House of Commons
Tuesday 10 November 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
Self-employed People: Covid-19
The Government have so far provided £13.2 billion of support to self-employed people through the self-employment income support scheme, and that support continues. The UK’s self-employment scheme is among the most generous internationally.
According to the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed, the solo self-employed contributed an estimated £305 billion to the UK economy last year. So why have 1.6 million self-employed people been excluded from government support during the pandemic? What will the Minister do to address this failure of Government to recognise the huge contribution self-employed people make to the economy and to our communities?
As the hon. Lady will know, the self-employment scheme has been targeted at those who derive the majority of their income from self-employment. I hope she will welcome an extension of that scheme, which the Chancellor has announced. It will now last for a further six months, from November of this year to April 2021.
Following yesterday’s news about a covid vaccine, for the first time in a while it feels as though there may be an end in sight. If it becomes clear that a return to normality will be possible in the next few months, surely the only responsible approach is to expand support and adopt a true “whatever it takes” approach to help all businesses, including those currently excluded. So in the light of yesterday’s news, will the Secretary of State agree to work with the Treasury to review the economic support currently on offer?
One feature of the pandemic has been that we have indeed reviewed the support and provided further support where it is needed. As I said, we have extended the self-employment income support scheme, which means an extra £7.3 billion of support for the self-employed through November to January. Of course, we all hope that a vaccine comes forward, but the support is there, as well as support in terms of grants for businesses that are required to be closed.
The Secretary of State continues to duck the question. He has been told for about seven months of those excluded from support—the battered, bruised and brushed off. We are talking about the 3 million—the newly self-employed, the directors and the freelancers who have been given nothing. He is the Business Secretary, so is it that the Chancellor has ignored his calls for support or is it just that he simply does not care?
The hon. Gentleman knows me quite well and I think he will understand, at least in private, that I do very much care, as does every Member of this House. He talks about those who are not able to get access to this scheme, and, obviously, one issue relates to those who are paid in dividends. As he knows, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has made the point that it is difficult to distinguish between income earned through an individual’s own company dividends and dividends that have been paid from holding shares in other companies. If the hon. Gentleman has suggestions as to how we might overcome this, I would be interested to work with him.
I want to thank those in the manufacturing sector for the brilliant work they are doing to support the economy and keep it going. Despite the national restrictions, the manufacturing and construction sectors can continue to operate and are doing so. Thus far, the manufacturing sector has benefited from about £5 billion of furlough grants and £4 billion of government-backed loans.
I thank the Secretary of State for his response. I wish to seek further assurances on behalf of my three local chambers of commerce—Hailsham, Crowborough and Uckfield. What further support can be provided for small and medium-sized manufacturing firms in my constituency, not only during covid, but during transition next year?
I know that my hon. Friend works closely with her three local chambers of commerce in Hailsham, Crowborough and Uckfield. On planning for transition, whatever our future trading relationship with the European Union things will change for businesses and they do need to prepare. My Department and my fellow Ministers and I have been communicating and engaging directly with businesses, and we will continue to do so.
Rolls-Royce is a very important manufacturer throughout the UK, not least in Derby, where it employs more than 12,000 people. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that whenever the Government help Rolls-Royce, all money spent will directly support the recovery of domestic civil aerospace manufacturing?
My hon. Friend is a great champion of workers in her constituency, and she and I have met to discuss these issues. She will know that the Government are supporting the aerospace and aviation sectors to the tune of almost £9 billion through loans and grants. Of course, we want that support to create a positive business environment and ensure that Rolls-Royce and, indeed, other companies in the sector base their work in the UK, sustaining well-paid local jobs for decades to come. As my hon. Friend will know, Rolls-Royce proposes to consolidate the assembly and testing of its large aero-engines from Singapore to Derby.
Many manufacturers, especially those in Stoke-on-Trent, face high energy costs, and there is little incentive to switch to cleaner electricity because of the higher cost. Will my right hon. Friend look at what additional support can be offered to energy-intensive industries so that our manufacturers remain competitive and can invest in improved efficiency?
My hon. Friend is a great champion of manufacturers in his constituency. As he will know, the Government are committed to helping businesses to reduce their costs through resource and energy efficiency. We have established a package of compensation exemptions from electricity costs worth more than £470 million, which will of course benefit businesses in energy-intensive sectors such as ceramics, which is a particularly important industry for Stoke-on-Trent.
One obvious way to help our manufacturers is with a green stimulus equal to the scale of the economic emergency that we face. President-elect Biden has pledged $2 trillion for such a stimulus; the French and German Governments have pledged tens of billions of euros; and Britain has pledged just £5 billion. Will the Secretary of State tell us when this Government are going to show the same scale of ambition—not in 10 years’ time but now—to create hundreds of thousands of jobs in this country?
The right hon. Gentleman may have been reading the Conservative party manifesto, because we have been clear that we have an ambition to create 2 million green jobs by 2030 and have already set out some of the measures, including £2 billion in green homes grants to support 100,000 green jobs. The Prime Minister has also announced that we will be boosting the Government’s target for offshore wind by 2030 from 30 GW to 40 GW, thereby bringing additional jobs to the sector. We will set out more plans over the coming weeks.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but the rhetoric does not match the reality. Look at what other countries, including France and Germany, are doing, and look at the scale of what we are doing. He mentions offshore wind; let us take that as an example. As he says, the Government want to see 40 GW of offshore wind by 2030, but to ensure that the jobs in manufacturing the turbines are created here, we need the ports and supply-chain investment. The amount that the Government have pledged—£160 million over 10 years—is woefully inadequate. What is the Secretary of State’s estimate of the public investment required to meet his own target that 60% of the content of the offshore wind industry should be British—a target he is missing badly? Will the Government now fund and support the scale of investment required?
We are making funding available to upgrade ports, as the right hon. Gentleman said. I hope he would acknowledge that, as a result of the Government’s work on contracts-for-difference auctions, we have the biggest offshore wind industry in the world, which has driven down prices significantly and made offshore wind viable. We will continue to work to support those jobs, and we are talking about tens of thousands of extra jobs in the sector by 2030.
Vaccine manufacturing for covid is being led by Ms Kate Bingham from the vaccine taskforce. Not only has she disclosed official sensitive documents to hedge-fund managers in the United States, but she has spent £670,000 of taxpayers’ money on private public relations advisers instead of using civil servants and is set to benefit financially from state investments. Ms Bingham should be sacked. If she is not sacked, who will be held to account for this gross conflict of interest and misuse of public funds? Will it be the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister?
I would point out that the vaccines taskforce, which sits in my Department and is led by Kate Bingham, has done an absolutely brilliant job over the past few months. We have managed to secure 350 million doses across six of the most promising vaccine candidates. The hon. Gentleman will have seen the statement that came through from Pfizer/BioNTech yesterday; we were the first country in the world to secure access to that particular vaccine candidate. The hon. Gentleman talks about spending; the senior responsible officer, in line with his delegated authority, approved that resourcing in accordance with public sector practices and frameworks.
Young Enterprise: Government Support
Young Enterprise does excellent work, engaging young people and providing valuable education in enterprise and financial skills. Ministerial colleagues recently met Young Enterprise to hear about its work and correspondence on this and have shared that information with education Ministers. If I may also add, the lessons that I learned when I did Young Enterprise in the sixth form, which was not so long ago, were invaluable.
As someone who did not go to university, who benefited greatly from Young Enterprise and who is from a rural area, I know full well how important the scheme is. How is the Minister helping young people in rural areas, such as in my constituency of West Dorset, and will she ensure that the development of non-cognitive skills in schools features in our industrial strategy?
Skills for adults and young people in rural areas, such as West Dorset, are absolutely invaluable. Towns and cities are an important part of supporting the future economy, and we are working with education colleagues to consider how Government support on skills will be an integral part of our strategy for growth.
Innovation and New Technologies
This Government are fully committed to unleashing innovation and supporting priority technologies. For example, combined public and private investment in the National Quantum Technologies Programme over its 10-year lifetime is set to pass the £1 billion mark. We are investing £750 million through Innovate UK to support innovative businesses through the pandemic and have also launched the future fund.
I welcome the Minister’s response. Does she agree more broadly with me that the UK should retain key technology assets where there is a national interest and that Arm Ltd’s capabilities in semiconductor and chip design, including processes for mobile phones, have national security implications? If she agrees, can she, her Department and the Government do more to protect the national interest in the proposed sale of Arm by SoftBank to Nvidia?
