arms round the entire people to keep them going throughout this crisis. But furlough—indefinite furlough—is just not the answer.

Our nation has a proud history as a safe haven for desperate souls, but now the asylum system has broken and been abused. So the people of Ashfield would like to know: when will the Prime Minister introduce legislation to fix the asylum system, which will save lives by taking back control of our borders? (905338)

I thank my hon. Friend. I have a great deal of sympathy with those who are so desperate as to put their children in dinghies, or even children’s paddling pools, and try to cross the channel, but I have to say that what they are doing is falling prey to criminal gangs and they are breaking the law. They are also undermining the legitimate claims of others who would seek asylum in this country. That is why we will take advantage of leaving the EU by changing the Dublin regulations on returns, and we will address the rigidities in our laws that make this country, I am afraid, a target and a magnet for those who would exploit vulnerable people in this way.

I trust that the Prime Minister had an enjoyable visit to Harland and Wolff’s new yard in Appledore. He knows well the mother yard of Harland and Wolff in my constituency of Belfast East, and I just ask that he recognises not only the important strategic purchase of Appledore, but that Harland and Wolff is now in an incredibly well-placed position to assist this country in our future defence needs. (905337)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and, yes, it was incredibly exciting to go to Appledore and see the potential of that yard and see what Harland and Wolff is doing there. Also, of course, he is absolutely right in what he says about the potential for various other contracts both in Devon and in Belfast; I cannot give him the kind of guarantees he wants over the Dispatch Box now, but watch this space.