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Business of the House

Volume 684: debated on Thursday 19 November 2020

The business for the week commencing 23 November will include:

Monday 23 November—Motion to approve the draft Heavy Commercial Vehicles in Kent (No. 1) (Amendment) Order 2020 and the Heavy Commercial Vehicles in Kent (No. 2) (Amendment) Order 2020, followed by a motion to approve the draft Common Organisation of the Markets in Agricultural Products (Miscellaneous Amendments) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 and the draft Common Organisation of the Markets in Agricultural Products (Miscellaneous Amendments) (EU Exit) (No. 2) Regulations 2020, followed by a motion to approve the draft European Union Withdrawal (Consequential Modifications) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020.

Tuesday 24 November—Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Private International Law (Implementation of Agreements) Bill, followed by a motion to approve the draft Prohibition on Quantitative Restrictions (EU Exit) Regulations 2020, followed by motion to approve a money resolution relating to the Prisons (Substance Testing) Bill, followed by a motion relating to the appointment of members to the independent expert panel, followed by a motion relating to the Committee on Standards 11th report of Session 2019-21.

Wednesday 25 November—The Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver the 2020 spending review alongside the Office for Budget Responsibility’s latest economic and fiscal forecast, followed by a general debate on the UK-Japan comprehensive economic partnership agreement.

Thursday 26 November—Debate on a motion relating to the final report from the Climate Assembly UK on the path to net zero, followed by debate on a motion relating to the Work and Pensions Select Committee report on the DWP’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. The subjects for these debates were recommended by the Liaison Committee on behalf of the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 27 November—The House will not be sitting.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business for next week and note that the motion on virtual participation was objected to last night following the urgent question that you granted, Mr Speaker. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept the amendment and, if he finds time for a debate in the House, that there will be a free vote—no proxies—and that all Members can take part equally.

That is just a small step, but what we need is the giant leap to return to where we were. Yesterday, Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister did exactly what you did not want—we had Prime Minister’s questions by Zoom. When the Leader of the Opposition had to isolate, we had the deputies taking part. Perhaps the First Secretary of State and the Prime Minister are scared of our deputy leader, but worryingly, Paul Waugh of the Huffington Post tweeted that the Prime Minister would be taking part virtually in a debate next week. I am not quite sure what the debate is. I am assuming it is the Climate Assembly UK debate, which is listed for Thursday—he definitely did that—so I am not quite sure whether the Prime Minister is designated clinically extremely vulnerable, or maybe he is just politically extremely vulnerable.

Our colleagues have important issues to raise. We now have two classes of MPs and, as the Leader of the House said in response to the urgent question, we have privacy issues around that. The Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), has received advice that the Leader of the House is in breach of article 10, on free speech, of the Human Rights Act 1998—article 14 gives effect to that. I know that the Government do not like the words “Human Rights Act” but if the Leader of the House looks very carefully, he can trace exactly all those human rights via the convention back to Magna Carta of 1215.

I wish the Leader of the House would look at the issue of interventions, because hon. Members have been to Westminster Hall to sit in on the debate, and been told that they could not take part, or even sit there or intervene, because they were not on the call list. Please could he look at that? Will he look again at restoring a hybrid Parliament now that we are in the middle of a pandemic—with 52,000 deaths—complete with remote voting?

Could we have a statement on the EU negotiations? I understand that they are proceeding at a rapid pace. Will the Leader of the House look at establishing a new protocol on the press conferences that will come from No. 10? I am sure you will agree, Mr Speaker, that it is important that we hear from the Prime Minister here first on issues and matters arising in the House, rather than elsewhere, because we have to hold Ministers to account, as the Leader of the House has frequently said.

Accountability and transparency are so important. Exercise Cygnus took place in 2016. The report was only published on 18 October and, as Lord Sedwill said, some recommendations were implemented, but we do not know which. Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate so that we can look at the recommendations and where we are? Many people throughout the country have made sacrifices, and we need to know whether we are implementing those important recommendations.

Last week, I asked about the procurement process, and the Leader of the House said that the Government will have turned out to have behaved impeccably. Has he read the National Audit Office report, “Investigation into government procurement during the COVID-19 pandemic”? It found that the Government were not transparent about suppliers of services when they awarded £18 billion-worth of contracts. It said there were two lanes, with a super-highway for those with special political contacts. Again, I reference “My Little Crony”, the excellent graphic by Sophie Hill. The NAO also said that decisions should be “properly documented” and made transparent if taxpayers’ money is being spent appropriately and fairly but that standards of transparency in documentation were not consistently met. May we have a debate in Government time on that report?

