House of Commons
Thursday 19 November 2020
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
The House entered into hybrid scrutiny proceedings (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Trade Agreements: Food and Farming Standards
The Government are firmly committed to our manifesto pledges to uphold our high environmental, food safety, and animal welfare standards. Under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, our current standards are taken into UK law, and the Secretary of State has now placed the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government’s actions in strengthening the Trade and Agriculture Commission firmly dismiss the rumours that UK food standards would be compromised as a result of Brexit?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Placing the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing will ensure that public and industry interests are advanced and protected in Britain’s agriculture and trade policy. As the National Farmers’ Union said:
“This significant commitment to primary legislation on food standards, both in the Agriculture Bill and the Trade Bill, is exactly what we have been calling for.”
The farmers of South Cambridgeshire are some of the most efficient and environmentally friendly in the country, but they have concerns that they might be undermined in any trade deal by imports that are produced to lower animal welfare or environmental standards. They strongly welcome the Government’s decision to put the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing—a move also welcomed by farming and environmental groups across the country. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what role the commission will play during trade negotiations, to ensure that standards are maintained?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is a reliable supporter of farmers in his constituency. The Agri-food trade and agriculture group will feed in during the negotiations. He also asked about the TAC, and I wish to use this occasion to praise its chairman, Tim Smith, for the excellent work that he has done so far, and in very good time.
Colleagues across the House welcome the news about the Trade and Agriculture Commission’s statutory footing. It will be a strong voice for our farmers, and it will also provide expert independent advice for this House as we consider the impact of each trade deal on agriculture. When does the Minister expect those amendments to be tabled, and for the Trade Bill to resume its progress?
We plan to table that amendment to the Trade Bill on Report in the House of Lords. The scheduling of business is obviously a matter for business managers, but we intend the Bill to be completed by the end of the transition period.
I represent a rural constituency, North Norfolk, where farming is the lifeblood for so many. My farmers are delighted about the Trade and Agriculture Commission’s statutory footing, and that move has also been applauded by the National Farmers Union. Will the Minister reassure my constituents that the commission will protect animal welfare and farming standards, and help to allow the farming sector to assess the deals that come forward for that important sector?
I know from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State how important farming is in Norfolk, in both her constituency and that of my hon. Friend. Farming has a strong voice on the Trade and Agriculture Commission, and the NFU, NFU Scotland, NFU Cymru, the Farmers Union of Wales, and the Ulster Farmers Union are on it. It puts UK farming at the heart of our trade agenda, and allows the sector to help advise on our future trade deals.
I thank the Minister for his answer. The extension of the Trade and Agriculture Commission has been incredibly welcomed by farmers across Ynys Môn, and it shows this Government’s commitment to upholding our high food standards. What feedback has the Minister received from Welsh farmers regarding that move?
My hon. Friend is a strong and passionate voice for Ynys Môn farmers, and the feedback has been extremely positive. Putting the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing has been welcomed by NFU Cymru. Indeed, its president, John Davies, said that this
“is a milestone moment and one that should be welcomed by all those who care about our food, environment and high standards of production.”
Latest figures show that the UK’s agrifood sector is now worth £122 billion to the UK’s economy, and there is plenty of room for growth. As we set out into the world as an independent global trading nation, will my right hon. Friend confirm that, even though we have the weight of the Trade and Agriculture Commission in place, UK agriculture will be at the forefront of his mind as we go forward in future trade negotiations?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and—crucially—we would never want UK agriculture to be sidelined from our trade agenda. We need and have UK agriculture fully on board, to take advantage of selling our fantastic British food and drink produce to foreign markets. Already, for the first time in many years, we are selling beef to the US, pork to Taiwan, and we have secured better agrifood protection in our recent UK-Japan trade deal.
According to blind tasting, French champagne has nothing on sparkling wine from the south downs. Hambledon, Wickham, and Exton Park are vineyards that produce brilliant wine in the Meon Valley, and we have some of the best produce in the UK. Will our free trade agreement support that burgeoning industry?
