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Volume 681: debated on Wednesday 7 October 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.

Next month, a book that I have written, called “Ayes & Ears: a Survivor’s Guide to Westminster”, will be published. Part of it covers Brexit—and, yes, by inference, everyone will be in the book. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the last general election was not fought on how political parties might handle the coronavirus pandemic, but was categorically about ensuring that the result of the 2016 referendum is implemented in full? Can he confirm that he intends to see that happen?

I can indeed. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new book. I assure him that not only has this country left the European Union, but on 1 January we will take back full control of our money, our borders and our laws.

This is a crucial moment if we are to gain control of the virus, yet for eight days nearly 16,000 positive tests were missed by the Government. That means that about 48,000 contacts were not traced. As of yesterday, thousands had still not been reached. Does the Prime Minister accept that this very basic mistake has put lives at risk?

This is certainly a problem that we have fixed. The computer glitch and error to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman refers has been addressed. All the 16,000 people he refers to have, in fact, got their positive test results and should be self-isolating. As soon as we became aware of the missing data, we brought in 800 people to chase up those index cases, and we continue to chase their contacts. I think it will be for the reassurance of the House and the country that the missing data points do not, now that we look at them, change in any way our assessment of the epidemiology—the spread of the disease. That is why we continue with our package to suppress the virus not just nationally, but locally and regionally.

This is not just a technical issue; it is a human issue. The attempted reassurance by the Prime Minister just does not wash. In Greater Manchester, some of the missing cases date back to 18 September. That is two and a half weeks ago. There are three very serious consequences: first, it is now much harder to reach the contacts of the 16,000 people after so long; secondly, even if they are contacted successfully, for many the self-isolation period has already expired; and, thirdly, important decisions on local restrictions were made using the wrong data. Some £12 billion has been invested in this system, and yet a basic Excel error brings it down. No wonder it has been described as “intergalactic” incompetence. Why, at this crucial moment, did it take so long to catch this error and address it?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman cannot have it both ways; he cannot call it a human error and a basic Excel error. Let me just remind the House and the right hon. and learned Gentleman of what I just said. The crucial thing is that, yes, of course there has been an error, but the data points—the cases—that we are looking at do not change the basic distribution of the disease. It is very important for people to understand that. That is really what he was, I think, trying to drive at. Although the cases are considerably up across the country this week on last week, the seven-day statistics show that there are now 497 cases per 100,000 in Liverpool, 522 cases per 100,000 in Manchester and 422 in Newcastle. The key point there is that the local, regional approach combined with the national measures remains correct, I think, because two thirds of those admitted into hospital on Sunday were in the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire. That is why, I think, that approach continues to be correct.

The Prime Minister says that it does not alter the basic distribution, yet thousands of people have been walking around when they should have been self-isolating. It patently has an effect on the basic distribution.

If this were an isolated example, I think the British people might understand, but there is a pattern here. On care homes, protective equipment, exams, testing: the Prime Minister ignores the warning signs, hurtles towards a car crash, then looks in the rear mirror and says, “What’s all that about?” It is quite literally government in hindsight. Today it is 100 days since the first local restrictions were introduced. Twenty local areas in England have been under restrictions for two months. Prime Minister, in 19 of those 20 areas, infection rates have gone up. In Rossendale and Hyndburn they have gone up tenfold. Yet all the Prime Minister has to say is, “It’s too early to say if restrictions are working.” But it is obvious that something has gone wrong here, so what is he going to do about it?

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, we are continuing to provide support, with £5 billion of support for the north-west and north-east for the lockdowns—the extra restrictions—that they are experiencing. We will continue to support all areas across the country that have to go into local measures. Two weeks ago, I set out that strategy. I said that we would go forward with the national measures such as intensifying the rule of six—making sure that we reinforced the rule of six. Two weeks ago, the right hon. and learned Gentleman supported it. In fact, I think he went on the Nick Ferrari show saying, “I support the rule of six—yes I do.” Yet last night the Labour party abstained on the rule of six. He asks what we are doing to enforce local measures; he cannot even be bothered to get his own side to support them himself.

