Mr Speaker, I know that you have been updated by my officials on Privy Council terms on the leak investigation that you also referred to in the House on 2 November. As you know, Mr Speaker, I take this matter extremely seriously and I commit myself to returning to update the House in due course.
This morning, I had virtual meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my virtual duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
The pandemic has shown how interconnected we are and how vulnerable we are to global challenges. When we are still grappling with covid, the climate emergency and growing hunger, why are this Government reported to be breaking their own manifesto commitment and cutting the aid budget, which saves lives and builds resilience? Will the Prime Minister stop this retreat from the global stage and take this opportunity to rule that out, here and now?
I can tell the hon. Lady that everybody in this country can be immensely proud of the massive commitments that this country has made, and will continue to make, to tackling poverty and deprivation around the world. I think they can be even prouder of the commitment that we are now making, leading the world to tackle the threat of climate change. The investment we are making, whether through official development assistance or other means, in tackling that problem is second to none across the world. It is the UK that is leading the world in tackling one of the greatest problems that this planet faces.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that it is the current Labour Mayor of London who blew TfL’s finances, which were left in remarkably good condition by the previous Mayor of London, even before the pandemic struck. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Department for Transport will be working with TfL to see what we can do to resolve the problem at Gallows Corner that he mentions, and we will update him in due course.
May I start by sending my best wishes to the Prime Minister and all those across the country who are doing the right thing by following the rules and self-isolating?
Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is one of the proudest achievements of the last Labour Government. Until now, whatever our disagreements, there has been a very broad consensus about devolution, so why did the Prime Minister tell his MPs this week that Scottish devolution is, in his words, “a disaster”?
I think what has unquestionably been a disaster is the way in which the Scottish nationalist party has taken and used devolution as a means not to improve the lives of its constituents, not to address their health concerns or to improve education in Scotland, but—I know this point of view is shared by the right hon. and learned Gentleman—constantly to campaign for the break-up of our country and to turn devolution, otherwise a sound policy from which I myself personally benefited when I was running London, into a mission to break up the UK. That, in my view, would be a disaster. If he does not think that would be a disaster, perhaps he could say so now.
The single biggest threat to the future of the United Kingdom is the Prime Minister, almost every time he opens his mouth. When the Prime Minister said he wanted to take back control, nobody thought he meant from the Scottish people, but his quote is very clear. He said,
“devolution has been a disaster north of the border”.
This is not an isolated incident. Whether it is the internal market Bill or the way the Prime Minister has sidelined the devolved Parliaments over the covid response, he is seriously undermining the fabric of the United Kingdom. Instead of talking down devolution, does he agree that we need far greater devolution of powers and resources across the United Kingdom?
Tony Blair himself, the former Labour leader, has conceded that he did not foresee the rise of a separatist party in Scotland and that he did not foresee the collapse of Scottish Labour. I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman is quite right: there can be great advantages in devolution, and I was very proud, when I was running a devolved administration in London, to do things in which I passionately believed, such as improving public transport, fighting crime and improving housing for my constituents, and we had a great deal of success. What disappoints me is that the Scottish National party—by your ruling on its correct name, Mr Speaker —is not engaging in that basic work. Instead, it is campaigning to break up the Union, an objective that I hope the Leader of the Opposition will repudiate. Will he say so now—that he opposes the break-up of the United Kingdom?
Of course I do not want the break-up of the United Kingdom, but if anything is fuelling that break-up, it is the Prime Minister.
Turning now to the Prime Minister’s handling of the pandemic, the Prime Minister is doing the right thing by self-isolating after being notified by track and trace, but does he think he would have been able to do so if, like so many other people across the country, all he had to rely on for the next 14 days was either statutory sick pay, which is £95 a week—that is £13 a day—or a one- off payment of £500, which works out at £35 a day?
It is good finally to hear something from the right hon. and learned Gentleman in praise of NHS Test and Trace. I think it has secured at least one of his objectives, which is to keep me away from answering his questions in person. I believe that the package that we have in place to protect people and support people throughout this crisis has been outstanding and exceptional. The UK has puts its arms, as I have said many times, around the people of this country—a £200 billion package of support; increasing the living wage by record amounts; uplifting universal credit; many, many loans and grants to businesses of all kinds, and £500 of support for people who are self-isolating in addition to all the other benefits and support that we give. I think it is a reasonable package. I know it is tough for people who have to self-isolate, and I am glad that after a long time in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman simply attacked NHS Test and Trace, he seems now to be coming round and supporting it.