Arm is an important part of the UK tech sector and makes a significant contribution to the UK economy. Although acquisitions are primarily a commercial matter for the parties concerned, the Government monitor them closely. When a takeover may have a significant impact on the UK, we will not hesitate to investigate further and take action. We will be scrutinising the deal carefully to understand its impact on the UK.
Covid-19 Lockdown: Business Support
The Secretary of State works closely with the Chancellor, and I and my officials have had regular engagement with the Treasury. I recently met the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to discuss ongoing financial support.
We have announced additional cash grants and extensions to the job retention scheme and existing loan schemes.
Pubs and high street shops are particularly hard hit by losing pre-Christmas takings. The Minister will know that it is also the hospitality and retail sectors that are most at risk from accelerating automation, which will affect jobs. What will he do to work with those sectors on sector-specific plans to prevent the double whammy of covid and automation affecting jobs, so that our pubs and high street shops can be open?
The right hon. Lady raises a really important point. As well as having regular meetings with the hospitality and retail sectors about the immediate future, we also have the Retail Sector Council and the Hospitality Futures Group, an industry-led a group, which we participate in fully to make sure that we can address such long-term concerns.
Covid-19: Business Sectors
We know that many areas of the economy face challenges, as we have just heard, especially in sectors that have closed under new national restrictions, such as hospitality. That is why we have extended the coronavirus job retention scheme to March and provided an unprecedented support package to businesses and to workers.
Many working people have been excluded since March. They do not qualify for furlough; they do not qualify for the self-employed scheme; and their businesses do not qualify for the grants. It is no good the Government giving the mantra about universal credit. It will not wash, because most people who have been excluded do not qualify for universal credit. The Government were right to U-turn over the injustice facing hungry children, so when will they fix the growing injustice faced by millions of excluded people in this country who just want to put food on the table for their children?
The Government have put forward a comprehensive package of support, as we heard from the Secretary of State, for both individuals and businesses. The self-employed income support scheme has also been extended. The support package is not only about the welfare system, which has had an additional £9 billion put into it to help people, but about the bounce back loans, the tax deferrals and the rental support, which are all important parts of it, as well as mortgage holidays and other business support grants through local government.
Today’s unemployment figures are a sobering reminder of the scale and pace of the economic crisis now upon us. It is becoming increasingly clear that, despite the Government’s initial early action, their slowness and constant indecision are making the jobs crisis worse. Will they now get ahead of the curve, as France, Germany and Spain have done, not only to protect our key industries such as aerospace and automotive, but to bring forward an ambitious plan for their green renewal at a scale and pace to match the crisis? As we are seeing at Rolls-Royce and elsewhere, once decent jobs go, they are gone for good; and communities across the north and midlands can ill afford to lose them.
The hon. Lady makes an important point about the labour market statistics released this morning. The Government are committed to helping the most vulnerable, as was demonstrated with the £2 billion kickstart scheme for young people, who have in many ways been heavily impacted by the challenge of covid. She will see from this Government a green industrial strategy. As the Secretary of State has already set out—judge us by what we do—36% of the world’s offshore energy is produced by this country, and we will go much further.
Dismiss and Re-engage Tactics
Employers must have the flexibility to offer different terms and conditions. However, using threats about firing and rehiring as a negotiating tactic is unacceptable. The Government are working with ACAS to convene a roundtable of business organisations and employee representatives to discuss these issues.
Earlier this year, I joined workers and trade unions across Cardiff North to stand up to businesses behaving badly. People are struggling to grapple with the uncertainties of life under covid, yet some businesses are still using fire and rehire tactics to undermine pay and working conditions to line their own pockets. Will the Government stop the dithering and delay, outlaw these bad practices and protect workers’ rights?
I understand the enormous impact of losing a job, or even of a job being threatened. We expect all employers to treat employees fairly and respectfully, but businesses in real financial difficulty do need the flexibility to offer new terms and conditions to save as many jobs as they can.
Increasingly, rogue bosses such as British Airways, Centrica and ESS are using the covid crisis to cut pay and terms and conditions and are exploiting the legal loophole to fire and rehire loyal staff. With many workers now facing an impossible choice between losing pay or losing their job, will the Minister explain how these scandalous tactics can possibly be legal in the first place, and will he legislate to outlaw them—yes or no?
It is a commercial matter, but businesses do need flexibility with regard to terms and conditions—both for them and their employees—to protect jobs. We expect all employers to treat employees fairly and in the spirit of partnership. The very threat of fire and rehire is totally unacceptable, and we hope that all the businesses cited will reach a negotiated outcome with their employees.
I hope that the Minister will give a more open and clear response to my question. Heathrow airport is pushing staff to strike—a measure that garnered support in a ballot ending last week. Its behaviour now amounts to bullying. Staff are being summoned to meetings before the consultation is finished and without support. Will the Secretary of State say that this is wrong, condemn this behaviour and agree that this business has relied on the support of the community, who are owed something back in these troubled times?
I know how important Heathrow and the airlines sector is to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, which is why we put so much support into that sector. I come back to the fact that we expect all employers to treat employees fairly and respectfully, no matter what job, what position and what community they live in.
The hon. Gentleman is a Minister in government. He has repeatedly called this unacceptable. A number of his colleagues have called out companies such as British Airways that have shamefully used fire and rehire tactics. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury called it
“a practice that all of us in the House would condemn.”—[Official Report, 13 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 168.]
The Prime Minister said that he was looking at what we can do. People are fed up with this Government’s warm words and no intention of action, so let us hear it today: does the Minister support the aims of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), and will he support it?
We will address and respond to the Bill when it comes before us. We have to reach the balance between protecting jobs and allowing employers who are in difficulty to have the necessary flexibility. We are one of the most flexible employment countries in the developed world, and we want to remain so, but we do want to make sure that businesses have their responsibilities and use those responsibilities wisely.
Surely the Minister must understand that fire and rehire tactics are not part of a negotiating tactic: they are a gun to the head of every worker in the organisation. It has nothing to do with negotiation: it says, “You will accept lower terms—otherwise we will chuck you out.” British Gas has recently become one of a number of large companies threatening their workforces in this way with this medieval tactic. I think the Minister must agree that it is not only a terrible way to reward the thousands of energy workers who have worked day and night to keep our energy supply constant and reliable during the covid crisis, but must be seen as a completely unacceptable way to conduct industrial negotiations. Will he join me in condemning the use of this practice and, specifically, write to British Gas demanding that it withdraw its threats to its employees?
In my first answer on this subject, I talked about the fact that we believe that making threats about firing and rehiring as a negotiating tactic is totally unacceptable. I hope that the situation with Centrica will be satisfactorily resolved both for employers and employees. However, it is important to retain the flexible labour markets where we remain 11th out of 140 countries with regard to the ease of hiring and, indeed, firing workers to make sure that we can protect important sectors across this country.
British Gas has put a halt on its fire and rehire plans, but only until the beginning of next year, and workers, many of whom are my constituents, are not optimistic. Centrica plc, British Gas’s parent company, reported profits of £900 million this year. Does the Minister agree that it is morally indefensible for workers to be expected to accept a reduction in their pay and conditions when shareholders still enjoy dividends, and if so, what steps will he take to ensure that workers are protected from these underhand tactics?
Retail Sector: Covid-19
I have regular discussions on the effect of covid-19 with a range of retail reps. Next month, I will co-chair a meeting of the Retail Sector Council. There has been unprecedented support, including within the £200 billion of Government support for the retail sector, but clearly we must work closely with it at all times.
Retail sector employment is a huge part of employment in my constituency of Blaydon, from huge centres like the Metrocentre to independent retailers across the whole constituency. With all but essential shops now closed for a second time, what further practical support are the Government giving to those businesses struggling to pay their rent, and their other bills, as a result of the covid crisis?
We have extended the moratorium until the end of the year and will continue to work with tenants. This week, I had a roundtable with a ministerial colleague in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. We will work with tenants and landlords to come up with a fair solution for retailers across this country to protect our high streets and our retail areas.
Covid-19: Support for Businesses
My Department continues to deliver a wide range of measures to support UK business. We have extended our loan schemes across the board, which have already delivered over £62 billion of finance, until the end of January, and the new local authority grants will also offer further support to businesses affected by the national restrictions.