For the Prime Minister’s benefit, let me take this slowly for him. We support measures to protect health. We want track and trace to work. But the Government are messing it up and it is our duty to point it out.

Let us get back to the questions—because these are not trick questions; I have the figures here, Prime Minister. In Bury, when restrictions were introduced, the infection rate was around 20 per 100,000; today it is 266. In Burnley, it was 21 per 100,000 when restrictions were introduced; now it is 434. In Bolton, it was 18 per 100,000; now it is 255. The Prime Minister really needs to understand that local communities are angry and frustrated. So will he level with the people of Bury, Burnley and Bolton and tell them: what does he actually think the problem is here?

The problem is, alas, that the disease continues to spread in the way that I described to the House earlier. The figures that the right hon. and learned Gentleman gives are no surprise, because they are fundamentally a repetition of what I have already told the House. What we are doing is a combination of national and local measures which one week he comes to this House and supports, and from which, the next week, mysteriously, he decides to whisk his support away. He cannot even be bothered to mobilise his own Benches to support something as fundamental as the rule of six, which he himself said only three weeks ago that he supported. He cannot continue to have it both ways. Does he support the rule of six—yes or no?

Yes. But if the Prime Minister cannot see and hear local communities when they say that the infection rate has gone up tenfold under restrictions, and he does not realise that is a problem, then that is part of the problem.

There is a further cause of anger—[Interruption.] Prime Minister, if you actually listen to the question, we might get on better—which is the lack of clarity about why particular restrictions have been introduced. For example, in the Prime Minister’s own local authority of Hillingdon, today there are 62 cases per 100,000, yet no local restrictions, but in 20 local areas across England, restrictions were imposed when infection rates were much lower. In Kirklees, it was just 29 per 100,000. Local communities genuinely do not understand these differences. Can he please explain for them?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has heard from me and heard repeatedly from the Government why we are bringing in differentiated local restrictions. I have just given the figures for the north-east and the north-west. I wish I could pretend that everything is going to be rosy in the midlands or, indeed, in London, where alas we are also seeing infections rise, but that is why we need a concerted national effort. We need to follow the guidance. We need “Hands, face, space” and people to get a test if they have symptoms and to obey the rule of six. I think it quite extraordinary that the right hon. and learned Gentleman just said that he personally supports the rule of six while allowing his entire party to abstain.

The Prime Minister cannot explain why an area goes into restriction, he cannot explain what the different restrictions are, and he cannot explain how restrictions end. This is getting ridiculous. Next week, this House will vote on whether to approve the 10 pm rule. The Prime Minister knows that there are deeply held views across the country in different ways on this. One question is now screaming out: is there a scientific basis for the 10 pm rule? The public deserve to know and Parliament deserves to know. If there is a basis, why do the Government not do themselves a favour and publish it? If not, why do the Government not review the rule? Will the Prime Minister commit to publishing the scientific basis for the 10 pm rule before this House votes on it next Monday?

The basis on which we set out the curtailment of hospitality was the basis on which the right hon. and learned Gentleman accepted it two weeks ago, which is to reduce the spread of the virus. That is our objective. That is why we introduced the rule of six, which again he supported only two weeks ago, yet last night the Opposition abstained and today they are withdrawing their support for other restrictions. What kind of signal does that send to the people of the country about the robustness of the Labour party and its willingness to enforce the restrictions? That is not new leadership; that is no leadership.

We are taking the tough decisions necessary, imposing restrictions—which we do not want to do—locally and nationally to fight the virus to keep young people and kids in education and to keep the bulk of our economy moving. At the same time, we are getting on with our agenda—our lifetime skills guarantee and our green industrial revolution—by which we will take this country forward and build back better.