Twenty-one million pounds goes to a middle man, rather than to our frontline staff. The NAO report found that £350 million went to PestFix on false PPE, when our teachers and frontline staff were desperate for that PPE. Perhaps the Leader of the House can look at this ahead of the spending review. My constituent’s daughter, who is an A&E nurse, contracted covid on the second occasion she was working, saving our lives, and she says she has to stump up £300 a year to park—to pay to park to save our lives.

I want to ask about Nazanin, Anoosheh, Kylie and Luke Symons. We must keep their names alive and absolutely in the public domain. Iran is in the middle of a horrendous pandemic. More important, they need consular access, so will the Leader of the House please ensure that they get that? Will he also ensure that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office makes a complaint on behalf of Nazanin? She was used in a game of name that spy. That is a horrendous thing to do when it is not true.

Finally, there is some good news. I congratulate Lewis Hamilton—Lewis Hamilton the seventh. I also congratulate Marcus Rashford on his new book club initiative with Macmillan Children’s Books. We also celebrate UNICEF’s World Children’s Day. Let us all work to make the world a better place for all our children.

Before I come to the right hon. Lady’s specific questions, I have been asked to make right hon. and hon. Members aware that the 18-month review of the independent complaints and grievance service is under way, and it is important that as many people as possible take the opportunity to give their views about the scheme. Alison Stanley recently launched an online survey, and I encourage every member of the parliamentary community to take part. The deadline for giving views is 4 December. I say to Members please do take part in the survey and send any contributions to Alison Stanley directly.

I do of course join the right hon. Lady in celebrating World Children’s Day? As I have six of them, I do my best to promote children as far as I possibly can. It is a cause that I think I can show the House I am fully in favour of. I am grateful to her once again for raising the issue of people illegally detained and the difficulties in getting access to consular representation. Every week after business questions, I write to Ministers highlighting the issues that have been raised, which obviously includes that on a weekly basis. We are therefore ensuring that it is kept at the forefront of Ministers’ inboxes, and they are doing what they can, though it is not easy with regimes such as Iran.

I turn to the various questions that the hon. Lady raises about a range of issues. I would like to make it clear that during the pandemic, funding is being provided for NHS staff to get free hospital parking. I understand that London’s King’s College Hospital said that it was going to have to increase charges, but it will not now implement that until after the pandemic. It is important that people are treated fairly, and the Government have provided the funding for that.

As regards procurement, the issue is that a great deal had to be done and procured extremely quickly. The Government would have been much more criticised had we not ensured that the equipment needed was provided. So 32 billion pieces of PPE have been provided since the beginning of the pandemic. It is important to recognise that the normal time for a tender is three months, and often it runs to six months. Had these normal procedures been followed, we would not have been getting any additional equipment until October. Are right hon. and hon. Members who are complaining about procurement saying that the Nightingale hospitals should not have been opened until October? It is a ridiculous proposition. Speed was of the essence and speed is what was provided. [Interruption.] The speed that was provided was what was necessary, and it is worth pointing out that the vast majority of contracts of more than £120,000 in value have been published. That is important because transparency will ensure, and will show, that things are handled properly.

The right hon. Lady raises questions once again about virtual participation. She said that there should be a vote with no proxies. That would make it very difficult for Members. The reason for having so many proxies is to ensure that the Division Lobbies are not overcrowded and that the estate remains as covid-secure as possible. That has been the fundamental principle of what we have been doing. The House has gone to great efforts, Mr Speaker, particularly under your leadership, to be a covid-secure workplace, not just for Members but crucially for those employed directly by the House and for members of staff at the point when they are coming in.

