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Volume 682: debated on Wednesday 21 October 2020

On 16 June, the Prime Minister agreed to provide free school meal vouchers to hungry children over the summer holidays after claiming just 24 hours beforehand that he was completely unaware of the campaign that was calling for it. Last week, the Liberal Democrat Education Minister for Wales, Kirsty Williams, guaranteed that free school meal provision during school holidays would continue until at least Easter 2021, and yesterday the Scottish Government committed to do the same. Can the Prime Minister confirm that he is indeed aware of these announcements, and, if so, when does he plan to do the right thing? (907911)

Governments of all stripes have supplied free school meals since 1906, and I am proud that it was this Conservative Government who extended universal free school meals to five, six and seven-year-olds. The Labour party was in power for 30 of the past 100 years and never did anything like that. We support kids of low incomes in school, and we will continue to do so, but the most important thing is to keep them in school and not to tear off into another national lockdown, taking them out of school. We will continue to use the benefits system and all the systems of income support to support young people and children throughout the holidays as well.

One lesson that we have all learnt in the past nine months is that the internet is even more important to our lives than we imagined. Will my right hon. Friend therefore confirm today that, despite covid and all the other challenges with which he is grappling, we will deliver on our manifesto commitment to roll out full fibre superfast broadband across the United Kingdom and ensure that we are global leaders in digital connectivity? (907922)

Yes, indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for everything he does to lobby for that. Our local delivery partner in Devon and Somerset has provided connectivity of the kind that he describes to 300,000 premises across those two counties. We are going to be a world leader in connectivity as we build back better.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that his Government are seeking to force the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to remove free travel for under-18s and for holders of the 60-plus travel card in return for further financial support for TfL to keep the tubes and buses running? How can this be right when many people in London, including in my constituency, already have months of genuine hardship ahead of them? (907914)

It was the Labour Mayor of London who bankrupted TfL’s finances, and any changes that he brings in are entirely his responsibility. I suggest that the hon. Member holds him to account.

I know that the Prime Minister is committed to doubling down on levelling up. Will he join me for a virtual tour of Stoke-on-Trent Central and a roundtable with key partners focused on delivering for the left behind, not least to ensure that the transforming cities fund investment will revolutionise public transport in the city?

That is an easy commitment for me to make, and I am delighted to do so. I can tell my hon. Friend that we are investing nearly £20 million through our city deal in pioneering a new programme of sustainable low-carbon and low-cost heat energy to Stoke-on-Trent.

Three weeks ago the Prime Minister stood at that Dispatch Box praising Luton as the only place to have come out of local restrictions, but praise does not pay the bills. Luton’s proud industries of manufacturing, aviation and events cannot get by on soundbites and figures that bear no relation to what is really happening to jobs and businesses. He knows that entire industries are at stake, so is his inaction indifference or incompetence? Will he support businesses and areas that need it throughout this crisis? (907915)

Yes, indeed. I thank the people of Luton for their hard and heroic work, as I thank people across the country for what they are doing. I want to support businesses in Luton, which is why we want to continue with the sensible, balanced, regional and local approach that we are taking. I hope that the hon. Member agrees with me that it would make no sense at all for hard-pressed businesses in Luton to have their lights turned off and their doors shuttered in a series of multiple lockdowns of the kind recommended by the Labour party.

The people of Aberconwy in north Wales are learning to live with covid-19, but we are frustrated by national Welsh Government policy that seeks to place restrictions on us that are the same in the village of Cwm Penmachno as they are in the capital, Cardiff. Last week, my right hon. Friend agreed that a shared responsibility is the way to tackle this pandemic. Does he see the future of this situation as a series of rolling national lockdowns, or can businesses and residents hope that they will be given more trust to look after their own health and those they care for?

My hon. Friend puts the distinction clearly and sharply, which is that we are following the common-sensical and balanced approach. Where local leaders step up to the plate—I am delighted that South Yorkshire came on board this morning; I had a great conversation with Dan Jarvis last night—and where local leadership is shown, we can really make huge progress in getting the R down. That is the right approach for the country.

May I return to the subject of free school meals? There are 7,108 children in Knowsley who are reliant on free school meals, which are vital to ensure that they are properly fed. Whether to extend provision to Easter is both a moral and political choice. Will the Prime Minister make the right choice and agree to extend free school meals to Easter? (907916)

Of course we have free school meals throughout term time—that is entirely right. We want to make sure that we continue to support people on low incomes throughout the crisis, and that is what we are going to do.