Two of the Government’s central policies are levelling up and housing. Carlisle and Cumbria needs further infrastructure investment, but it does have the capacity for increased housing development, especially with the garden village to the south of Carlisle. The Government therefore have an opportunity to help with their levelling-up agenda and with reducing the strain on housing in the south of England. To achieve that, the Government could move parts of Departments out of London to the provinces, but not Manchester and Leeds. Would the Prime Minister therefore let me know when he proposes to move a Government Department to Carlisle? (907280)

I have spent at least one very happy night out in Carlisle, and it is a wonderful place. I will certainly look with interest at my hon. Friend’s suggestion. We have an ambitious programme to disperse and to unite and level up across our country.

This week is Challenge Poverty Week, and I would like to thank all the organisations across Scotland and the United Kingdom that are helping families through the most difficult of times. Their dedication and commitment should inspire every single one of us in the fight to end poverty. With mass unemployment looming, having the right social security measures in place to help families over the long term is vital. The Chancellor has so far refused to commit to making the £20 universal credit uplift permanent, which means that 16 million people face losing an income equivalent of £1,040 overnight. Will the Prime Minister now commit to making the £20 uplift to universal credit permanent?

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s support for universal credit, which the Conservative party introduced. I am proud that we have been able to uprate it in the way that we have, and we will continue to support people across the country, with the biggest cash increase in the national living wage this year. The result of universal credit so far has been that there are 200,000 fewer people in absolute poverty now than there were in 2010. I know that he was not a keen supporter of universal credit when it was introduced, but I welcome his support today.

One of these days, the Prime Minister might consider answering the question—it was about making the £20 increase permanent. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has painted a clear picture for his Government: strip the £20 universal credit uplift away, and 700,000 more people, including 300,000 children, could move into poverty, and 500,000 more people could end up in severe poverty—more than 50% below the poverty line. The Resolution Foundation has called the £20 uplift a “living standards lifeline” for millions of families during the pandemic. Challenge Poverty Week is a moment for all of us to take unified action against poverty. The Prime Minister has an opportunity here and now. Will he do the right thing, will he answer the question, and will he make the £20 uplift permanent?

I do not want in any way to underestimate the importance of what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. It is vital that we tackle poverty in this country. That is why this Government are so proud of what we did with the national living wage. We are putting another £1.7 billion into universal credit by 2023-24. If that does not give him the answer he wants, he can ask again next week. We will continue to support people and families across this country, and we will continue to spend £95 billion a year in this country on working-age welfare. But the best thing we can do for people on universal credit is to get this virus down, get our economy moving again and get them back into well-paid, high-skilled jobs—and that is what we are going to do.

The review announced by the Prime Minister of transport connections across the Union will be hugely welcome in Wales, where the public want a new M4 relief road, a cut in railway journey times in north Wales, and an upgrade to the A483/A5 in Clwyd South. Does he agree that this review demonstrates his Government’s commitment to building back better in a strong United Kingdom? (907281)

I thank my hon. Friend, who represents a constituency that I once fought for—he represents it well, but I do not think I fought for it very well. I know the A483/A5 connection well, and Sir Peter will certainly look at that scheme and many others in his Union connectivity review.

The Prime Minister is passionate about the Union, as am I, and I welcome the review of connectivity within the Union. Does he agree that, while it is good to consider connectivity across the Irish sea, it would be devastating to Northern Ireland to have barriers to trade in the Irish sea? In the remaining days of the negotiations with the European Union, may I urge him to hold firm and to commit to protecting Northern Ireland’s place within the internal market of the United Kingdom by ensuring full and unfettered access for businesses that trade in either direction and for the consumers who benefit from Northern Ireland’s being an integral part of the United Kingdom?

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right, and I am sure his words will have been heard loud and clear by our friends in Brussels, but just in case they have not, of course we have the excellent United Kingdom Internal Market Bill to prevent such barriers from arising.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is right to be talking about levelling up and building back better, but building back fairer. Can he outline what support is available for towns that have not received any towns or high street funding in recent tranches, such as Radcliffe and Prestwich in my constituency? Will he join me, as part of my campaign to support local shops, in congratulating the winner of my independent shop competition—The Only Way is Melts, by Tracy in Radcliffe? (907282)

Yes, I can indeed confirm to my hon. Friend that, in addition to the particular support that he mentions, we are directing another £160 billion of support for business and local authorities and business improvement districts, and I am more than happy to congratulate The Only Way is Melts, by Tracy in Radcliffe.