I look forward to tasting some of this Meon Valley wine, although I have to say that 9.39 in the morning might feel a little early. Our commitment to promoting British wines is very strong. Among the potential 70 geographical indicators in the UK-Japan comprehensive economic partnership agreement deal are: English wine, English regional wine, Welsh wine and Welsh regional wine. We are in regular contact with WineGB and the Wine and Spirit Trade Association to help to promote this vital industry.
After listening to these Whips’ questions, I think I would like some English wine as well, Mr Speaker.
I had a long and detailed discussion with NFU Scotland on Monday. In its words, it is “really worried” about future trade deals. Fundamentally, the UK is a high cost, high food standard regime. It argues that it simply cannot compete with low-cost competition with lower food standards elsewhere. Is it not now time for the Government to change tack, and include chapters on food, animal welfare and standards in trade agreements?
I studied very carefully the hon. Gentleman’s amendment during the passage of the Trade Bill. In many ways, he had an even more extreme amendment than the Labour party in terms of trying to dictate our trade partners’ domestic production standards. That would have killed off a huge amount of our trade with the developing world. He mentions NFU Scotland. I thought I would go directly to the source. I am reading here from The Scottish Farmer, which I recommend he reads. NFU Scotland president, Andrew McCornick, said in The Scottish Farmer only last week, on putting the TAC on a statutory footing:
“This is a huge step forward.”
Putting an organisation on a statutory footing is one thing, but protecting food standards is something different. I think the Minister’s answer is what Americans call doubling down on a previous mistake. Let me give an example. UK egg producers simply cannot compete with imported eggs produced where the density of laying hens may be twice that permitted in the United Kingdom. The only way they could do that would be to massively lower food production and animal welfare standards, something we know from the recent Which? survey the public are implacably opposed to. Is it really the Government’s intention to be on the wrong side of food standards, the wrong side of animal welfare, the wrong side of the farming industry and the wrong side of public opinion?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. He mentions the Which? survey. I was delighted to be the guest speaker at the launch of the Which? survey, “The National Trade Conversation”, where we discussed many of these aspects. To be absolutely clear to him again, our commitment that there will be no lowering of standards on animal welfare, food safety and the environment is absolute. I urge him again to get with the trade agenda and listen to NFU Scotland, which says it will
“strive to ensure that the best interests of farming, food and the drink and the public continue to be front and centre of any trade deals.”
That is exactly the right approach being taken by NFU Scotland. I urge him and the SNP to get on board with that positive approach for the first time, please.
The Government say that they want to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, but some of its members allow growth hormones, genetically modified food in animal foodstuffs and insanitary conditions for animals. The CPTPP is already in operation, of course, and trade is permitted between its members on the basis of lower animal welfare and food production standards. How does the Minister plan to renegotiate the CPTPP to exclude the lower animal welfare and food production standards it contains, given that existing members of CPTPP say that they will not allow new members to change the agreement?
The Secretary of State and I have told the hon. Gentleman time and again at the Dispatch Box that nothing in any trade agreement prevents this country from carrying out its own domestic regulation. We have been absolutely clear that a lot of the production methods and food standards he describes will remain illegal in this country after 1 January. He mentions CPTPP. I urge him to get on board with a positive agenda. Joining CPTPP, a trading group of 11 countries, including Canada, Singapore and Japan, will be a fantastic opportunity. I am not expecting him to support it, because of course he never supported trade deals with those countries in the first place, but I might hope he could reconsider now.
Let us head to the Chair of the International Trade Committee up in Scotland, Angus Brendan MacNeil.
A very good morning to you, Mr Speaker, on the day you have been waiting for: the day of the first report on the UK-Japan comprehensive economic partnership agreement from my Committee. I am sure that you are looking forward to reading it. Indeed, we are hoping to have a debate in your Chamber, Sir, before the end of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act process—just to let you know.