I thank the Minister for his reply. During this second lockdown, many of us are likely to find comfort in reading. My constituent David Campbell, who runs Everyman’s Library, has written—with the backing of over 20 leading authors, including Salman Rushdie, Simon Jenkins and Sebastian Faulks—to the Prime Minister asking that books be considered an essential item for sale during the current restrictions. Does my hon. Friend agree that, to support small businesses during the covid-19 crisis, it would be preferable that local independent shops, which are based in the heart of their local communities and often employ local people, remain open and secure sales, rather than a global internet brand?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is a very difficult decision that we have grappled with. Independent bookshops are of great importance to local communities, with books playing a vital role in people’s mental health and wellbeing. The decision to close non-essential retail is part of a wider package of measures to make it clear that people should stay at home and accept this for a limited period of time. Of course, bookshops can offer delivery and click-and-collect services, which I am sure that her constituent, David Campbell, is probably considering.
The Government’s new support measures for businesses provide a genuine lifeline. However, support to stay closed is not the long-term answer, and many will only remain viable if they can be open as normal for the pre-Christmas season. May I ask what the Minister is doing to urgently lobby Government and the Prime Minister on the necessity of keeping businesses going and getting them reopened from 2 December, including in hospitality, which is so important to a city like York?
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point, and I absolutely agree with him. This is not the long-term answer, and I fully appreciate that retailers across England will be desperate to reopen in time for the important Christmas trading period. The regulations, as the Prime Minister said, will expire on 2 December, and we will return to the local restrictions thereafter—the tiered system. Of course, Ministers and officials are regularly engaging across Government, including my colleagues in BEIS, to ensure the sector can reopen safely on 2 December.
I thank the Minister for his answer: financial support for businesses is such a lifeline at this time. Speaking to businesses across the spectrum in Runnymede and Weybridge—from those in the wedding sector to logistics and corporate events—they tell me that one of the biggest challenges they face is uncertainty around planning for the next six months to a year. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that one of the best supports for business we can give is a long-term plan for how we deal with and get out of the covid pandemic?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. The current restrictions will expire on 2 December. After those restrictions have expired, we intend to return to the tiered system, as I just mentioned on an earlier question. Of course, we have to make sure that businesses have that clarity, hence why the Chancellor extended the furlough scheme all the way to the end of March for businesses. The British Chambers of Commerce made it very clear to me a few days ago in a phone call that that was incredibly important help at the right time.
The Arcade Tavern is one of the most popular pubs in Ipswich. It has insurance against income loss because of notifiable diseases, but its insurers, New India, is refusing to pay out, blaming the Government for the loss of income. This has left the business fighting this pandemic and for the money that it is entitled to. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the Government will look unfavourably on insurers that do not honour their contracts and that this is not the case of the little man being stitched up? I have the letter right here, so I am happy to share it with him after this.
I will happily look at the letter, and it sounds incredibly concerning that any insurer would act in this way. Pubs, of course, are a valuable part of many local communities across the country. We are in continual dialogue with the insurance sector regarding its response to this unprecedented situation. I will happily look at the letter and the details of my hon. Friend’s case.
Marine Renewable Energy
On 6 October, the Prime Minister announced new plans to build back greener, which included boosting the Government’s previous offshore wind target from 30 gigawatts to 40 gigawatts. The hon. Lady will also be interested to hear that the Marine Energy Council is looking at funding models for early tidal projects, and that is something in which the Government are very interested.
UK maritime energy is seeing seismic changes, as is so much of the economy in all parts of the nation. Workers skilled in vessels and rigs offshore are being moved to new renewable industries, but—as is always the case with this Government—some are being left behind. This Government cannot be allowed to make the same mistakes that they made in the 1980s, when they left coal workers and entire communities devastated and unsupported. Will the Minister tell the people of Newport West how the Government plan to avoid those mistakes in the new energy transition?
The hon. Lady will be aware that the green jobs element of the transition is at the centre of the Government’s net-zero strategy, and we fully intend to have something like 2 million green jobs by 2030, although now we have only 460,000. Green jobs are at the centre of the recovery that we are trying to drive.
Sizewell C Nuclear Power Station: Government Scrutiny
The Planning Inspectorate’s examining authority will robustly examine the application for the proposed Sizewell C nuclear generating station. The Secretary of State will then give careful consideration to the examining authority’s report and recommendations, before taking a final decision.
Undoubtedly, Sizewell C can bring many benefits to Suffolk in terms of increased employment opportunities, and it is an important part of decarbonising and improving our energy security. However, it is not a case of Sizewell C being built at any cost, and many people in Suffolk have concerns about the failure of EDF properly to engage with the consultation process. More than 50 outstanding concerns have been raised by Suffolk County Council. What reassurances can the Minister provide to me and my constituents, particularly those in the Wickham Market and Hacheston areas, that EDF will be held to account, will properly engage with the consultation, and will implement the changes that are needed to improve road and rail infrastructure?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and his message has been heard clearly. I reassure him that proposals for mitigating the potential impact of Sizewell C will be considered during the examination of the development consent application, and local people and local bodies, such as the county council, will have the opportunity to make representations. The Secretary of State will then thoroughly examine and consider the recommendations from the Planning Inspectorate, which will be submitted to him following that examination. I give my hon. Friend that guarantee.
Net Zero Emissions Target
The hon. Lady will know that the UK’s net zero target is a world-leading initiative. Indeed, it was striking that this month China, Japan and South Korea committed themselves to net-zero carbon targets.
My hon. Friend will know that we are taking considerable action to encourage consumers to buy electric vehicles, and we are also investing in the necessary infrastructure. So far we have invested £30 million to support vehicle-to-grid technology, and we will regulate next year to ensure that consumers benefit from smart-charging their electric vehicles.
Recent commentary has highlighted the role of the North sea as a strategic asset for net zero. It could deliver one third of our energy needs via offshore wind, which could increase the utilisation of carbon capture and storage and green hydrogen. What is the role of a carbon pricing mechanism in delivering this?
My hon. Friend, as he often does, raises a pertinent question relating to our energy strategy. Obviously, carbon pricing is at the centre of any move to try to decarbonise our energy mix. We have a track record on this, and we have also committed to 40 GW of offshore wind by 2030, which, through the auction process, is critical to delivering our net zero ambitions.
If we are to sustain public support for the goal of net zero, it is essential that we maximise the benefits of the green transition here at home, but there are far too many examples where the promise of that green transition risks not being realised. One such case is the plight of the BiFab engineering yards in Fife and Lewis, which represents a clear failure to utilise industrial strategy to ensure that British firms win work and sustain decent jobs from the billions of pounds being invested in offshore wind installations just a few miles off the Scottish coast. Citing state aid rules, the SNP Scottish Government appear content to sit back and let the steel jackets in question be manufactured overseas. Can the Minister give a commitment today that the UK Government will step in and safeguard the future of mounting fabrication in the UK and these vital 450 Scottish jobs?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we are absolutely committed to maintaining a UK supply chain for the extra deployment of offshore wind that I alluded to earlier. With regard to this specific issue, we are in conversations with counterparts in Scotland and also speaking to people in the company.
Covid-19: Support for Businesses
The Department has engaged regularly with the Chancellor and other partners across the devolved Governments, including in Scotland, since the beginning of the covid-19 outbreak to make sure that businesses have the right information, guidance and support that they need.
A pub owner in my constituency has seen his business severely impacted by covid-19 restrictions but has been unable to access a bounce back loan, as the bank where he has his business account is not part of the scheme and none of the accredited lenders are accepting new business accounts. Will the Secretary of State widen the number of banks eligible to provide these loans or ensure that the big lenders accept additional business customers, so that small businesses can access the support they need to get through this crisis?
Obviously, I am not familiar with the exact details that the hon. Lady refers to. What I can point out is that in her constituency of Central Ayrshire, banks have provided something like £37 million of business loans, but I would be very interested to hear the specifics of that case and to see what we can do to meet those concerns.
In response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), the Secretary of State claimed that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs does not have the information necessary to distinguish between an active, working owner-director of a small business, and an absentee shareholder of a big business who contributes no part to the running of the business. HMRC may not have all that information, but Companies House definitely does and most of it is on public record, so can the Minister tell us what discussions his Department has had with Companies House in the last seven months with a view to using that information to identify the million or so small businesses that have been deliberately excluded from Government support up until now?
We are in constant contact with Companies House and other sources of information relating to businesses. With regard to the specifics, I am not as familiar with those charges as the hon. Gentleman, but again I point out that something like £30 million of loan money—of credit—has been supplied to companies in his constituency.
