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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 681: debated on Wednesday 7 October 2020

Scotland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Coronavirus: Employment

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on supporting job retention in Scotland during the covid-19 outbreak. (906960)

What estimate he has made of the number of self-employed people in Scotland who have not received support from the Government’s covid-19 financial support schemes. (906961)

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on supporting job retention in Scotland during the covid-19 outbreak. (906972)

I have regular discussions with my Cabinet colleagues, including the Chancellor, on all aspects of how the UK Government continue to support Scotland’s economy. The Chancellor recently announced a package of measures that will continue to support jobs and help businesses through the uncertain months ahead.

At the height of the biggest economic downturn this country has seen in our lifetime, the UK Government stepped up and protected nearly 1 million Scottish jobs through the job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme. Does the Secretary of State agree that those measures show that the UK Government have done everything possible to support people’s livelihoods across the entirety of the United Kingdom?

Yes, I do. The might of the UK Treasury has supported all parts of the United Kingdom, including Scotland.

I note that the Government’s latest package of measures for the self-employed slashes their support from 70% of income to just 20%. And that is only for those who are eligible—many self-employed people have not received any help at all from the Chancellor. How many self-employed people in Scotland have fallen through the financial safety net, and what is the Secretary of State doing to help them?

The hon. Lady will know that we have brought in a new set of measures, as she said. There is the self-employed support scheme and the new job retention scheme. We have made a cut in VAT for the tourism and hospitality sector, and introduced the kickstart scheme. The self-employed income support scheme was a broad scheme. By definition, in a broad scheme it is inevitable that some people will sadly miss out, but I would say that in Scotland 283,000 grants were given, which came to some £777 million of support. The scheme now continues for another six months.

Many hard-working people in Hertford and Stortford are set to benefit from the introduction of the job support scheme, offering employers and workers a transition from furlough. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this job-saving measure will have the same impact north of the border, and that Scotland shares in this Government’s focus on jobs, jobs, jobs?

Yes. The whole United Kingdom will benefit from all the measures put in place by the Chancellor.

Businesses across Scotland, particularly in the hospitality, tourism and culture sectors, are still closed or nowhere near back to any sort of normality. With additional restrictions being reintroduced as cases have rocketed in Scotland, things are only going to get worse for those sectors. The high-profile case of Cineworld is the latest in a very large number of hammer blows to Scottish jobs. The Government do not seem to see that the health and economic responses to covid are one and the same thing. What message does the Secretary of State have for workers on the precipice of losing their jobs and business owners on the verge of losing their viable businesses, or is it simply the flippant response, as the Chancellor said yesterday to the culture sector, that they simply have to retrain and get new jobs?

In this pandemic, the Chancellor has been very clear that he cannot save every business and every job. The hon. Gentleman mentions Cineworld. Independent cinemas were supported through the culture fund to the tune of £97 million in Barnett money. As I said, sadly we know we cannot save every business. Retraining programmes and the kickstart scheme are being put in place, and we have reduced VAT for hospitality, leisure and tourism to 5%. To protect the Scottish economy, I encourage the Scottish Government to make the restrictions coming forward as local as possible.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State, but the reality on the ground is that the Chancellor’s measures simply do not go far enough to protect jobs. The employees and businesses in the sectors hardest hit will need more support, and what they are getting from the Chancellor’s announcement is less support.

Another area critical for jobs is the Scotch whisky industry. This week marks one year since the United States announced a 25% tariff on Scotch whisky. Figures from the Scotch Whisky Association show that that has led to a devastating 32% drop in US Scotch whisky exports, costing a massive £360 million. Given the thousands of jobs in the industry that this supports, rather than the Secretary of State just telling us that he will raise the issue again with the International Trade Secretary, what is he actually going to do to encourage the US to lift the tariffs on Scotch whisky, or is this just another example of what his new Scottish Conservative leader describes as the Tories not caring about Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very serious issue not just for the whisky industry, but for biscuits and cashmere. I am pleased that biscuits are now off the tariff carousel. The Boeing-Airbus dispute has been many years in the making. It is unfair. It is harmful to both industry and consumers. However, in the trade talks that have opened up with the US, we have now got agreement to have a bilateral discussion—in other words, not using the EU negotiators anymore—with the US. The good news I can tell him is that we have moved to a new phase. The Secretary of State for International Trade this week is starting discussions to try to resolve this problem.