Virtual participation is allowed in a number of areas such as Select Committees and interrogative proceedings, but it is not allowed in other areas, except—we hope, if certain people do not object to it—in debates, for people who are extremely clinically vulnerable. The question we have to face is whether we should be treated in the same way as our constituents. The Government advice is that those who are extremely clinically vulnerable should not go to work, but that if people need to go to work, they should. We are in that position. We need to come into work to do our job fully. People have to ask themselves whether they feel that they do their job fully when they are entirely remote. I think that they will feel that they do not. They cannot attend Public Bill Committees; they cannot attend Delegated Legislation Committees—

That is not true. There are not the resources to do it across all these various forums. The resources are limited, and it is a question of how they are shared out. We are ensuring that the bits that need to be done physically are, and that MPs are here to meet other MPs, to see Ministers, to go to Westminster Hall, to do the great variety of things that amount to the fullness of the role of the Member of Parliament. Fundamentally, we should be in the same boat as our constituents. MPs do themselves and their reputation harm when they argue that they should have special treatment, as if we were some priestly caste.

With regard to the right hon. Lady’s point about human rights and freedom of speech, pull the other one, it’s got bells on. We have freedom of speech in this Chamber. It is protected by the Bill of Rights. It is fundamental, and that is one of the reasons for coming together in this Chamber.

Pharmacists have remained open during this pandemic, not only in Carshalton and Wallington but across the country. Pharmacists tell me that they are ready to do much more than they can currently provide, including covid vaccinations. May we have a debate about expanding the role of community pharmacies and ensuring that they have the funding model that reflects the work they do?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Pharmacies have shown themselves to be a bedrock of local communities this year. Their doors have remained open and the pharmacists within welcoming and wise. They have been a model of public service, and I commend community pharmacies for the essential work that they have done throughout the pandemic. The drive to vaccinate the nation will require a great national effort, and my hon. Friend makes an important point about the role of pharmacists in distributing and administering the vaccine. He is right to raise it, and I will pass his suggestion on to the Secretary of State.

The Leader of the House confuses matters with references to MPs as key workers. Of course our democracy cannot be compromised by covid. Members must represent their constituents and hold the Government to account, but we do not need to be in this place to do that. His continual references to “coming to work” show that he does not understand the distinction between work and place of work. It seems that he is unable to grasp the fact that many Members are working remotely. We should help them to do that. Indeed, that is precisely what we are exhorting every other employer in the land to do. A majority of Members want to participate in debates without putting themselves and the public at risk, and they should not have to divulge confidential medical information to do so. When will the Leader of the House listen to his own Back Benchers, the Procedure Committee and the Liaison Committee and switch the virtual technology back on?

Let me turn to another matter. Does the Leader of the House agree with the Prime Minister that devolution north of the border has been a disaster, and that it was Tony Blair’s biggest mistake? Does he understand the insult that this is to the Scottish public? The Prime Minister may claim that he is referring to the SNP Government, but that Government only exist because the people of Scotland have voted for them—not once, not twice, but three times. The truth is that the Prime Minister is attacking the democratic decision of the people. Donald Trump would indeed be proud. The exposure of this level of disrespect from a British Prime Minister presents us with a grave constitutional problem. We need to have an urgent debate on devolution, not just, as I have argued for the past six months, to review its efficacy in the light of covid, but to clarify whether the British Government respect their own constitution. In May, the Scottish electorate will vote again. Now that the Prime Minister’s contempt for devolution is clear, a great many people will realise that the only way to protect the limited powers we have is to grasp the political power and capacity that come with independence.

As I have set out before, I and the whole House have the greatest sympathy for people who are extremely clinically vulnerable and are advised not to come into work and to making provisions for them to participate. I have sympathy for people who are in difficult circumstances that do not fall into that category, even if the guidelines do not actually provide them with the security that they may be asking for. I have much less sympathy for members of the Scottish National party who do not actually like coming to Parliament in the first place.

As regards what the Prime Minister said about devolution, let us look at the SNP Government’s record, because it is a tragic record of failure. Schools were once the pride of Scotland, but schooling in Scotland has gone down under the SNP’s reign. Scotland has fallen to 15th in reading, from sixth in 2000. For maths, it is 31st—nine places lower than England—and down from 17th in 2006 and fifth in 2000. The SNP Government have therefore failed in terms of schools. They have also failed in terms of the economy; before the pandemic, Scotland’s economy was forecast to trail the UK for the foreseeable future. They have failed in terms of policing; crime is on the rise, and most areas of Scotland have fewer police officers on the frontline since the SNP forced the police merger through.

