Skip to main content


Volume 679: debated on Wednesday 2 September 2020

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.