I very much welcome the fact that 11,000 or more of my constituents have benefited from the furlough scheme. Covid is changing our economy. We therefore need to focus on creating new sustainable jobs. That is why it is even more important that we press ahead in the south of Scotland with the borderlands growth deal. Will my right hon. Friend agree that we need renewed impetus into the deal, in particular into delivering the mountain bike innovation centre of Scotland in Innerleithen?

I thank my right hon. Friend for the invaluable work that he did in bringing the borderlands growth deal to fruition. I am also delighted to inform him that the business case for the mountain bike innovation centre was delivered by the Borderlands Partnership only yesterday. It obviously has to go through further assessments in the usual way, but I am well aware of and support the initiative, because mountain biking in what is a very beautiful part of Scotland is an incredibly popular sport, and it is locally a very popular initiative.

Knowing as we do the negative consequences that the delay to the autumn Budget will have on the Scottish Parliament passing its budget, will the Minister tell us if he made his Cabinet colleagues and the Chancellor aware of these negative consequences, or was he himself unaware?

We have had one Budget this year in March. That was slightly delayed and, at the time, the then Finance Secretary in Scotland, Derek Mackay, said that that was going to be disastrous for Scotland and that it would be unable to set its budget, but that was incorrect. The Finance Secretary was able to set her budget, and the message goes out now from the Treasury, as it did then: if she has any problems setting her budget, Kate Forbes should come forward and talk to us.

Just to ask the Secretary of State again, because I did not hear an answer in there: can he tell us if he made his Cabinet colleagues aware of the negative consequences that would happen, and what was the result of these conversations?

I say to the hon. Lady that I do not agree that there are negative consequences. The Chancellor and I have had discussions on this matter. I make it quite clear that if Kate Forbes has any questions on setting her budget, she should come forward and ask us. The offer was made to Derek Mackay when he made similar cry-wolf stories back in March, when there was a delay, but no questions were asked and nothing came forward because they had all the information they needed to set their budget.

The Union connectivity review announced by the Prime Minister will improve transport infrastructure across the country and bring jobs and investment to Scotland. I assume that Scotland’s two Governments will work together on this ambitious programme, so will the Secretary of State outline what response there has been from the Scottish Government so that the two Governments work together to deliver jobs and progress right across the country?

The Union connectivity review, which is being led by Sir Peter Hendy, who I met yesterday, is a really important initiative for Scotland and the whole United Kingdom, and it will create very exciting opportunities. However, I am concerned that Transport Scotland has been told by the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, Michael Matheson, not to engage with the review, and I urge Mr Matheson to think again and to ensure that his officials take part. It cannot be in Scotland’s interest for the SNP to play politics with an issue that is so important to our economic future.

The Secretary of State says that the job retention scheme is a great example of their Union, but according to his boss, the ever-cheerful hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), the Westminster Tories are not interested in their Union anymore. He says:

“The case for separation is…being made more effectively in London than…in Edinburgh”.

Is his boss right? Are the Westminster Tories full of defeatism about their Union? And if they do not care about their Union, why on earth should the Scottish people?

First, the new leader of the Scottish Conservatives cares deeply about the Union, and that is something that we cannot say for the Scottish nationalist party. But I would go further: he was making the very clear point that Westminster should not devolve and forget. Huge sums of money and support go to Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom, and he was just pointing out that Departments in Whitehall should stay focused, stay connected and follow up on those funds.

The Secretary of State and his colleagues are given to chest-beating about the tremendous amount of revenue flowing to Scotland to get us through the pandemic—every penny of it, of course, borrowed. Will he tell me and the people of Scotland why those borrowing decisions are better made here than they would be by the people of Scotland in Scotland, and why we are habitually brow-beaten into being grateful for a service that we never asked for?