While I welcome the extension of the furlough, albeit belatedly, I would suggest the next step to repair mistakes made in handling the pandemic for businesses is to look at the failures within the business interruption loan schemes, which I outlined in a debate in this Chamber last week. Many companies are not taking on CBILs or BBLS loans, because having more debt around their necks is the last thing they need just now. Has the Minister carried out any analysis of the potential effects of offering businesses grants, rather than loans?
The provision of credit, as I have suggested to some of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues, has been very generous during this covid-19 period. Obviously, we can refine the process and we are very open to listening to ideas from hon. and right hon. Members about how we can do that. I would like to point out that, last year, in his constituency of Midlothian, we issued something like £49 million-worth of credit. Many of the companies in his constituency have been very grateful and very happy to receive that money.
Last week, at the CBI’s annual conference, I reaffirmed our desire to build back better through levelling up across the country. We are developing a new strategy for growth, a refreshed and reinvigorated industrial strategy that puts the UK at the forefront of economic opportunity. We want to broaden the geography of our economy while taking a more strategic approach, supporting research and innovation in areas where the UK has the potential to both lead and change the world. We will work with industry as our plan for growth takes shape in the months ahead and is published in the new year.
Any help for business, like the local restrictions support grant, is welcome, however limited, but nightclubs and much of the night-time industries have been required to close since 23 March, with no sign to an end of their problems. So should the grants not be backdated to that date, rather than starting on 1 November?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the support that is being provided. He also knows that, for areas that were in tier 2 or tier 3 before the new restrictions came into force, there are backdated payments to August equivalent to up to £2,100 a month.
Employers and trade unions work night and day to keep workplaces covid-secure, so it is absolutely staggering that the health and safety inspection discovered fundamental breaches of the guidelines in the overcrammed private office of the Secretary of State. A member of the Minister’s staff tested positive for covid, yet the Secretary of State did not self-isolate: he met Prince Charles and took a flight to South Korea. The need to suppress workplace transmission is as great as ever, so how can working people and businesses have any trust in the Government when the very people responsible for setting the rules ignore them in their own offices?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, I followed all the rules, as we always do in my Department. I want to thank businesses, trade unions and the business representative organisations we worked with earlier this year to put together the guidelines to keep business areas covid secure.
I am absolutely delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituent, Jess. I thank him for all the work he does in his constituency to support engineering apprenticeships. He is absolutely right. We want the sector to keep supporting well-paid skilled jobs for our young people moving into the workplace as we build back better into the decade ahead.
I did address this issue earlier, but as the hon. Gentleman will know Rolls-Royce has indicated that it will retain key work in Barnoldswick, including fan blade capability relating to the Trent 700 engines, the joint strike fighter and a new technical capability for product development. I can also tell him that I will be meeting a cross-party group of Members of Parliament, together with Rolls-Royce, next week.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue; I know that she is a tireless champion for her local high street. She knows that click and collect and delivery services are still possible, as are takeaway services for the hospitality sector. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), is working tirelessly with retail to make sure that once the lockdown is over, we can bounce back more strongly and take on board much of the important advice that she has been giving us.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this. The oil and gas sector, as he knows, is currently developing its own proposal for a transformational North sea transition deal, as we call it now. Once we receive its input and ideas, we will be able to negotiate with the sector to make sure that we have the right level of ambition with regard to net zero while preserving the much-valued jobs and expertise that he and others are so keen to promote.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, showrooms were one of the first businesses required to be closed that were reopened in the last national restrictions period. What I would like, and what I know he wants, is for us get to the point on 2 December where we move back into local restrictions and we are able to open up businesses across the country.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this very important issue. He and I have spoken about this a number of times. I wish only that his council were as focused as he is on championing his residents’ interests. BEIS has recently consulted on regulating heat networks, and our market framework from 2022 will ensure that consumers receive reliable and regulated heat from heat networks.
We have invested in manufacturing across the country. In fact, I visited Valneva, which is one of the companies that is producing one of the vaccine candidates, and we have of course invested there as well. If the hon. Gentleman has particular suggestions to make about areas where we ought to be investing in terms of vaccine manufacturing, he should come forward.
Many years ago, I had an opportunity to work for the Mars group, and I know what a brilliant job food processing companies have been doing throughout the pandemic. The food manufacturing sector can continue to operate through the national restrictions as long as they follow the Government’s guidance on keeping factories, plants and warehouses covid-secure.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this. Obviously, this is a critical issue. We are working through the cases as expeditiously as we can. I am happy to meet the APPG in my capacity as Energy Minister and resolve what has been a difficult issue—I do not deny that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that important question. We fully appreciate that it is a very difficult time, and of course ministerial colleagues are working constantly with Treasury colleagues and officials to ensure that we have the right support, however this pandemic, this dreadful disease, develops. We are working effectively and many of the remedies are being widely appreciated.
As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Government are committed to the space sector. We have already invested £40 million to achieve satellite launch from the early 2020s, including more than £7 million to establish launch services from Spaceport Cornwall. I am sure that the science Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), will be happy to meet him to discuss that further.
I recognise the difficulty that the hospitality sector faces. Of course we want to ensure that, as we come out of the national restriction on 2 December, businesses move into the tiered areas, and I hope that some business will be able to reopen. However, it is worth pointing out that pubs and restaurants can continue to operate as takeaways and support is available, including grants of up to £3,000 per month, as well as additional support through the £1.1 billion funded to local authorities.
The Post Office Horizon scandal may well be the largest miscarriage of justice in our history, with over 900 false prosecutions destroying lives, families and reputations. Does the Minister agree that a judge-led inquiry into the scandal is the only way many sub-postmasters will be satisfied?
That is exactly why we appointed Sir Wyn Williams, a former judge, to lead the inquiry. I really hope that representatives of the sub-postmasters will take time to meet him, in order to become familiar with his approach. He has outlined his engagement strategy and we really want to see justice and answers as soon as possible.
In August, I was lucky enough to meet Dynamic Imaging Analytics in Milton Keynes—a fantastic local company that is doing some really cool stuff with space technology, including working with our local university, the Open University, to mine for water on the moon. Perhaps the Minister will join me in congratulating the Open University on its recent successes on that.
The UK’s world-leading universities have a rich heritage in space science and exploration, and they are key to our ambition of becoming a science superpower. Of course I will join my hon. Friend in sending congratulations to the scientists in his constituency on their groundbreaking research. We are investing £1.5 million this year in Open University space activities, including those of PROSPECT instruments, which will improve our understanding of water on the moon—and who knows, they might put the first concrete cows on the moon.
We know that our economy is changing, supercharged by the impact of covid and new technologies that are facilitating the change; but does the Minister agree that it is desirable and possible for companies to change in a way that protects skilled jobs, whether that is Spotify’s responsibility to creative workers, or BT’s responsibility to our broadband engineers? Will the Minister do all it takes to ensure that our companies invest in people as well as digital infrastructure?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. Of course we want good jobs to be created and preserved, and I agree with her. I believe she is arguing that we need a greater level of productivity in the country, and that is precisely what we are working on as part of our strategies.
Armed Forces: Covid-19 Deployment
I thank the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) for his urgent question and for the opportunity to highlight the vital role of the armed forces in responding to the pandemic.
The Secretary of State was pleased to commit to updating colleagues about the latest developments on covid support by placing regular updates in the House of Commons Library, the first of which will be delivered today. I am also pleased that the shadow Secretary of State will be visiting Standing Joint Command later this week to meet in person the senior military leadership delivering the support across the country.
The armed forces are renowned for their planning skills, technical capabilities and ability to provide rapid and effective deployed response. They are being put to good use yet again. At all times they are acting in support of, and at the request of, the civil authorities from every part of the United Kingdom. So far this year the Ministry of Defence has received 420 MACA—military aid to the civil authorities—requests, 341 of which have been covid-related. The armed forces have provided enormous support while themselves taking all appropriate covid precautions and while maintaining our critical defence outputs, ensuring that at all times they are protecting our country, our interests and our friends.
Our present support for the Government’s preparation for the winter period, including the covid-19 response, is one of Defence’s highest priorities. Defence has established a winter support force of approximately 7,500 deployable personnel, in addition to the many defence medics already embedded in the NHS and the support, when called upon, of our defence scientists in the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. Defence is currently supporting 41 MACA tasks, including assistance to the whole-town testing pilot in Liverpool and the Birmingham City Council drop and collect scheme. Personnel have previously supported activities from the Nightingale facility construction, vaccine planning, personal protective equipment distribution and the staffing of testing centres. They remain ready to undertake further tasks.