Before the crisis, the SNP was causing the NHS to suffer. The £850 million waiting times improvement plan was a failure; Scotland’s public sector watchdog said that the NHS was under increasing pressure in 2019; and the SNP has failed to tackle Scotland’s chronic shortage of GPs. After years and years of SNP grandstanding on welfare, the party is failing to deliver on its own welfare promises, and SNP Ministers even had to hand back responsibility for one benefit to the Department for Work and Pensions.

The failure of devolution is the failure of the Scottish National party, and—just to add to the fun of it—its members are also mired in some discussion about who can remember who sent texts to whom, but it might be ungracious of me to delve into the inner workings of the relationship between very fishy Scottish figures.

As was mentioned earlier, lifting our spirits from the gloom of lockdown, on Sunday Lewis Hamilton secured his seventh Formula 1 world championship, having smashed through all the other records, with 94 race wins—seven of which were here at home, at Silverstone—and 97 pole positions. He is without doubt the most successful British sportsman. As he won the Turkish Grand Prix, he said:

“That’s for all the kids out there that dream the impossible. You can do it too”.

With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend join me in sending the congratulations of this House to Lewis Hamilton for all that he has achieved, agree that it is high time that he was honoured with a knighthood, and schedule a debate on ensuring that children are encouraged to take up science, technology, engineering and maths subjects to become the engineers of the future and take up motorsport in Lewis Hamilton’s tyre tracks?

May I just say that knighthoods are not a matter for the Leader of the House? He has many duties, but that is not one of them.

One of my children thinks that Mr Ben Stokes ought to have a knighthood, too, and I point out to him that this is also not a matter for me.

The right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) also wanted to congratulate Lewis Hamilton. What a fantastic performer he has proved to be, and what a model for the nation. He is, statistically, the most successful Formula 1 driver in history and it puts him among the greatest sportsmen that this nation has ever had. I must confess: is there not a little bit of all of us, when we are driving, that rather wishes that we were Lewis Hamilton? When we are stuck at a red traffic light and the M4 stretches out for miles in front of us, we think, “If only we could put our foot down a little and go a bit faster.” So I admire him, I congratulate him and I am even a little bit jealous of him.

He might have to convert to electric as well. Let us go to the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee.

I am not sure where the Leader of the House would put his six children in a Formula One car.

Next Thursday, we have two debates suggested by the Liaison Committee, and the Leader of the House has been kind enough to tell us what they are. I will just explain to the House that this is a time swap for estimates day debates, which are chosen by the Backbench Business Committee on behalf of the Liaison Committee. Although we are slowly but surely getting through the backlog of applications since the reopening of Westminster Hall, we still have a queue of about 20 as yet unallocated debates, so we hope that the recent flow of time for Backbench Business continues for the remainder of this Session.

Before coming to the House, I was for 27 years a member of council. I care deeply about the welfare of Gateshead Council, its staff and all the people that it serves. We keep hearing from Ministers about how much money has been allocated to local authorities in response to the pandemic. In Gateshead we have received, I understand, about like £22 million, but the expenditure on managing the pandemic is something like £70 million, so there is a shortfall of £50 million or so. Can we do something about redressing this imbalance of expenditure over income as a result of the pandemic for local authorities around the country?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding the House about the swap for estimates days with the Liaison Committee.

On council funding, I just remind the hon. Gentleman that, so far, £7.2 billion has been given to local councils in additional expenditure, plus £24 billion for local businesses, and another £3 billion included in that sum was announced recently, so there is a very large flow of funds going to councils to support them in this very difficult period, which means that they are getting the money that they need.

In addition to previous generous support, the Government have recently granted Crawley Borough Council a further £5.6 million for the latest period of covid-19 restrictions, yet this local authority, which unfortunately has a record of financial mismanagement and reserves of well over £20 million, is complaining that it is not enough. Can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government about ensuring that such irresponsible councils are audited?

My hon. Friend raises a really important point. I have just set out the very large amounts of money that are being made available, but some incompetent councils are not spending that money well. It is noticeable that they are often socialist-run councils that are not doing things properly, and he is right to want to ensure that they are held to account. Last year, the Government commissioned Sir Tony Redmond to undertake a comprehensive review of the quality of external audit, and the Government are considering its findings and will respond in due course.