The simple reason is that not only do we have a strong Bank of England underpinning a strong currency, in the pound, but we are one country with one currency and because we have a strong economy, we are able to borrow money at much better rates.

Autumn Budget: Devolved Administrations

What discussions he has had with (a) the Scottish Government and (b) Cabinet colleagues on the effect of the delay to the autumn Budget 2020 on the finances of the devolved Administrations. (906962)

What discussions he has had with (a) the Scottish Government and (b) Cabinet colleagues on the effect of the delay to the autumn Budget 2020 on the finances of the devolved Administrations. (906968)

I have regular discussions with my ministerial colleagues and Scottish Government Ministers on economic and fiscal matters. The Treasury has made an unprecedented up-front guarantee to the devolved Administrations, guaranteeing that Scotland will receive at least £6.5 billion in additional funding this year on top of its Budget 2020 funding.

Last year’s delay to the UK Budget saw knock-on delays in the Scottish Government and local government being able to set their own budgets, with the result that many local authorities were forced to separate setting their council tax rate from settling their revenue budgets. Given this year’s delay, which has united devolved Finance Ministers in condemnation across these islands, would the Minister like to take this opportunity to apologise for the further uncertainty and risk that his Government are about to inflict on local and national Government in Scotland?

First, I repeat the point made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we have heard this “cry wolf” story before from the Scottish Government. The fact of the matter is that, as well as the guaranteed minimum funding for this year, the Chancellor has asked the Office for Budget Responsibility to provide forecasts next month. Together with the spending review, which will happen this autumn, that will give the Scottish Government plenty of certainty in setting their budgets.

This is just the disrespect agenda in action. The Tories never really wanted devolution anyway, and now they do not really give a stuff about whether or not it works properly. If they do not think that people in Scotland should not be in control of their finances, why will they not give the Scottish Finance Minister the information she needs to be able to set the budget properly? If they will not give her the information she needs, why not just give her the power to set our budget properly, without any recourse to Westminster at all?

I shall make a number of points in response to that. First, the Scottish Finance Minister is very welcome to contact me and explain why she has underspent the budget every year since the SNP has been in control of the Scottish Government. I have already explained in reply to the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) that there will be plenty of information. The evidence is in the fact that this year we have guaranteed a minimum spend in addition to the usual budget of £6.5 billion. Only the separatists could call that a small amount of money.

The Scottish Government’s budget has been boosted by £6.5 billion to help to deal with the coronavirus. That is a true mark of the importance of the four nations working together. However, it was revealed last week by the Scottish Government’s Finance Secretary that £500 million of that has yet to be allocated. Does the Minister agree that the Scottish Government should be prioritising that funding to those people most in need in Scotland just now?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and it is not just last year: as I said earlier, in every single year since the separatists took control of the Scottish Government, they have underspent their budget. It may come as news to the House, but under the fiscal framework agreement, which was made between the Scottish Government and UK Government, underspends can be transferred between fiscal years.

This week is Challenge Poverty Week in Scotland. Statistics show that almost a fifth of people in Scotland are living in relative poverty after 10 years of a UK Conservative Government and 13 years of an SNP Government in Holyrood. This should bring shame on both parties. Councils are critical to looking after the most vulnerable in society, yet they have seen their budgets slashed in recent years. It is not just the Tories who enjoy cutting budgets. The SNP has disproportionately cut local government funding since 2013-14, taking almost £1 billion out of those budgets. Will the Minister press the Chancellor to consider the impact of his economic policies on poverty in Scotland, and while he is at it, in his conversations with Scottish Ministers, will he ask them to stop disproportionately cutting local government budgets in Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. When we recover from the coronavirus period, we will, to coin a phrase, build back better. To that extent, I have involved the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Scotland in my regular meetings with business groups and others in Scotland to ensure that all parts of Scotland can flourish once we emerge from this. He is also right to highlight the fact that the centralising separatist Government in Scotland suck powers and money from local authorities in Scotland. I have met representatives of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and they are deeply concerned about this.