Defence has made thorough preparations to contribute as requested to civil authorities’ responses through the MACA system and will keep the force elements held in readiness to do so under constant review, adjusting the capabilities provided to meet demand. The nation can be reassured, especially in this week of remembrance, that Defence stands ready, as ever, to support whenever, wherever and however required, and will continue to do so, for as long as is necessary.
Last Monday, ahead of the new national lockdown in England, I said to the Defence Secretary:
“If he is willing to make further use of the forces this time, this House and the public will back him.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 7.]
The Minister has said 341 MACA requests for help have been in place since mid-March. People want to know now what the plan is; they have a right to know and they have a right to regular ministerial reporting of such decisions, which would also help to build better public understanding and support for our military.
From Friday, 2,000 troops have been deployed to Liverpool, which is double the number we have posted in Afghanistan. Mayor Joe Anderson told me last night that they are delighted to have them, for their sheer numbers and their logistical expertise. He said they had set up 17 centres and had done 23,170 tests in just 72 hours. Is the MOD willing to agree similar MACA support for other local authority areas?
The city-wide testing, of course, is to find people with covid who are infectious, but asymptomatic, and then to ensure that they isolate and do not infect others. That requires regular, routine and continual testing. How sustainable is that deployment? When will the 2,000 troops start to be withdrawn? How scalable is the deployment? Which other cities and towns will also benefit?
The Minister said that 7,500 troops are already on stand-by as part of what he called the winter support force. Our adversaries will watch the extent to which our forces are focused on covid. Will the Minister therefore confirm that it has had no impact so far on forces’ training, standing commitments or capabilities to respond to conflicts and threats?
Finally, the Government have raised the whole country’s hopes with the news of the Pfizer vaccine, but it is vaccinations, not vaccines, that will protect people from the virus. Getting the vaccine to the point of vaccination requires storing and transporting it at -70°C. How is the military involved in planning for nationwide vaccination? Will the military be involved in its delivery? How soon will it start?
If the Government do now make more use of our armed forces to help fight covid, that will be widely welcomed.
I very much welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s warm words of support for the wider tasks of the armed forces. I absolutely assure him and the House that all essential Defence tasks continue to operate, with the great professionalism and resolve of our armed forces, be that the continuous at-sea deterrence or quick reaction alert or our army deployments around the world. Clearly, we have had to take precautions; we have had to keep our troops safe and have had to ensure that they continue to operate. Those precautions have been put in place, but they have continued to meet the needs. Early on, we had to pause training. That has now gathered momentum again and I am pleased to say that we are seeing an increase in the number of people applying to join our armed forces, which is, I think, inspired by the work that they are doing in all our communities.
The right hon. Gentleman raised other points. What is the plan? We stand ready to support other parts of the Government. We work in partnership with other parts of the Government. As the Department of Health and Social Care and the devolved Governments require our support, we are there to provide and assist.
I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman spoke to the Mayor of Liverpool yesterday. I hear constantly of the great work between Liverpool City Council, the local NHS and our forces who are assisting them in this process. I think the pilot is now at 18 test centres, with a large number continuing to be supplied as we work with the city council. However, it is a pilot, and we need to see what we can learn from it and test its effectiveness, which has been so far, so good. It is scalable, and as part of this programme we are talking to civilian agencies, the council and the NHS about how others can step in. Often, as in the case of the mobile testing units, the armed forces lead the way, but others may well come through if the Department of Health and Social Care and others believe that this should be deployed more widely across the country.
It is a long time since I served in the armed forces, but one lesson I took from my service was that headquarters command and control is absolutely vital when going through an operation. I note, when I look at what is happening on test and trace, that there are now four centres—the Joint Biosecurity Centre in the DHSC, the National Covid Response Centre, the covid taskforce in the Cabinet Office and the covid data analysis directorate—each with its own director general and none under a single enforceable chain of command. Given that the chain of command at headquarters level is vital, and that a three or four-star general would be required in a military operation, will the Minister please tell me whether the Government have at any stage asked the MOD to implement a chain of command and headquarters command and control for the whole of test and trace, to make sure that it is now co-ordinated and active? If not, why not?
It may be a while since my right hon. Friend served in the armed forces, but the Scots Guards’ loss is certainly our gain in this place. I thank him for his question. It is not for Defence to tell other Departments how best to deliver their tasking. We are there to support them, and I am proud of the support that we are providing, with liaison officers across Government and other Departments and hundreds of people embedded in local resilience forums, enabling a network of information and intelligence to be gathered and proper support and tasking to be done on the ground.
I thank the shadow Secretary of State for tabling the urgent question. Like others, I put on the record the thanks of the Scottish National party to the armed forces for what they have done in this crisis, not least in my home city of Glasgow with the Louisa Jordan hospital.
May I ask the Minister two specific things? Will he outline how many of the 341 requests he mentioned came from Scotland and, perhaps at a later stage, from where? On the vaccination programme that the shadow Secretary of State mentioned, the Minister will recall that, at the start of this crisis, the armed forces being deployed across the country became an ideal opportunity for our adversaries to spread disinformation, which led to much panic buying in supermarkets and subsequent shortages of food and other items. Will he lay before the House—perhaps not today, but at some point—what the country can expect to see from the armed forces in a future vaccination roll-out, so that it does not catch us by surprise and, crucially, so that it cannot be weaponised against our fellow citizens?
First, I do not know the exact number of requests. I have actually asked, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the exact numbers, split between Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England. I know that we have been very active. In fact I recall, right at the very start of this crisis—when I was sadly unwell with the wretched thing and battling a high temperature and other symptoms—getting a call at four o’clock in the morning on a MACA request for a gentleman to be moved from Orkney down to what is probably the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. That made quite an impression on me. It showed me, first, how lucky I was, all things considered—that gentleman was seriously ill; and secondly, how wonderful it is that we have professional armed forces, able at the drop of a hat to go and deliver and collect and look after people, wherever they are in our United Kingdom. I will come back to the hon. Gentleman on the specific point regarding the number of MACA requests coming from Scotland. We are delighted to work with the Scottish Government.
On the roll-out of the vaccines, I will not speculate on what role there might be for the Ministry of Defence. We clearly work with other Government Departments, giving logistical and planning support. We are there to help and to provide assistance, but we are still at the very early stages on the vaccine, as the Prime Minister was clear yesterday, so it would be inappropriate to speculate at this stage.
Given that planning for sudden, fast-moving events and surges is part of our military’s stock in trade, why have they not been more involved in planning since the outset, especially given the comparison with all those costly and failing private contractors?
I think the hon. Gentleman is aware that Defence has been involved from the outset on planning and logistics. At an early stage, Defence was called on, as it is regularly; we have had, on average, about 130 MACA requests a year for the past few years, and we are well used to working at a local level and a national level with partners across Government. There is a role for the military and a role they can pass on. For example, the military did a fantastic job on working with our partners in Health to provide the mobile testing units, but it is appropriate at some stage, when others get up to speed, that we hand over that task in order to be ready to undertake the next role, which in this case includes the whole-city pilot in Liverpool.
NHS Test and Trace has grown from literally zero to being the size of Asda in little more than six months, and it would be difficult to imagine an organisation that has grown so quickly that would not be organisationally challenged. May I suggest that if the MOD has not been asked for headquarters capability, it should offer headquarters capability to NHS Test and Trace, as I am sure it would be welcomed with open arms?
I believe I am right in saying that we are indeed assisting NHS Test and Trace, and others; as required, we help with logistics, planning and support, and we are keen to do that. I will not stray into other Departments’ business, but the sheer scale of the build-out that my hon. Friend refers to is obviously the case. It is also the case that we have moved our capability from 2,000 tests a day to more than half a million tests a day. These are huge challenges that have been undertaken by other Departments.
The Vice Chief of the Defence Staff has said that Defence should no longer be considered a “last resort option”, something that was formalised in the 2015 strategic defence and security review, which announced that
“we will place military planners in key government departments to give the military a wider and more formal role in supporting national resilience contingency planning.”
If that is the case, why have the armed forces been deployed in such a limited way throughout this pandemic?
At the high point, I believe we had 7,500 military personnel deployed in support of the civil power, so it has been a large-scale commitment by Defence, alongside our other tasks. We stand ready to respond with those numbers or more if required. The hon. Lady is right to say that we are always there to plan, assist and support, but we do so in response to requests, and I know she would respect that principle. Defence is always here to help and to be engaged, and there is a great trust from the British nation, particularly this week, when we think of what has gone before. We always respond at the request of the civil power and to support it.