Across the UK, our universities are struggling to contain the coronavirus, with some 5,000 cases reported in recent weeks. Our communities deserve better and more local and immediate access to testing facilities, but in Leamington I am told that Deloitte will not deliver on its testing facility until the end of this month, some four weeks after 7,000 students will have arrived back in the town. My question is simple: were the Government not expecting students to return to university? (907284)

It is very important that students should return to university in the way that they have, and I want to thank the overwhelming majority of students for the way that they have complied with the guidance, complied with the regulations and are doing what they can to suppress it. Clearly, there are particular problems in some parts of the country, which we have discussed at length already. Will be pursuing the measures that we have outlined to bring them down in those areas, and I hope that the hon. Member will support them.

In his statement on 22 September, my right hon. Friend said that the Chancellor and the Culture Secretary were working urgently on a support package for sports clubs that rely on paying spectators. He also recognised the similar difficulties facing the conference and exhibition industry. I agree with his analysis, and that sector is really important in Harrogate and Knaresborough. Could he tell the House when that package will be coming forward, and will it include the conference and exhibition industry? (907283)

I totally agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the conference and exhibition industry. I think it is worth about £90 billion to this country. It is of massive importance. It was a very difficult decision to take to pause conferences and exhibitions. We want to get them open as fast as possible. Of course, they have had a lot of support, as I indicated earlier—the £190 billion package is there to help businesses of all kinds—but the best way forward is to get the kind of testing systems that will enable not just conferences and businesses of that kind but all types, and even theatres, to reopen and get back to normality. That is what we are aiming for.

Yesterday, the Chancellor suggested that those who are musicians or work in the creative industries but cannot work because of covid restrictions, should “find new opportunities”. Can the Prime Minister tell the House—[Interruption.] Can the Prime Minister tell the House what jobs the hundreds of thousands of people, including hundreds in my constituency, who work in the fastest-growing part of our economy should be doing, because the answer from the Chancellor— “Go away, find a new job, you’re not our problem”—simply is not good enough for these thousands of people who are truly talented and world leading within this country? (907285)

That is simply not what the Chancellor said. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has already provided £1.7 billion of support for the creative culture industries and for sport. The hon. Member is right, by the way, to identify the massive economic value of those industries, and that is why we are supporting them through these tough times. That is why we are working to get the virus down and get our economy back to normal as fast as we possibly can, and I hope that he will support our strategy.

Building on that, may I welcome the Prime Minister’s excellent Conservative party conference speech yesterday, which outlined his vision of our Government’s plans for a green economy that will create hundreds of thousands of jobs? Does he agree that the merits of his green economy proposal extend far beyond energy production, and also include the preservation of our green spaces? As the UK prepares to host COP26, will he show the international community the way, by committing the UK to championing greater protections for our chalk streams? Will he extend his vision to redesignate the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty as a national park, following Julian Glover’s recommendation in the Landscapes review? (907286)

I thank my right hon. Friend, and we are committed to protecting areas such as the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty. I understand that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is considering each of the recommendations in Julian Glover’s review, and following the correct procedures. I hope my right hon. Friend will acknowledge—I hope she knows—that the Government are also leading the way globally in protecting biodiversity, habitats and species, and that is what we will be doing at the G7, and in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow next year.