I am not going to take lectures on support—the lockdown measures were passed the other week with Labour votes. Thirty-two of the Prime Minister’s own MPs broke a three-line Whip, and I hear that about 50 of them have joined a WhatsApp group to work out how they are going to oppose him next time around. He should be thanking us for our support, not criticising.
As the Prime Minister well knows, so far as the £500 scheme is concerned, only one in eight workers qualify for that scheme. The Prime Minister always does this: he talks about the number of people he is helping but ignores the huge numbers falling through the gap.
Members here may be able to afford to self-isolate, but that is not the case for many people across the country who send us here. It is estimated that only about 11% of people self-isolate when they are asked to do so—11%. That is not because they do not want to; it is because many do not feel that they can afford to do so. For example, if someone is a self-employed plumber, a construction worker or a photographer and they do not qualify for social security benefits, or if they run a small business and cannot work from home, they are likely to see a significant cut in their income if they have to self-isolate. This is affecting many families across the country. Does the Prime Minister recognise that if we want to increase the number of people who isolate, we need to make it easier and affordable for people to do so?
Again, I think it is extraordinary that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is now coming out in favour of NHS Test and Trace when he has continually attacked it. In fact, the numbers that he gives for the success rate of the NHS self-isolation programme are, according to my information, way too low. We continue to encourage people to do the right thing—it does break the chain of transmission of the disease. As for the self-employed groups that he mentions, we have given £13.5 billion so far in support for self-employed people and have uplifted universal credit in the way that I described.
What we want to do is to get the virus under control, get the R down below 1, which is the purpose of these current measures, encourage people to self-isolate in the way that I am, and thereby stop the disease from spreading so that the firms, professions and businesses that the right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about can get back to something as close as possible to normality as soon as possible. In the meantime, we are giving them every possible support.
The Prime Minister must understand that there is a huge gap in the system, because if someone cannot afford to isolate, there is little point in their being tested or traced.
While the Prime Minister and the Chancellor will not pay people enough to isolate properly, we learned this week that they can find £21 million of taxpayers’ money to pay a go-between to deliver lucrative contracts with the Department of Health and Social Care—£21 million. I remind the Prime Minister that a few weeks ago he could not find that amount of money for free school meals for kids over half-term. Does the Prime Minister think that £21 million to a middleman was an acceptable use of taxpayers’ money?
When this crisis began, we were urged by the right hon. and learned Gentleman to remove the blockages in our procurement process to get personal protective equipment. As he will remember, we faced a very difficult situation where around the world there were not adequate supplies of PPE. Nobody had enough PPE. We shifted heaven and earth to get 32 billion items of PPE into this country. I am very proud of what has been achieved: 70% of PPE is now made, or capable of being made, in this country, when it was only 1% at the beginning of the pandemic. It is entirely typical of Captain Hindsight that he now attacks our efforts to procure PPE. He said then that we were not going fast enough but now says we went too fast. He should make his mind up.
The Prime Minister talks about hindsight; I say catch up. I called for a circuit breaker; the Prime Minister stood there at the Dispatch Box and said it would be a disaster and he was not going to do it. Then he caught up and did exactly that just a few weeks later. We now have a longer, harder lockdown as a result of his delay, so I will not take that from him.
Last week, the Prime Minister could not explain how his Government ended up paying £150 million for contracts that did not deliver a single piece of usable PPE; this week, he is effectively defending the paying of £21 million for a contract with no oversight. This morning, the independent National Audit Office concluded that the Government’s approach was, in its words, “diminished public transparency”. It reported that more than half of all contracts relating to the pandemic, which, Mr Speaker, totalled £10.5 billion, were handed out without competitive tender and that suppliers with political connections were 10 times more likely to be awarded contracts.
We are eight months into this crisis and the Government are still making the same mistakes. Can the Prime Minister give a cast-iron assurance that from now on all Government contracts will be subject to proper process with full transparency and accountability?
All Government contracts are of course going to be published in the due way and they are already being published. Again, I must say that it is extraordinary that the right hon. Gentleman now attacks the Government for securing personal protective equipment in huge quantities. I want to thank again all the people who were involved in that effort: Lord Deighton and literally thousands of others who built up a mountain of PPE against any further crisis.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about transparency and moving too fast to secure contracts. He should know that the shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), wrote to the Government, attacking us for failing to approach various companies, including a football agent who was apparently offering to supply ventilators and a historical clothing manufacturing company that offered to make 175 gowns per week and whose current range includes 16th-century silk bodices. Again, at the time, he bashed the Government for not moving fast enough. It is absolutely absurd that Captain Hindsight is now once again trying to score political points by attacking us for moving too fast. I am proud of what we did to secure huge quantities of PPE during a pandemic. Any Government would do the same.