The Leader of the House, being a father to six children himself, will hopefully be aware that on Tuesday we marked World Prematurity Day. He may not, though, be aware of the specific struggles that thousands of families up and down the country who have incredibly poorly babies in neonatal care are currently going through. I can truly say from my own experience that those days, weeks and months spent worrying about your neonate are honestly some of the most agonising you will ever go through as a parent. Parents with children in neonatal care should clearly be able to take specific leave from their jobs and should not be financially out of pocket because of doing so. Will the Leader of the House therefore please commit to a debate in Government time to address this issue and ultimately give hope to parents in their time of absolute desperation?

I have the greatest sympathy for what the hon. Lady has set out, and I have some direct knowledge of the issue—not with my own children, but from children who are closely connected to me. It is a very difficult and troubling time for parents and they deserve support. In the first place, I urge the hon. Lady to seek an Adjournment debate, but I think the sympathy of the whole House is with the argument she has made.

The Guardian newspaper has applied for the release to the media of character references that were provided to a judge solely to assist in sentencing during a criminal trial. If allowed, this would be a fundamental change of practice, with far-reaching consequences for the criminal justice system. Will my right hon. Friend allow time for an urgent debate on this vital matter?

It would obviously be wrong for me to comment on a specific case, but my hon. Friend raises a concerning point. If people have, in a generality, given evidence to a trial on the understanding that is confidential, it risks people not being willing to give such evidence in future if what is believed to be confidential turns out not to be. A just system requires certainty, whatever degree of certainty that is. In individual cases, I understand that it is a matter for the trial judge, under rule 5 of the criminal procedure rules, but I will of course refer this matter to my right hon. and learned Friends the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney General.

As we head into phase 4 lockdown in Glasgow on Friday, this is a really difficult time for small businesses such the Velvet Moon gift shop in Finnieston, the magical Big Top toy shop in Charing Cross, independent cafés such as Canary Girl Coffee Co, and the brand-new Cùrlach hairdressers in Govanhill, so may we have a debate on what we can all do to support small businesses and their owners as we head towards the festive period?

The magical Big Top toy shop sounds like a wonderful place to visit, full of treats. I wish I were going to be in Glasgow in the run-up to Christmas and have the opportunity to visit it, but I fear that will not be possible on a number of counts. The hon. Lady raises a matter of concern to Members from all parties and throughout the various parts of the United Kingdom. A great deal of support has been given to businesses—overall, there has been £100 billion in business support via bounce back loans, grants, rate reliefs and VAT deferrals—but the current level of closures is very difficult, particularly for small businesses. If the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), is still on the line, he will understand that many Members would like to debate this important subject.

It is National Lorry Week, and there are very few people in this country who have not relied on the transport industry’s keeping calm and carrying on doing the pandemic. Whether it is food, goods, machinery or medicine, if we need it, the transport industry delivers it, often while we are sleeping. In the Stroud constituency, companies such as Cullimore, Smiths, Howard Tenens and many more employ thousands of people in Gloucestershire, and they have my thanks. Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement on this vital industry—which is dealing with covid, drivers’ facilities and Brexit planning, and doing so much to reduce its carbon footprint—and to celebrate the Road Haulage Association’s “HGV Heroes”?

My hon. Friend is right to raise the fantastic work that lorry drivers do. “HGV Heroes” is a great title for them, because they have continued to work throughout the pandemic and have been absolutely essential in ensuring that we are supplied with the necessities of life. National Lorry Week is a good thing to celebrate. Although when one is stuck behind a convoy of lorries on the M4 thinking that one wants to be Lewis Hamilton, one may not be as sympathetic as one ought to be, they are actually essential to the lifeblood of our nation: they keep the wheels of the economy turning and the engine of growth functioning.

May I also congratulate Lewis Hamilton on his extraordinary achievement, but since the Leader of the House and I enjoy disagreeing, I have to say I absolutely do not feel tempted to speed when I sit behind my wheel. Speeding belongs to the racetrack, not on our roads.

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and we have made a lot of progress since towards equality for people living with a disability. However, the pandemic has greatly disadvantaged people living with a disability, and we risk going backwards on the progress we have made, so can we have a debate in Government time about disability discrimination since the pandemic started?