The UK Government’s decision to end the job retention scheme at the end of this month will throw tens of thousands of Scots into unemployment. What effect does the Minister think that will have on poverty levels in my constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran and in Scotland as a whole?

The job retention scheme was the right intervention at the right time and has supported tens of thousands of jobs in Scotland, but across the world it is right that we move to more targeted measures of support. The job retention scheme was just one part of a whole suite of policies and support that we are putting in place and that will help to support Scottish businesses and employees in the months and years to come.

Strengthening the Union

The Government have always stressed the importance of the Union. The UK is a family of nations that shares social, cultural and economic ties that, together, make us far safer, more secure and more prosperous. As we have seen throughout the covid crisis, it is the economic strength of the Union and our commitment to the sharing and pooling of resources that has supported jobs and businesses throughout Scotland.

The Government are committed to their levelling-up agenda throughout the UK, as part of their plan to unleash the power of our Union. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK shared prosperity fund is an opportunity for our UK Government to be more ambitious in their pursuit of spreading the benefits of being part of our Union? Will the UK Government show their funding in the same way as EU funding has been prominently displayed?

Yes, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Not only will the shared prosperity fund help, but thanks to the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, the UK Government will be in the place of the EU—where the EU previously spent money in Scotland and other parts of the UK, the UK Government will do that. The Scottish National party has a serious objection to that. It is a strange ideology from the nationalists that they object to money coming from the Great British Government but are quite happy to take it from the EU.

I welcome the launch of the new UK Government trade hub in Edinburgh, which will not only strengthen the Union but help to support Scottish businesses so that they can thrive internationally. Does my right hon. Friend agree that expanding the export of world-famous Scottish products, such as Scotch whisky, will help to give our economy a much-needed boost as we recover from the coronavirus across the whole UK?

Yes, absolutely. I am pleased that we have announced a Department for International Trade hub in the new Queen Elizabeth House in Edinburgh. It will help our exporters in Scotland and build on the excellent trade deal that we have already agreed with Japan.

Darlington is the birthplace of the modern railway. Stronger railway links between Darlington and Scotland will be vital for the success of our internal market. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the independent Union connectivity review, led by Sir Peter Hendy, which will look at how we can improve our transport infrastructure to bring our communities closer and level up access to jobs and opportunities?

I absolutely will. The Union connectivity review will explore ways to build back better. As I said, I met Sir Peter Hendy yesterday, and it is extremely disappointing—it is worth making this point again—that Transport Secretary Matheson has instructed his officials not to engage in the review, to the detriment of Scotland and her economy.

Covid-19: Support for Businesses

What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the economic support available to businesses in Scotland during the covid-19 outbreak. (906964)

I have regular discussions with my ministerial colleagues, including the Chancellor, on all aspects of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in Scotland. We have taken substantial action to support the economy from the shock of covid-19—for example, more than 65,000 businesses in Scotland have benefited from more than £2.3 billion of support through Government-supported loan schemes.

Productivity rates in Scotland are some of the very best in the UK. Does my hon. Friend agree that the vital extra support going to Scottish companies at this time, as he just mentioned, plus the extra £6.5 billion that the UK Government have made available to the Scottish Government, means that Scottish business will be well placed to help to lead a UK-wide recovery?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Let me just quantify the support that we are giving on a per capita basis: it is around £1,200 extra for each man, woman and child in Scotland. He is absolutely right that Scottish business is in a good place. I have regular meetings with many companies that are putting forward very innovative schemes that we are supporting through the city and regional growth deal package to help us build back better when we emerge from this crisis.

Covid-19: Response Throughout the UK

What recent steps he has taken to help ensure a co-ordinated response to the covid-19 outbreak throughout the UK. (906989)

An effective response to covid-19 does indeed need to be a co-ordinated response across the UK. On 25 September, the UK Government and the three devolved Administrations published a joint statement on our collective approach to responding to covid-19. We reaffirmed our shared commitment to suppressing the virus to the lowest possible level and keeping it there while we strive to return life to as normal as possible for as many people and businesses as possible.