May I ask the Minister to pay particular tribute to the science and to the scientists working at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, and to the important role they are playing? As we see this increased visibility domestically from our armed forces, is it helping with the important task of recruitment into our armed forces?
There speaks a distinguished former Defence Minister; it is a pleasure to see my hon. Friend in her place. I am glad that she has mentioned DSTL. On a whole series of tasks, from helping the Welsh ambulance service through to planning for a range of options that have come through to the military—including how we roll out modelling for a whole range of projects during the course of this pandemic—DSTL has done a first-class job. I am therefore delighted that she has mentioned it in the Chamber. On recruitment, what she expects has come to pass. We have seen a 13% increase in applications to join the armed forces in the year to July 2020, and retention has increased. That reflects the pride that people have in our armed forces. They see members of the armed forces doing such a valuable task around our country day in, day out, and they are responding in kind.
Greetings from the far north of Scotland. May I remind the House that a member of my close family is serving with the armed forces?
Many of our overseas armed forces personnel are working in an extremely challenging environment, owing to the present pandemic. May I ask what Her Majesty’s Government are doing on PPE and testing for these extremely hard-working people?
We thank the relative of the hon. Gentleman for his or her service in the armed forces. On PPE, all precautions are being taken. We have good advice from the Department of Health as to what PPE should be deployed, and we use that advice to ensure that we are consistently covid compliant. Members of the armed forces currently helping with the pilot scheme in Liverpool are being regularly tested, alongside the residents they are helping and testing. On overseas deployments, we always have a view to our own covid regulations and those of the host nations where we are serving. As a matter of routine, military personnel have a quarantine period before they go out to ensure that they are safe on arrival at their deployed station.
There can be no better week than this for all of us to take the time to recognise and thank the armed forces for their contribution. Does my hon. Friend agree that the reservists have also been playing an incredibly important role, and will he join me in thanking them for their contribution in the battle against coronavirus?
Absolutely. We are blessed in the armed forces to have reservists with tremendous capabilities, who have been able to provide their expertise and professionalism yet again. I absolutely pay tribute to those reservists who answered the call and came to support us.
I learned earlier in the pandemic that four MACA requests had been made from Northern Ireland; three were satisfied and a commercial alternative was found to the other. I am pleased that those applications were progressed positively without immature political interference from some members of the Northern Ireland Executive. Will the Minister confirm whether there has been a recent request regarding testing on a larger scale in Northern Ireland, and that, should there be, the MOD would respond positively?
I am very aware of the support that we have provided to Northern Ireland. We are always ready to support any area of the United Kingdom that requires our support and assistance, and are delighted to work together to get on top of this dreadful pandemic. Any requests made of the Ministry of Defence will be looked at in the usual manner; we would look to help, as always.
So much of the military’s work is done behind the scenes. It has been really helpful to hear today in how many areas they are already deployed in the fight against the pandemic, but will my hon. Friend assure me that the critical tasks for the defence of this nation are not being compromised by all the work that is being done for covid?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. The military have a vast range of tasks, not only here at home but overseas. We have continued to operate throughout this period. Precautions have been put in place, but on key issues such as the continuous at-sea deterrent, the quick reaction alert and our forces overseas, the military have continued to maintain their outputs. Importantly, they have been able to continue to train, so we have the confidence that they will be able to provide those key defence tasks into the future.
I echo the shadow Secretary of State’s thanks for the professionalism of the armed services personnel and the help that my constituents have received. We in Liverpool really do appreciate it.
The mass testing pilot in Liverpool is due to be reviewed after 10 days to two weeks. Does the Minister accept that more time will be needed to meet the objectives of testing everyone? If so, will he ensure that the pilot remains in place in Liverpool until the end of the national lockdown on 2 December, and that some armed forces personnel remain with us after that time to ensure that a smaller number of mass testing centres can remain open to enable us to keep on top of the virus?
I welcome the points made by the hon. Lady. If I may say so, we are really enjoying working with Liverpool—it is a tremendous team effort and I know that the armed forces are really proud to be part of it. Of course, many of them have been recruited from that area and are really enjoying being able to help their own friends and families and the communities that they know so well.
On the hon. Lady’s specific asks, it is not really for the Ministry of Defence to decide when is the right time for the pilot to come to a conclusion. We are there to provide support and assistance, and if that needs to go on longer, that will definitely be looked at, and I would think it will be looked at very sympathetically, because we want to make certain that there is a successful pilot from which we can take decisions and see whether it can be rolled out more widely. But that is a decision to be taken on the basis of the facts.
I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) in thanking our reserve forces and paying tribute to them for everything they are doing to assist the Government in this very difficult time. Reservists are ready to go anywhere at a moment’s notice, but will the Minister ensure that when they are mobilised for this deployment, consideration is given to the fact that they need to tidy up their affairs in respect of their jobs and family commitments?
My hon. Friend speaks from experience: he is a reservist who served in Operation Herrick, from memory. We try to do intelligent mobilisation—we try to engage with our reservists to see who is available and who might like to be involved, and those with specialist skills in particular invariably say, “Yes, call us.” We are working with our reservists and will always try to give a suitable period of time to enable them to balance family and work commitments. We are enormously indebted to those who step forward.
Today is Councils Can Day, so I am sure the Minister would like to join me in thanking local councils for everything they are doing to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. On that note, will the Minister tell me what conversations he has had with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about the support that the armed forces will be giving in our council areas, particularly to ensure that that support is co-ordinated and targeted where it is needed?
We are all grateful for the work that councils have done—be it Liverpool City Council or councils elsewhere in the country, they have had a huge task to meet. Hundreds of military advisers have been deployed through the local resilience forums, working with councils and other local authorities, and I assure the hon. Lady that we will continue to provide that support.
Oh dear: I am worried that you say I am looking orange, Mr Speaker —it makes me think of Donald Trump.
I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister wants to be cautious about the vaccine, but the Department of Health and Social Care has acquired the rights to 350 million doses of six different vaccines. As we heard yesterday, one of those vaccines, from Pfizer, needs to be transported at temperatures under -70° C, although others do not. Whatever happens, it is a huge logistics problem. Now is not the time to be shy: the armed forces are very good at logistics and I strongly suggest that now is the time that my hon. Friend should be suggesting to the Government—and not waiting for the Government or other Departments to say to him—that the armed forces are ready to help in the logistics of the distribution of these vaccines and maybe even in inoculations.
My hon. Friend is never shy, and neither is the Ministry of Defence shy in being very proud of the capabilities that we have and can deploy. He is absolutely right that those capabilities include logistics and support of that nature, and we are absolutely ready to provide that support as required.
The excellence of our armed forces in civil contingency operations, whether in support, service or strategic planning, is noted by us all.
In York, we have the medical services training centre. How is that being deployed at this time to make sure that our NHS is not overwhelmed this winter? How are we planning to ensure that the support is there when it is needed?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I believe that there are 1,600 medics currently deployed and embedded in the NHS, and we will do all we can to support them throughout the winter period. I do appreciate her interest. We will continue to provide that support to the NHS in the months ahead.
This week in particular, we all remember with gratitude the price that so many service personnel have paid in time of war. I also associate myself with the thanks expressed by other Members for the work that the armed forces have been doing just now to protect us in the face of such a huge peacetime threat. The armed forces draw their personnel from every community of the United Kingdom, and every citizen in every part of the United Kingdom contributes to the cost through their taxes. Will the Minister tell us what measures are in place to make sure that the deployment of the armed forces just now is based on an assessment of where they can be most effective and where their efforts are most needed?
To reassure the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that we have ever needed to have that kind of discussion, because when we receive MACA requests, be they from Scotland or from elsewhere, we judge them on their merits, on where we can help and on where there is support that can be provided, and that is routinely honoured. It is not a case of having to ration support at the moment. I think that I said earlier that 7,500 were deployed actively, but I think that was the number available. There are only about 4,000 who are actively deployed on the ground, which means that we always have that extra resilience built in. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, if a request comes in from Scotland or elsewhere, it will always be very sympathetically looked at by the Ministry of Defence.
May I put on record my thanks to the City Mayor’s Office, to our director of public health, Matt Ashton, and his staff and to the skilled and expert men and women of the armed forces? This is the first mass testing pilot of its kind—a massive logistical effort in which the military are supporting the people of Liverpool. We warmly welcome our service personnel and, rather than have the likes of Serco plundering public money while failing the public, may I encourage the Minister and say that we want a response to covid-19 that is publicly led by the NHS, by public health professionals and by local authorities, and backed up by the logistical expertise of our armed forces where necessary?