As my right hon. Friend will know, part of my constituency has now been placed under tier 2 restrictions. Can he therefore reassure everyone that if they stick to the rules, observe the “hands, face, space” message, and self-isolate when required, accompanied by suitable enforcement for those who blatantly flout the law, we will come out of these restrictions all the sooner?

My hon. Friend puts his finger on it. That is exactly what we need to do. The areas that go into high levels of concern are reviewed every 14 days, and the restrictions, as I told the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), are reviewed every 28 days. The way to get through this is exactly as my hon. Friend says: to follow the guidance, particularly the “hands, face, space” basics.

The people of Barnes in my constituency have been cut off from public transport routes for some months now by the closure of Hammersmith bridge. Can the Prime Minister confirm reports that the Government are now planning to charge Barnes residents £15 a day to own a car, and charge them extra council tax, to pay for facilities that they cannot use, despite the fact that Transport for London reserves were increasing before the virus hit? (907917)

I can confirm that Hammersmith bridge has been closed thanks entirely to the incompetence of the current Labour Mayor of London, and that Shaun Bailey, the Conservative candidate, is going to reopen it, which is the best thing possible.

As my right hon. Friend leads the country through Brexit and delivers global Britain, will he ensure that the values and policies of his Government to which he first gives consideration are those that will unite and bring our country together, and make all those who voted remain for what they thought were the internationalist values of the European Union proud again of their country in bringing those values to global Britain?

Indeed. That is why we are going to use the G7 presidency and the COP26 summit to champion our values across the world, particularly the one that my hon. Friend mentions—female education, which is the single policy that can really transform outcomes across the planet. Our global objective is to help 40 million girls across the world to get a decent education.

The Prime Minister’s Government lost control of the virus, making extra restrictions inevitable, but with no certainty, no communication and no new financial support, he is killing Nottingham businesses. Castle Rock Brewery is a Nottingham success story, but now it is on the verge of breakdown, with two pubs closed permanently, jobs gone, and worried staff facing the prospect of being laid off with no pay. Countless other bars, restaurants and pubs tell the same story. Will he stop punishing successful Nottingham businesses for his failure and give them the help they desperately need? (907921)

Of course I sympathise deeply with businesses that face difficulties because of the pandemic, although I remind the hon. Lady that the infection rate in her constituency is now running at 815 per 100,000, and we must get that down. I thank the people of Nottingham for what they are doing to get it down. We will of course continue to provide the full panoply of support that we have offered, and more, throughout this crisis.

Following the introduction of tier 2 restrictions in York, can the Prime Minister be more open in communicating the evidence base for York going into tier 2, outline a road map for the city’s return to tier 1, and urgently consider the creation of specific support for York’s hospitality industry, which is suffering losses from the limbo that tier 2 is creating?

Yes, I can tell my hon. Friend that the infection rate in York, alas, is now running at 279 per 100,000, and we must get it down. But we can get it down; we can get it down through the package of measures that we have described. You can see, in areas where people are complying with the guidance, that it is having an effect, because if it were not for the efforts and energies of the British people, the R would be running at 3 or more; it is now between 1.2 and 1.5. It will not take much—compliance in those areas that are hit at the moment—to get that R back down below 1. That is what we are aiming for, and that is the way to get businesses across the country, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), in my hon. Friend’s constituency, back on their feet as fast as possible. It would not be sensible, in my view, to plunge them all back into a sustained series of national lockdowns, particularly in areas where the virus is low.

The Chancellor has decided that people who are unable to work because of coronavirus restrictions should be paid as little as two thirds of the national minimum wage. At the same time, the Government are paying £7,000 a day for consultants to work on the failed Serco track and trace programme. Can the Prime Minister tell the House how on earth he thinks that is justifiable, and is this what he means by “levelling up”? (907923)

NHS Track and Trace is now testing more people than any other country in Europe; it has tested, I think, 26 million people so far—or conducted 26 million tests. I am also proud, on the hon. Lady’s other point, that we have been able to support people across the country in the way that we have. She is not correct in what she says about the combined impact of the job support scheme and universal credit, because they work in tandem, and that lifts people’s incomes to 80%, and in some cases more than 90%, of their current incomes. That is the support that we are giving at the moment, but the best thing is to get our country through this crisis, without going back into the social, the psychological, the emotional and the economic disaster—and “disaster” was the word that the Labour party used only a week or so ago—the disaster of a series of national lockdowns.

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 suspend the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.