Unemployment has already doubled to 8% in my constituency this year, and the end of furlough will lead to thousands more job losses in the next three weeks. The Merseyside local lockdown puts 58,000 jobs in what was a booming hospitality sector in the immediate firing line. Does the Prime Minister agree that tighter local lockdown restrictions, such as those imposed on Merseyside, should trigger automatic Government support for local business and support schemes, to prevent that economic carnage from worsening? Will he please commit today to a targeted support package for Merseyside, as a matter of urgency? (907289)

I share the hon. Lady’s feeling about the loss of jobs, and the potential loss of jobs, and it is wretched that we have to do this. We have already allocated £2.6 billion to the north-west, and Knowsley in particular has had £12 million, and Liverpool another £40 million. We will continue to provide support across the country, and to put our arms around jobs and livelihoods in the country, as we have done throughout this pandemic.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s confirmation of the 40 new hospitals this decade, including the proposal for mid and north Hampshire, which will serve many of my constituents in East Hampshire. Does he agree that this is also a good opportunity to optimise healthcare provision across the wider area, making full use of our valued community hospitals, such as Alton Community Hospital? (907287)

Yes, indeed. We are building a new hospital at Basingstoke and North Hampshire Hospital, and there will be a major refurbishment at Royal Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester. We will continue to support Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust as it develops its plans, including with local infrastructure such as Alton Community Hospital.

Restrictions in the north-east around opening times and socialising with other households are limiting custom, reducing income, and making it uneconomical for many businesses, including those in my constituency, to stay open. What assurance can the Prime Minister give me and the local authority that he will provide the necessary finance to mitigate the effect on people’s income, and retain the 80,000 people who are employed in the hospitality and retail sectors? Will he meet local leaders to discuss their requests for such support? (907290)

The hon. Lady is entirely right to raise the issue of support for hospitality. In areas that face tougher restrictions we will continue to do whatever we can to provide support. She will be familiar with the big package that we have already brought in. I think that the Opposition really need to decide whether they are in favour of the plan to reduce transmission to bear down on the virus or not. If they are, I am afraid that they must recognise that there are consequences of that plan.

The Prime Minister’s new lifetime skills guarantee is hugely welcome. Peterborough already has a new university planned, specialising in manufacturing, technology, science and engineering, thanks in part to the Government’s funding of a £14.6 million new research super-hub in our city centre, bringing highly paid jobs to our city centre. Does he agree that it is vital to include adult learners in our vision for further education and universities so that people in working cities such as Peterborough have the right skills to succeed? (907288)

I thank my hon. Friend, because it was indeed as part of our plan to fuel a green economic recovery that we put £14 million from the Getting Building fund into Peterborough to accelerate the delivery of a key new educational and research facility. We are giving Peterborough another £1 million of accelerated payment for investment in capital projects to enable it to build back better.

The Government were right to increase universal credit by £20 a week to help families with the extra costs of the pandemic, but, at the moment, that increase is due to be removed next April. The Prime Minister has declined today to commit to making it permanent, but will he at least agree with me that it would be unthinkable to cut everyone’s benefit before the pandemic is over? (907291)

Of course we keep all these things under constant review, but I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman joins the Opposition in support—and approval now—of what the Government have done with universal credit.

Just 12% of our journalists and chief execs come from a working-class background, and just 6% of doctors and barristers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need a renewed focus on social mobility from all institutions so that we make much better use of all the country’s talent? (907293)

That is exactly what this Government were elected to do in 2019. We were elected on a manifesto not just to build 40 more hospitals—now 48—and put 20,000 more police on our streets, but to unite our country and level up across our country, and unleash the potential of the whole United Kingdom. That is what we are going to do.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that it would be easy to build new homes “without destroying” our green spaces. Many constituents in my part of Coventry are concerned that the Government are relying yet again on dodgy figures to trample on our green spaces and build unaffordable, low-quality homes in their place. As Coventry is running out of brownfield sites, precisely where does he expect those new homes to be built? (907292)

There is abundant brownfield space across the whole UK, and I speak as someone who used to be the planning authority for London, and I know whereof I speak. The opportunity is there. In many cases, the restrictions are caused by cumbersome planning procedures, but they are also caused by the inability of young people to get the mortgages that they want to buy the homes that they want. That is why we are bringing forward fixed-rate mortgages for 95% of the value of a property to help young people on to the property ladder. We are going to turn generation rent into generation buy.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for four minutes.

Sitting suspended.

Virtual participation in proceedings concluded (Order, 4 June.)