May I re-echo what the hon. Gentleman said so accurately about the response that has been met on the ground to armed forces personnel? They have been really chuffed to see the way that people in Liverpool have responded—they have been coming in their thousands to be tested—and they are very grateful for the warmth of their support, and I thank him for reminding the House of that. They will be there to support this programme, but there is a well-founded MACA tradition that the military often lead and find ways of doing things, but then try to pass over to civilian authorities—to Liverpool City Council in the lead working, I suspect, with the Department of Health and Social Care—in the future.
Anyone who watched the briefing last night with Brigadier Joe Fossey could not help but be impressed by the professionalism of the brigadier and his team in Liverpool. What extra capacity remains within the armed forces to help other council areas, particularly in the north of England with my Kirklees Council area—450 cases plus per 100,0000 at the moment—not only to help with the mass testing, but to support localised track and trace effectiveness?
I recognise the particular issues in Kirklees. I am glad that my hon. Friend has brought them to the House’s attention. What we are doing in Liverpool is obviously a pilot, a major undertaking, and we will see the success of that pilot and whether it has scalability to be passed out elsewhere. That is a matter for the Department of Health and others to opine on. On helping elsewhere in the country, the military led with mobile testing units. They were there in the first rank to ensure that testing got up and going. That has now been passed over, and now, I think, there are 620 testing centres around the country, so the Army has stepped back from that, but we stand ready to help in other ways if called upon by other Government Departments.
Hull now has the third highest seven-day rate of new cases per 100,000 residents across English upper-tier local authorities. Test and trace remains a key part of fighting this virus. I am incredibly impressed to hear of the pilot that has happened in Liverpool, so does the Minister have plans to deploy armed forces in Hull and East Riding to help them scale-up test and trace?
I am sorry to hear the statistics from Hull, which are indeed sobering, but I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden). There is a particular project at the moment in Liverpool—a whole-city testing pilot. We are there to help and to respond to MACA requests. As a basic principle, we will often lead and show the way, and help pass on our expertise and knowledge to civilian contractors, but fundamentally there comes a point where local authorities and the Department of Health and Social Care will wish to take on the responsibilities for the covid challenge from the military once it has set up processes and worked to establish first principles.
When the major generals removed liberties, Oliver Cromwell wondered publicly if even arming one in 10 would be sufficient to enforce it. Will the Minister assure me that the armed forces will not be used to enforce any coronavirus regulations?
May I also express the thanks of my constituents for the work that the armed forces have been doing in response to the coronavirus pandemic? The Minister has already revealed to the House that military assistance to civil authorities’ requests has quadrupled this year, for understandable reasons. As we approach the end of the year, with the potential for a vaccine to be deployed and, it has to be said, some of the pressures that will be placed on the country as a result of Brexit, is he confident that all future MACA requests will be able to be met because he has the appropriate capacity?
First, I wish the hon. Lady’s constituents well at a difficult time, and I am glad that the military has been well received in her constituency. We are looking at how we scale up. We are always in the process of planning to see how we can get the extra resources if required and if called upon, so I have a great deal of confidence that we will be able to continue to meet MACA requests.
Following on from that question, there is no point in repeating what has been said many times this afternoon that the armed forces act with superb professionalism, but the moment this crisis is over, we can be assured, judging by history, that the bean counters in the Treasury will be putting pressure on the MOD for further cuts. We saw it after the end of the cold war and the Afghanistan war, and it will carry on. Will the Minister give me an assurance today that both he and the Secretary of State will vigorously resist, with the help of No. 10, any further cuts in our armed forces?
I feel that I ought to declare an interest because I once served in the Treasury—I put that on the record—but I can absolutely reassure my right hon. Friend that decisions made on resources for the armed forces through the integrated review are made on the basis of threat. That is core to the work that we are undertaking, and I hope that he will take that reassurance.
I thank the Minister for his responses and put on the record my thanks to the Army and its personnel for what they do across my constituency and elsewhere. The British Army and Territorial Army detachments in Northern Ireland are drawn from both sides of the community—both Roman Catholic and Protestant, and nationalist and Unionist; they both serve in the same uniform. Will there be an opportunity for the British Army to assist, if it is called upon by the Northern Ireland Assembly? Can the Minister also assure the House that no soldier will be asked to go anywhere without the appropriate PPE and training to deal with people in these very difficult and different days?
We will ensure that all deployed personnel get the right PPE and take the right covid precautions. I warmly welcome what the hon. Gentleman says about how the armed forces represent the whole of our great nation right across the board. We are proud that that is the case and we are always working to ensure that it is the case. We will always stand ready to listen to any MACA requests that come in, and we will always look at those sympathetically if we can.
I should declare an interest as a proud patron of the Military Preparation College, which has an Eastbourne campus. I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that there has been a significant increase in applications to the college, so inspired are young people by what they have seen of military service in our town—not least in May, when military personnel set up a temporary mobile site that enabled rapid testing of essential workers so that our hospice, our hospital and our care homes were all able to continue. Will he join me in thanking military personnel who have served in Sussex?
I should also declare an interest because I am a Sussex Member of Parliament. Those military personnel have done a terrific job, including, I recall, in May with the mobile testing unit. I am delighted to confirm what my hon. Friend says relating to increased interest in the armed forces. As I say, recruitment is well up this year, as is retention, and I am delighted to see both.
May I put on the record my gratitude for the work that the armed forces are doing in combating this global pandemic? It does seem that there are other countries that may be better organised in emergency management, so what lessons have been learned by the UK Government from how other countries have been handling the crisis?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the question. We always look at what other people do and how other people respond, but there has been a great well of support—as, indeed, came from him—for the work done by the armed forces, how they have responded to requests that have come in and how they have continued to assist other Departments in ensuring that we get the very best response in this country.
May I put on record the fact that this response to the pandemic has demonstrated the United Kingdom at its best? My local regiment, 1st Battalion the Rifles, helped the Welsh ambulance service with testing and the Royal Welsh helped in Gloucester with the testing facility there, which I had the opportunity to visit. May I just probe the Minister a little further on the question the shadow Secretary of State and other Members asked about the vaccine situation? I think the Minister said that the MOD stood ready to help. May I ask if he has had any requests from civilian authorities to assist with vaccine roll-out and, if so, what those plans are?
My understanding is that work is being done on planning, logistics and how we would support the important role with a vaccine, but I really would counsel that this is still very early days on the vaccine, as the Prime Minister made clear yesterday. We are ready to assist on logistics and planning—thoughts, preparations and logistics—but this is early days still.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to catch your eye.
I hope the message is loud and clear that the Minister hears today: we are absolutely proud of what our armed forces do, but, given their vast experience in emergency planning, crisis management and, indeed, strategic thinking, they are a vastly underused asset in the biggest crisis we have seen since the second world war. With what we face today, we have logistical challenges, command-and-control challenges, communications challenges and operational challenges. These are all things the armed forces can do, yet there is not a place for them at the quad, the top decision-making body dealing with this pandemic. Does my hon. Friend not think that is incorrect?
I welcome what my right hon. Friend says about the support that is provided by the armed forces. He is absolutely right that we have a vast array of areas where we can support and provide assistance to other Departments. However, as he is very well aware, the process is that the civil authority comes to us to request assistance, and we always stand ready to receive such reports.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on coronavirus.
The virus remains a powerful adversary, but we are marshalling the forces of science and human ingenuity. These forces are growing stronger, and I have no doubt that in time, we will prevail. The latest figures show that the number of cases continues to rise, so we must all play our part to get it under control. As I have said many times at this Dispatch Box, our strategy is to suppress the virus, supporting education, the economy and the NHS, until a vaccine can be deployed. That is our plan, and with the resolve that we must all show, we can see that that plan is working.
Before turning to progress on testing and on vaccines, I first want to update the House on our response to the new variant strain of coronavirus that has been identified in Denmark. This shows how vigilant we must be. We have been monitoring the spread of coronavirus in European mink farms for some time, especially in the major countries for mink farming such as Denmark, Spain, Poland and the Netherlands. Spain had already announced the destruction of its farmed mink population in April. On Thursday evening last, I was alerted to a significant development in Denmark of new evidence that the virus had spread back from mink to humans in a variant form that did not fully respond to covid-19 antibodies.