I can tell my hon. Friend that we do not want any football team to go out of business as a result of this pandemic, and that we are doing everything we can. I understand the frustration of fans, and we want to get crowds back into the ground as soon as possible. As for his invitation to come and watch the Imps, I will do whatever I can to oblige as soon as possible. I will bear his invitation in mind.
May I wish the Prime Minister and all those who are self-isolating well? Over the past 20 years, Westminster has imposed an extreme Brexit, an illegal war in Iraq, £9,000 tuition fees, the Windrush scandal, the rape clause and the bedroom tax, and a decade of Tory austerity cuts which have pushed millions into poverty. At the same time, the Scottish Parliament has delivered free prescriptions, free tuition fees, free personal care, free bus travel, the baby box, the Scottish child payment, and world-leading climate action, all of which make Scotland a fairer and more equal place in which to live. Does the Prime Minister understand why the people in Scotland think it is he and his Parliament that are the real disaster?
I respectfully refer the right hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave to the Leader of the Opposition. I do think that his policies of wanting to break up the Union are a disaster and I wish that he and his party would focus on the real priorities of the people of Scotland—on education, on health, on tackling crime, on housing, and on the issues that matter to all our people. That is what a devolved Government should do. I was very proud to run a devolved administration and that is what we focused on. We did not endlessly go on about constitutional change and the break-up of the UK.
My goodness, I am not sure if the Prime Minister was listening, because I just charted some of the achievements of the Scottish Government delivering on behalf of the people of Scotland. We have seen no apology and no regrets from this Prime Minister. His attack on devolution was not just a slip of the tongue; it was a slip of the Tory mask. The chasm between Westminster and the Scottish people has never been bigger. We know that these were not just flippant remarks, when Scotland faces the biggest threat to devolution with the Tory power grab Bill.
The fact is that Scotland has been completely ignored by Westminster. We now face an extreme Brexit, a power grab and another round of Tory cuts, all being imposed against our will by a Tory Government that we did not vote for. Is it not the case that the real disaster facing the people of Scotland is another 20 years of Westminster Government? Is it not clearer than ever that the only way to protect Scotland’s interests, our Parliament and our place in Europe is for Scotland to become an independent country?
I could not disagree more with the right hon. Gentleman; he is totally wrong. What the UK does as a whole is far bigger, better and more important than what we can do as individual nations and regions. Let us look at the way in which the UK has pulled together during the pandemic: the way in which the armed services have worked to get testing throughout the whole UK; the way in which the furlough scheme has been deployed across the UK; and the billions and billions of pounds that have been found to help people across the whole UK, and businesses in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. The UK has shown its value and will continue to show its value.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about wanting to take Scotland back into the European Union. That seemed to be what he was saying just now. What he and the people of Scotland should understand is that that is a massive surrender of power by the people of Scotland straight back to Brussels, just as this country and the people of Scotland have taken it back again. That is power not just over many aspects of their lives and regulations, but, of course, to control Scottish fisheries as well. All that would be lost under his programme, and I do not believe that it will commend itself to the Scottish people. That programme was decisively rejected in 2014. I believe that it is something that they would almost certainly reject again, but, as he said before—
We are certainly working very fast to see whether we can replace the current quarantine arrangements for every category of self-isolation. Whether it will come fast enough for me, I do not know, but I will keep my hon. Friend informed of developments. We certainly want to help the airline industry.
The people of Northern Ireland will today see again the benefits of the Union, with £165 million invested in rural broadband across Northern Ireland—the result of our agreement with the Government during the last Parliament. Following on from the current population testing initiative in Liverpool, does the Prime Minister agree that Northern Ireland’s 1.8 million population, which is spread across 11 local government districts, would prove ideal for the next phase of the Government’s ongoing programme of work on large-scale covid testing?
I have deep sympathies with people who face this problem. It is not right or fair because if your building is under 18 metres you do not need one of these EWS1 forms, and you would hope that lenders would understand that. But we are working as fast as we can to make sure that all the buildings in question are identified and that we remove cladding wherever it is necessary, and give assurance and security wherever that is necessary too.
That is exactly what we announced only a few weeks ago with the lifetime skills guarantee. The purpose of the lifetime skills guarantee is this: if you are over 23, you are not currently eligible for support from the Government in getting a new skill or a new qualification, but we will now pay you for that skill—we will support you. Particularly in the context of this pandemic, we want to help to train and retrain people throughout their lives so that they can adjust to our changing economy. The hon. Lady makes a very good point.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he is doing to campaign for Grantham and Stamford and for Lincolnshire. I can tell him that we are putting another £125 million into Greater Lincolnshire through the growth deals and another £25 million through the Getting Building fund. We will be bringing forward further measures—I take his point on board very sincerely—to boost investment in UK infrastructure in due course.