I am delighted that the hon. Lady wants to celebrate the great achievement of my noble Friend Lord Hague, who was the Minister who piloted the Disability Discrimination Act through Parliament 25 years ago. It was a landmark piece of, it has to be said, Conservative legislation. It would be a good thing to debate the success of this legislation and the Conservatives’ commitment over 25 years to ending disability discrimination—I think that is something all parties wish to see. I cannot promise a debate in Government time, but the hon. Lady knows how to go about applying for debates in other ways.

Last week, our nation came together to give our thanks and to honour the extraordinary sacrifices of those who gave their today for our tomorrow. Rutland and Melton is home to a great number of our armed forces and a thriving veteran community, and it is a deep privilege to represent them every single day. Does my right hon. Friend share my concerns about a sinister anti-poppy campaign that offensively seeks to recast poppies as a sign of nationalism and warmongering when, in fact, poppies are a sign of our gratitude for our safety and security and a universal symbol of human virtue and loss?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The growing popularity of the poppy appeal in the past 20 years has been a wonderful expression not only of popular patriotism, but of an understanding that the first world war was the war to end all wars. The poppy was the symbol of regrowth after disaster. It was not there to be something to be jingoistic about. People who think that it is are misunderstanding it and are joining in a rather unpleasant anti-British culture that sees the sacrifice made by our ancestors as jingoistic, rather than as something actually to safeguard liberty, freedom and hope.

Last week, the all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood published our report on access to treatment for people with bleeding disorders. Sadly, we found that many patients were not included in decisions about their treatment, and we found a lack of diagnosis and access to treatment for girls and women. As the Leader of the House knows, this group was at the centre of the scandal that is currently the subject of the NHS infected blood inquiry. Improvements to treatment need not wait for the outcome of Sir Brian Langstaff’s inquiry, though, so can we please have a debate on how the Government might take forward the 19 recommendations in our report?

The hon. Lady has campaigned on this issue so effectively for a long time and has been enormously successful in her campaign, and rightly so, because the contaminated blood issue is one of great seriousness and difficulty for the people who were affected. I cannot promise her a debate, but as I have said to her before, if there are specific issues she would like taken up with Ministers from these sessions, I will unquestionably do so on her behalf.

I hope the Leader of the House will agree with me that the greatest achievement so far of the Prime Minister, among many achievements, is to implement the decision of the British people to leave the EU. This Tuesday, Lord Frost indicated that the trade deal may well be landed. If that is the case, will the Leader of the House guarantee a statement on that day and, later in the week, a debate on the trade deal or, if there is not a trade deal, on what will come next? Let us be able to celebrate what is a fantastic achievement by our Prime Minister.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Paeans of praise should be prepared for our Prime Minister in celebration of his achievement in getting us out of the European Union and delivering what was promised to the British people and what they voted for, but my hon. Friend asks me to guarantee something based on something that is theoretical, and a guarantee based on something that is theoretical is not really a guarantee, so I cannot give it.

Surely, in reality, the most important issue facing the country and this House is the renewal or otherwise of the lockdown, so I am surprised and slightly concerned that it is not clear when that will be debated. Many MPs on all sides want to move on from risk avoidance to evidence-based risk management. Many sporting and leisure venues have invested in helpful and costly improvements, and whether they are football and rugby clubs, racecourses, betting shops, bingo halls, casinos, airports, shops, gyms, pubs, clubs, restaurants or cafés, they all need some degree of change, help and actual opportunity. Can we have an urgent focused debate and a vote on proper alternatives, rather than the usual all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it approach?

One of the things the right hon. Gentleman asks for is not possible, because statutory instruments are introduced on the basis of take it or leave it. The law has to be clear, and it has never been possible to amend statutory instruments. On his broader point, I am glad to say we have the most freedom-loving Prime Minister that we could have. In at least 100 years, there has been no other Prime Minister who is more freedom-loving, and therefore the desire to get back to ordinary ways of living is very strong, assuming that it can be done in a way that is safe for the nation at large. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Government have made a commitment that any matters of national significance will be brought before this House before they are introduced. I cannot give the timings on that, because the decisions have not been made, but the basic choice of the House is that any new statutory instruments will come before the House for a vote if they are of national significance.