Although the chance of this variant becoming widespread is low, the consequences, should that happen, would be grave. So working with my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Transport Secretary and all the devolved Administrations, we removed the travel corridor for travel from Denmark in the early hours of Friday morning. On Saturday and over the weekend, following further clinical analysis, we introduced a full ban on all international travel from Denmark. British nationals or residents who are returning from Denmark, whether directly or indirectly, can still travel here, but they must fully self-isolate, along with all other members of their household, until two weeks after they were in Denmark. These are serious steps, and I understand the consequences for people, but I think that the whole House will understand why we had to act so quickly and decisively. Be in no doubt, we will do what needs to be done to protect this country.
We do not resile from our duty to protect, and to suppress the virus, we must harness new technology to keep people safe and, in time, to liberate. Our ability to suppress the virus begins with testing for it, and the House will know that we have been driving forward testing capacity based on new technologies and old. Yesterday, our polymerase chain reaction—PCR—testing capacity stood at 517,957, which is the largest testing capacity in Europe. Over 10 million people in the UK have now been tested at least once through NHS Test and Trace, and our NHS covid-19 contact tracing app is now approaching 20 million downloads, yet this historic expansion is just one part of our critical national infrastructure for testing. Just as we drive testing capacity on the existing technology, so, too, have we invested in the development of the new. I have been criticised for this obsession with new testing capacity, but we have not wavered from the task, and we are now seeing the fruits of this effort.
Last week, we expanded the pilot in Stoke-on-Trent to Liverpool, where we have deployed enough of the cutting-edge lateral flow tests to offer tests to the whole city. These tests can deliver a result on someone’s infectiousness in under 15 minutes, so that they can get almost immediate reassurance about their condition and so that we can find and isolate the positives and reassure the negatives. To make this happen, NHS Test and Trace has been working side by side with the logistical heft of our armed services and Liverpool City Council, and I want to thank Mayor Joe Anderson and his whole team for their work.
Next, these tests allow us from today to begin rolling out twice-weekly testing for all NHS staff, which will help to keep people safe when they go into hospital and help to keep my wonderful colleagues in the NHS safe, too. The next step is to roll out this mass testing capability more widely, and I can tell the House that last night I wrote to 67 directors of public health who have expressed an interest in making 10,000 tests available immediately and making available lateral flow tests for use by local officials according to local needs at a rate of 10% of their population per week. That same capacity—10% of the population per week—will also be made available to the devolved Administrations. By combining the local knowledge of public health leaders with our extensive national infrastructure, we can tackle this virus in our communities and help our efforts to bring the R down. Testing provides confidence, and it is that confidence that will help to get Britain back on her feet once more.
While we expand testing to find the virus, the best way to liberate and to get life closer to normal is a vaccine, and I can report to the House the news of the first phase 3 trial results of any vaccine anywhere in the world. After tests on 43,000 volunteers, of whom half got the vaccine and half got a placebo, interim results suggest that it is proving 90% effective at protecting people against the virus. This is promising news. We in the UK are among the first to identify the promise shown by the vaccine, and we have secured an order of 40 million doses. That puts us towards the front of the international pack, and we have placed orders for 300 million further doses from five other vaccine candidates that have yet to report their phase 3 results, including the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
I want to make it clear to the House that we do not have a vaccine yet, but we are one step closer. There are many steps still to take. The full safety data are not yet available, and our strong and independent regulator the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency will not approve a vaccine until it is clinically safe. Until it is rolled out, we will not know how long its effect lasts, or its impact not just on keeping people safe but on reducing transmission. The deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, said yesterday that this was like the first goal scored in a penalty shoot-out:
“You have not won the cup yet, but it tells you that the goalkeeper can be beaten.”
And beat this virus we must, we can and we will. Yesterday’s announcement marks an important step in the battle against covid-19, but, as the Prime Minister said, we must not slacken our resolve. There are no guarantees, so it is critical that people continue to abide by the rules and that we all work together to get the R number below 1.
If this or any other vaccine is approved, we will be ready to begin a large-scale vaccination programme, first to priority groups, as recommended by the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, then rolling it out more widely. Our plans for deployment of a covid vaccine are built on tried and tested plans for a flu vaccine, which we of course deploy every autumn. We do not yet know whether or when a vaccine is approved, but I have tasked the NHS with being ready from any date from 1 December. The logistics are complex, the uncertainties are real and the scale of the job is vast, but I know that the NHS, brilliantly assisted by the armed services, will be up to the task.
I can tell the House that last night we wrote to GPs, setting out £150 million of immediate support and setting out what we need of them, working alongside hospitals and pharmacies, in preparing for deployment. The deployment of the vaccine will involve working long days and weekends, and that comes on top of all the NHS has already done for us this year. I want to thank in advance my NHS colleagues for the work that this will entail. I know that they will rise to the challenge of being ready, when the science comes good, to inject hope into millions of arms this winter.
The course of human history is marked by advances where our collective ingenuity helps us to vanquish the most deadly threats. Coronavirus is a disease that strikes at what it is to be human, at the social bonds that unite us. We must come together as one to defeat this latest threat to humanity. There are many hard days ahead, many hurdles to overcome, but our plan is working. I am more sure than ever that we will prevail together.
As always, I thank the Secretary of State for advanced sight of his statement. May I just take this opportunity to congratulate President-elect Biden and Vice-President-elect Harris? I am sure the whole House looks forward to close international co-operation to defeat this virus.
I welcome the announcement, in the past 24 hours, of routine testing for frontline NHS staff. The Secretary of State will know that that is something I and the Chair of the Health Committee have been pushing for, for some months. It is welcome that we are now in a position to extend that testing. It is important not just to protect our NHS staff—I join him in thanking them—but for infection control in healthcare settings, too.
On the roll-out of the lateral flow test that the right hon. Gentleman announced today, I understand he is giving discretion to directors of public health. Does he agree that relatives of care home residents should be given priority access to those tests, so they can go into the care home, see their loved ones and even, maybe, hold their hand or hug them?
Testing is only one part of the jigsaw, of course. To avoid this lockdown becoming a let-down, we need to put contact tracing in the hands of public health teams from day one, so will the Health Secretary update the House on how he is fixing contact tracing? He may have seen Dido Harding at the relevant Select Committee just now. She confirmed that when it comes to isolation, people find it “very difficult” and that the “need to keep earning and feed your family is fundamental”. Will he therefore now accept that a better package of financial support is needed to ensure that isolation is adhered to?
On the vaccine, this is a moment of great hope in a bleak dismal year that has shattered so many families. We are optimistic, though cautious—quite rightly. We need to see the full results, the demographic details of the trials and understand the implications for severe cases. There will be clinical judgments by the relevant committee on the priority lists, which we all understand, but can the right hon. Gentleman outline the latest clinical thinking on the vaccination of children? Will the disproportionate impact of the virus on minority ethnic communities be taken into account by the relevant clinicians when drawing up the final priority list? What is the Government’s current working assumption of the proportion of the population that needs to be vaccinated to establish herd immunity and bring R below one? Over what timeframe does he envisage that happening and how many doses does he think we will need? As we vaccinate the most vulnerable, there will be fewer people at risk, and deaths and infections will come down. However, the virus is now endemic, so is it the Government’s current working assumption that social distancing and mask wearing will need to continue until that herd immunity is reached?
Fundamentally, for this to work ,we need a plan for the manufacture and distribution of the vaccine. May I gently suggest to the Secretary of State that the roll-out of test and trace and the early procurement of personal protective equipment was not as smooth as it might otherwise have been? None of us constituency MPs wants to see booking systems overloaded and our constituents told to travel hundreds of miles for a jab, like we saw earlier this year with testing, so what is the plan? Will he publish a strategy? Can he tell us how much will be invested in the covid vaccination programme?
We need secure supply chains. Are the Government working internationally to ensure there are enough raw materials, enzymes and bioreactors to guarantee the mass manufacturing that is needed?
On distribution, the Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept at -70°C. Cold chain transport and storage is needed. A year ago, the Secretary of State used to boast that he was the country’s biggest purchaser of fridges. Is he procuring the appropriate storage equipment now? Will liquid nitrogen and freezers be provided to health centres, doctors’ practices and care homes? Will cold chain distribution be in place in all parts of the country?
Last year, the World Health Organisation described vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health. May I again reiterate my offer to work with him on a cross-party basis to build public confidence in the vaccine, promote take-up and dispel anti-vax myths? I rather suspect all Members working across the House to promote take-up would prove more cost-effective than paying £670,000 of taxpayers’ money to fancy PR consultants.
This is an important moment. We see a glimmer of light in the distance at the end of this long, dark tunnel. Our constituents are hopeful. We look forward to rapid progress in the distribution of the vaccine, so we can all get back to normal.