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—
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 kick-start 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.
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.
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 kick-start 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 elapses we will get on with other measures to support people in work. Starting today, there is the kick-start 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 roadmap for reform of the BBC shortly and addressing the very issues he mentions.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.