My right hon. Friend is justly and naturally proud of the county of Somerset—it is, after all, the cheese capital of the south-west—but he will know that while his half-naked ancestors were sitting about watching what happens when you leave milk out for a very long time, the men and women of Wiltshire were building some of the wonders of the ancient world, such as Avebury, Stonehenge and Silbury Hill. Does he agree that, for the sake of both our counties, the Great West Way, which is the tourist trail between London and Bristol following ancient routes—including the Kennet and Avon canal, where the speed limit is only 4 mph—deserves all our support? Does he share my hope that next week’s spending review will include a commitment to fund new tourism zones, of which the Great West Way should be the first and the greatest?

My hon. Friend is right to say that Wiltshire is a great county, because in 878 it was on the right side of the battle of Edington, where Alfred defeated the Danes and where the good people of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire came together for that historic victory on which this country is essentially founded. He is wrong, however, to highlight the ancient monuments of Wiltshire, because there is a much better one in Stanton Drew. It is of greater antiquity, greater beauty and greater interest, and I would suggest that people go to Stanton Drew rather than to Stonehenge so that they do not have to worry about the A303. However, the Great West Way is a fantastic route—one can make a detour from it to go and visit Edington, where the battle may have taken place. The Government are supporting it via the £45 million Discover England fund, so let Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire rejoice in our shared and distinguished history.

Just for the record, the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) might want to know that the Leader of the House last week said how important it was to see Stonehenge, as one travels past it on the A303.

As you know, Mr Speaker, we have a public health emergency in Hull, with the highest covid infection rate in the country, but my city is being left in the dark with no contact from Ministers and we are being hung out to dry without any additional financial support. Could we please have a statement on why no Government Minister has picked up the phone to our council leader, Councillor Stephen Brady?

I know that this matter came up in the debate yesterday and that the Paymaster General, my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), responded to say that

“during the course of the debate I arranged for the covid-19 taskforce—who, through the Cabinet Office and my office, will co-ordinate this—to have a meeting with the hon. Lady”—

the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson)—

“ and any other people, whether colleagues in this place or the local resilience forum.”—[Official Report, 18 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 430.]

So I believe that this is in hand, as of yesterday.

May we have an early debate, in Government time, on the regulation and prevention of online harms? This afternoon’s Backbench Business debate, which was already the amalgamation of two approved Backbench Business Committee debates on the subject, has had its time substantially truncated by Government business on the Order Paper today. This is a matter of considerable concern to colleagues in the House—the debate was heavily subscribed—and to people outside it, and of course the Government’s online harms Bill is still long-awaited.

Online harms continue to be a priority of the Government, and we are firmly committed to making the UK the safest place to be online. My right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office are working to introduce legislation next year. We will also be publishing our full response to the online harms White Paper consultation. My hon. Friend will have a further opportunity to raise this issue again during the Backbench Business debate on the regulation and prevention of online harms, and I am sure there will be other opportunities in due course.

The Leader of the House will be aware of the National Audit Office report on Government procurement during the pandemic, which, although acknowledging the exceptional circumstances that did apply, identified many problems with the processes that had been undertaken and highlighted the need to maintain public trust in the process. I accept that there are regular general debates on covid-19 in the Chamber, but this report surely merits a more detailed exploration by Members. Will he therefore make time, in early course, for a full debate in this Chamber on that report and its content?

I refer to what I said earlier: there has been an extraordinary success in procurement, which had to be done quickly and everybody wanted it done quickly. For example, the vaccine taskforce has secured agreements for 350 million doses of seven leading vaccines; 300,000 people have signed up to the vaccine registry to accelerate this development; and, through Test and Trace, nearly 36 million tests have been completed and we have the capacity to test half a million a day. I believe that 80% of contracts over £120,000 have been published so far, so that there is transparency. There is always a choice; everyone knows that if they have a leak at 2 o’clock in the morning and call the plumber out, it costs more than if they book the plumber to come in three months’ time. We were in the situation of having a leak at 2 in the morning, so it was inevitably expensive.

Does the Leader of the House agree that given the nature of our role, MPs who can attend Parliament in person should do so and that any motion to extend remote participation to debates should be based on clinical vulnerability, in accordance with the Government guidance, rather than personal choice? Our fantastic broadcast team, Parliament’s house staff, teachers, postmen, supermarket workers, delivery drivers and our NHS workers leave home to go to work, and so should we.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. Members of Parliament are key workers and should not be treated any differently from other key workers, many of whom have been continuing to come into work since the start of the pandemic. It is the Government’s strong view that Parliament best serves the UK public when MPs are present in Westminster carrying out their essential functions. Just as hospitals and schools provide essential services in health and education, Parliament performs an essential constitutional role, making and changing legislation, debating key issues and scrutinising the work of government. The House authorities have made every effort to ensure that the physical proceedings in operation are in line with Public Health England guidance and safe for Members and the staff of the House. Our approach has evolved as the pandemic has evolved, and we are pleased that this latest change, if it is accepted by the House, will allow those who are clinically extremely vulnerable to participate.