On food and farm standards, yesterday we heard from Tony Abbott, the former Australian Prime Minister and now adviser to the Board of Trade, who said that when he had an important deal to do with China, he took the state premiers of Australia with him. I wonder whether the Ministers at the Department for International Trade will consider doing the same for important trade agreements, taking the Welsh Minister, Jeremy Miles, the Northern Irish Minister, Diane Dodds, and the high-flying Scottish Minister, Ivan McKee, who might indeed be leader of the Scottish National party and First Minister one day. We need that to happen given that the UK Government are ready to burn particular sheep farming in Wales and Scotland by being outside the 45% tariffs. It is not just our standards, but the standards of our neighbours that are really going to matter for farming.
I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for that, and I look forward to reading his report. When it comes to the devolved Administrations, we all need to respect the devolution settlement, which is that trade policy is a reserved matter and the UK Government carry out their negotiations on behalf of the whole United Kingdom. It is also right, however, that we consult the devolved Administrations, which is why, since May, when I took over the role of interaction with the devolved Administrations in this Department, I have had six meetings with Minister Ivan McKee. We have the quarterly ministerial forum for trade. I have already described how NFU Scotland, two farming unions of Wales and the Ulster Farmers Union are on the Trade and Agriculture Commission. We also make sure that our trade advisory groups include representatives from the devolved Administrations. Our commitment is clear to negotiating the best possible deals for the whole United Kingdom, while making sure that voices from Scotland and the other devolved Administrations are very much included.
UK-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement
Our deal with Japan secures opportunities for businesses in the north-west, which currently export goods worth £380 million to Japan. We have agreed an SME chapter that will make it easier for SMEs to cut the red tape on customs and ensure they have access to a dedicated website of opportunities.
Burnley has a significant engineering sector, creating highly specialised parts for aircraft and cars, so will my right hon. Friend tell us what impact the UK-Japan deal will have on those businesses in Burnley?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the aerospace and automotive industry is incredibly important for Burnley. That is why it was important that we saw all the tariff benefits that were previously negotiated retained in the new deal, as well as additional benefits, such as a new data and digital chapter that goes far beyond what the EU has agreed and really helps to support our advanced manufacturing sector.
The Secretary of State has repeatedly claimed that the deal that she signed with Japan goes far beyond the original EU-Japan deal, so I return to the question that I asked her two months ago: will she tell us, in billions of pounds and percentages of growth, what the forecast benefits are for UK exports in GDP from her deal, compared with the forecast benefits of retaining the existing EU-Japan deal?
It is interesting that the right hon. Lady is interested in the difference, because the Labour party did not support the original deal with Japan. If it was down to Labour, we would not even have this deal in the first place. We have been very clear about the additional benefits that we have secured: better provisions on digital and data, better provisions on business mobility, a better position on intellectual property, better protection of British geographical indicators—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) is shouting, “How much is it worth?” from a sedentary position? Why, when we have left the EU, do Labour Members constantly seek to compare us with the existing EU provisions? It is almost like the Labour party never wanted us to leave in the first place.
What is going on? The Secretary of State claims that the UK-Japan deal goes far beyond the EU-Japan deal but will not quantify the difference. Why not? If she will not publish the exact figures at this point, will she at least do one basic thing and simply state on the parliamentary record whether the growth in our exports and GDP is forecast to be higher as a result of the UK-Japan deal than it was under the EU-Japan deal?
I think it is extraordinary that the right hon. Lady is asking me to carry out economic analysis on behalf of the EU. She has not asked me about the Australia-Japan deal and whether that is better or about the deal that China has with Japan or any other deals. Why is she me asking me about the EU? We have left the EU, and it is no longer our responsibility to do economic calculations for it. I have been clear, however, that this deal goes further and faster and brings in additional economic benefits.
Is it higher?
Yes, it is higher.
It is higher—at last!
There we are.
Free Trade Agreement: Canada
We are determined to reach a deal with Canada before the end of the year. It is a fellow G7 member and one of the top 10 economies in the world. It will help our trade, from cars to beef, fish and whisky, in a trading relationship already worth £20 billion.
I was glad to see the good news on Bloomberg that there is great hope that we will conclude that deal. Does the Secretary of State share my hope that Canada, like Japan, will go further with us in agreeing free trade than it has with the European Union?