I raised this matter with the Secretary of State for Health yesterday, because of local concern that people in the south of England were being asked to travel to Inverness for covid tests. That is why I am concerned about the level of co-operation between the two Governments. May I press the Minister further to give me specific examples of co-operation between the two Governments?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Like me, although on a much larger scale, he has a rural constituency—I believe it is one of the largest rural constituencies, if not the largest. Pooling resources and using the strength of the UK economy enables the UK Government to support jobs and businesses, but the decision making on public health of Ministers in those devolved Administrations has been fully respected. There are examples of UK-funded measures that have been delivered but managed locally by the devolved Governments: we have six UK-funded drive-through testing facilities; four, or five as I believe it is, walk-through testing facilities; and up to 22 mobile testing facilities, some of which have been used to effect in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Covid-19 has been rising rapidly in many parts of Scotland and, indeed, across much of the north of England, including in my own constituency, leading to the introduction of tighter restrictions. Given the impact that these restrictions are now having on the economy, particularly on those hardest-hit sectors, will the Minister ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to revisit his previous refusal to continue the furlough scheme with a sectoral-based approach in those nations and regions of the UK that are worst affected?

The UK Government have provided a host of measures to support tourism and hospitality businesses throughout this crisis. As well as the job retention scheme, which has already been extended to the end of October, new measures announced in the Chancellor’s winter economic statement include the new job support scheme, the extension of the very welcome reduction in VAT to 5% for hospitality and tourism, the deferral of VAT and other tax payments and greater flexibility in the paying back of Government-backed loans.

Covid-19 Restrictions: Tourism and Hospitality

What discussions he has had with (a) the Scottish Government and (b) Cabinet colleagues on the effect of additional covid-19 lockdown restrictions on the Scottish tourism and hospitality industries. (906981)

What discussions he has had with (a) the Scottish Government and (b) Cabinet colleagues on the effect of additional covid-19 lockdown restrictions on the Scottish tourism and hospitality industries. (906986)

Both public health and tourism policies are devolved to the Scottish Government. However, I and my Office are in regular discussions with both the UK Government and the Scottish Government to identify sectoral issues in Scotland due to lockdown restrictions and co-ordinated areas of UK-wide support to the sector.

Scotland’s tourism and hospitality industries have been hammered by the coronavirus restrictions and by the impact on international travel. What specific discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor on providing additional sector-specific support to these industries?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State described earlier the ongoing discussions not just between the Scotland Office and the Scottish Government, but between the Scotland Office and other UK Departments, including the Treasury, on a wide range of issues, including the impact on the tourism sector. Tourism is one of Scotland’s most important industries. This Office and I have spoken regularly with businesses and industry bodies in the past few months, and they have outlined their concerns and also their desire to reopen and to stay open as the best way to stimulate recovery.

Scotland’s drinks industry has been hit hard by the US tariff on Scotch whisky as a result of the US-EU trade dispute. What discussions has the Secretary of State or the Minister had with the International Trade Secretary on this, and will the Secretary of State use his new position on the Board of Trade to stand up for Scottish industry?

The very short answer to that last question is: yes, of course. In response to the earlier part of the hon. Lady’s question, I can say from personal experience—having worked as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department for International Trade for a while—that the Secretary of State for International Trade is fully committed to getting a deal and removing those tariffs. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland said earlier, the discussions have moved on to another phase in which bilateral discussions, outside of the EU negotiation team, will be taking place.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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 and 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? Will 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 this country has not only left the European Union, but that 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 round when they should have been self-isolating. It patently has an effect on the basic distribution.

If this was 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 Government 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 make 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 into 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 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 my right hon. Friend 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 of Leamington. 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, and we 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 who 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 of, “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 my right hon. Friend 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 the Prime Minister 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 to 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 is indeed 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—for 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.)