I have a number of constituents whose landlords have backtracked on their word, having said that they would give rent relief but now saying that it is only a rent deferral. They have even been taken to court because the law is weak and the advice is unclear. Can we have a proper debate about housing and whether the Government will fulfil their manifesto commitment of bringing forward a renters’ rights Bill that will ban section 8 and section 21 evictions once and for all?

It is worth setting out what the Government have done. During the first wave, evictions were banned for six months, protecting 8.6 million households. We then doubled the eviction notice period from three to six months, meaning that if someone is served notice today, they can stay in their home until May in all but the most serious cases. Tenants are being protected, but obviously there needs to be a balance between landlord and tenant.

I understand that the housing target standard methodology is being tweaked, but does my right hon. Friend agree that in central London, it needs to be not only tweaked but radically changed? In my local authority, the housing target goes from 450 to almost 3,300—a sevenfold increase. Will he make time for a debate about how we can get more housing, which we urgently need, in a way that is achievable and practical?

I am grateful that my hon. Friend agrees that we must increase housing supply, so that a new generation of young people have the opportunity to buy their own home. The current formula for local housing need is inconsistent with our aim to deliver 300,000 homes annually by the mid-2020s, and we are committed to reviewing it at this year’s Budget. We will amend planning rules so that infrastructure, roads, schools and GP surgeries come before people move into their new homes. We want to get the balance right when determining local housing need, between meeting our target of building 300,000 homes, tackling affordability challenges in the places where people most want to live, and renewing and levelling up our towns and cities.

We have heard a lot from the Prime Minister about Captain Hindsight, but whether it is the economic response and the risk of a cliff edge, testing or the crisis in schools, the Opposition have actually shown a degree of foresight and provided good advice to the Government. Will the Government now engage constructively with advice to solve problems, or do we have to resort during our debates and exchanges to calling the Prime Minister General Chaos and the Health Secretary Major Blunder?

That was very funny; we do all split our sides with laughter. It is worth pointing out the amazing amount that Her Majesty’s Government have done—seven Nightingale hospitals built, the number of ventilators up to 30,000 from 9,000 in March, 32 billion pieces of PPE provided, 500,000 virus tests on 15 November, 12 million testing kits going to 14 million care homes and £200 billion of taxpayers’ money spent to support the economy. There is an amazing record of hard work being done to help us through this difficult period, and advice is welcome from all sources, however eccentric they may be, including the hon. Gentleman.

My right hon. Friend will know that the east midlands has amazing economic potential, and one way in which we can fulfil that potential is the building of a freeport alongside East Midlands airport. That will bring skilled jobs to our region and major investment, and it is supported by Conservative colleagues across the region. Can we have a debate in Government time on the strength of the application that the east midlands is putting forward?

I am tempted, but I am limited by what I am allowed to say. The Government have published a bidding prospectus for freeports in England, setting out how ports can apply for freeport status and further details on our proposals for the policy. The bidding period will close on 5 February, but I wish my hon. Friend’s application for a freeport every success. It is a really exciting policy development. Mr Speaker, you are a kindly gentleman, and I am sure you will look favourably on an application for an Adjournment debate, so that my hon. Friend can praise his area at greater length.

Mr Speaker, I am sure that you, like me, are an avid reader of Martin Lewis’s Money Saving Expert website. Will the Leader of the House join me in commending to our constituents the availability of tax relief for those working from home? Can we have a statement or something else from the Government encouraging our constituents to apply for that tax relief, as many of them are working from home and could do with a bit more money in their pockets?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that important point. It is the job of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to raise the right amount of tax—neither too much nor too little—and therefore it has a duty to help people to claim any reliefs that are available to them. The lack of people claiming pension credit was raised with me the week before last, and the hon. Gentleman’s point about people claiming their entitlements to tax relief is also important and deserves wider publicity.

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

Sitting suspended.