This is a global pandemic and one in which the UK has, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, been badly affected, and we mourn every life that has been lost. Of course we are supporting businesses with all the firepower of the UK economy. But I have absolutely no doubt that we will get through this strongly by next spring, as the scientific advisers and the medical officers have said. We have the tools to do it and we have the scientific weaponry to do it. That is why we are engaged in the current restrictions to get the R down to suppress the virus now and to try to get the economy moving in a way that I am sure he would like.
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes and the feeling of unfairness that he describes. What we are trying to do with the business rates holiday and all the other measures we have announced is to help all retailers. The best thing we can do is to get through this tough period as well as we possibly can and allow all retailers to reopen and give them our support with our custom. That is what we are aiming for.
Yes. I am very pleased that Facebook, Twitter and Google have committed that no company should profit from or promote vaccine disinformation and that companies should respond to that kind of content very quickly. We will publish our response shortly to the online harms White Paper consultation and will be setting out our plans for legislation.
The hon. Lady is right in what she says about the impact of child poverty, and that is why this Government have worked so hard to combat child poverty. That is why we did indeed uprate universal credit, which is right for the exceptional circumstances we are in. That was £1,000 a household, and we will continue to support people throughout the country, but the most important thing we can do is to ensure that we get people into work and support families to get the jobs they need. It is the record of this country in creating jobs, and new jobs in particular, that has meant that 400,000 children have been lifted out of poverty in the past 10 years. That is progress. It is not enough, but it is progress.
More than 1 million fellow citizens have recovered after testing positive for covid-19. On 2 November, The BMJ reported that all those people will have protection from their T cells, which will ensure that they cannot be reinfected for at least six months. In light of that, will my right hon. Friend follow the example of Sweden and exempt from all the covid regulations those who have tested positive within the past six months and thereby show that he is following the science and also common sense?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the question and for his campaigning on behalf of the disabled, but I must reject what he says. We have done everything we can to reach out to disabled and vulnerable groups of all kinds, to give them all the advice that we think is necessary and all the support that we possibly can throughout the pandemic. I know that this has been very tough for people, and I thank them for the way that they have pulled together and followed the guidance. It has been particularly tough, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, for disabled people. That is why we have given huge quantities in support, as I said before, to the NHS and to vulnerable groups of all kinds. The way forward now is to keep the virus under control, to come out of the current measures on 2 December, to allow our economy to start moving again, and to use testing and the prospect of a vaccination next year, ready to get the disease under control.
The Prime Minister is aware of the success we have seen across Scotland through city region and growth deals. Moray is set to benefit from the Scottish and the UK Governments’ working together on our local deal. However, will my right hon. Friend agree that the benefit to Moray could be even greater if the UK Government’s contribution were spread over a shorter period than the current 15 years—say, 10 or less? Will he agree that that would be very worthwhile, beneficial and welcomed by everyone involved in the Moray growth deal?
I thank my hon. Friend for this campaign. He has raised the idea with me before. What I can say is that while we will certainly look at what he says, I am very glad that we have signed the heads of terms on the Moray growth deal, delivering over £30 million of investment. I thank him for the lobbying that he has been doing.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of food poverty and of poverty generally. That is why, in answer to the previous question from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), I made the point that we have actually been successful, as we have been championing work and employment, in getting large numbers of families out of poverty. That is what we are going to do. As he knows, we are putting up £170 million to support local councils throughout the winter, so that no child goes hungry this Christmas or over the winter season through any inattention of this Government. I am grateful to him for raising the issue with me.
As the Prime Minister will know, the Scottish cashmere and whisky industries are being hammered by the tariffs imposed by the United States as a result of the trade dispute with the European Union. Those tariffs are now doing serious harm to such iconic Scottish products, costing us jobs in the Scottish borders. Will the Prime Minister reassure me that the Government are doing everything they possibly can to find a resolution to the dispute?
My hon. Friend is entirely right to raise that issue. It continues to be a cause of grave concern, and I raise it repeatedly with our American friends. I am working with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade to reach a negotiated solution as fast as we possibly can.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point, and we are thinking about this issue in Government right now. As he knows, in response to the early data that we saw about the impact on black and minority ethnic groups, we brought forward enhanced testing procedures for particularly vulnerable groups—those who are exposed to a heavy viral load, perhaps in the course of their work. There are other factors at play in the prevalence of the disease among black and minority ethnic groups. I am sure that the point he makes will be among the considerations that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation takes into account in the course of deciding how to roll out the vaccine and where it should go first. He makes an important point.