What we are negotiating at the moment is the vital continuity agreement, but I do hope that, in the future, as Canada is a member of the trans-Pacific partnership that has advanced chapters in areas such as data and digital, we will be able to go much further and build a much deeper relationship.
With just days to go, and with not just this continuity agreement still to be completed, British exporters such as our car manufacturers simply do not know whether they will face tariffs potentially as high as 20% in markets as diverse as Mexico and Vietnam and beyond. Is it not the truth that the Secretary of State has focused too much of her time chasing new deals with the Trump Administration and others and taken her eye off protecting the free trade that we already have?
The Government have completed trade deals with 52 different countries covering £146 billion-worth of trade. That is a massive achievement. Unlike the Labour party, we are not prepared to agree to any deal put on the table; we will work hard to get a deal that is in Britain’s interests. There are deals ready to go with the countries the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but I am not prepared to do a bad deal to push things forward. We are pushing all those deals forward, and we are making good progress.
Inward Investment: UK and other European Countries
Latest Office for National Statistics figures report that the UK’s inward foreign direct investment stock reached £1.5 trillion in 2018—a new record. According to the United Nations conference on trade and development, the UK held the highest FDI stock in Europe in 2019. The Financial Times FDI report highlights that last year the UK had more greenfield FDI projects than any other country in Europe at 1,271; by comparison, Germany had 702 and Spain 658. We are looking to go even further to improve our high value investment offer, which is why the Prime Minister launched the Office for Investment just last week.
I congratulate the Minister on the impressive inward investment results so far. What is he doing to boost investment and broader trading relationships between the UK and the Asia-Pacific region and, in particular, those with Pakistan, which is of interest to a number of businesses in my constituency?
There can be no greater or more persistent champion of UK-Pakistan relations than my hon. Friend. The Government remain committed to increasing trade and investment with the Asia-Pacific region. We have signed a free trade agreement with Japan, are negotiating FTAs with Australia and New Zealand and hope to be able to apply for formal accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, as already discussed. At the end of the transition period, the UK will put in place its own generalised scheme of preferences, and my hon. Friend will be delighted to learn that Pakistan will continue to receive the same market access to the UK next year. The scheme will help British and Pakistani businesses to continue trading seamlessly after we end the transition period.
UK Trade Policy: US Presidential Election
We have made good progress on our US deal, agreeing the majority of text and the majority of chapters. We are working with both sides of the House in the US for a deal that benefits both our two nations.
But if the Secretary of State’s global Britain is to mean anything, we must not put all our eggs in one basket. I think it fair to say that, in recent times, the Secretary of State has bet everything on securing a trade deal with the Trump Administration. She might want to conclude a deal with Canada, but the Prime Minister there said that the Secretary of State had lacked the “bandwidth” to focus on getting a deal with his country. Does she intend to ignore that criticism and continue making a deal with the US her dominant priority? If so, what confidence does she have that the Biden Administration will feel the same way in terms of their own priorities for trade?
We have now secured trade deals with 52 countries. We have secured a deal with Japan that goes beyond and above the EU’s agreements, we are working on accession to the trans-Pacific partnership and we are negotiating with Australia and New Zealand, so we are by no means entirely focused on the US, but it is our largest single country trading partner. I am always struck by the anti-Americanism among Opposition Members. They simply do not understand that these deals are incredibly important for British business. As for the comments from overseas Governments on our trade negotiations, it is interesting that Labour Members simply like to repeat their “lines to take”. Maybe they need to think of some of their own ideas.
We are all aware, sadly, that the Prime Minister has a litany of racist, sexist and homophobic remarks, but to the detriment of our national interest, it seems that some of his foul-mouthedness has now caught up with him. In particular, his derogatory remarks on President—
Order. Unfortunately, this has to be linked to the question that has been asked.
It is, Mr Speaker.
Right, well the hon. Gentleman had better get there quickly, please.
It seems that the Prime Minister’s foul-mouthedness has now caught up with him. In particular, his derogatory description of President Obama being part-Kenyan with an ancestral dislike of the British empire—
Order. I am sorry, this has to be linked to the trade question. This is completely off beam. I am sorry, but we have got to stick to the question. As important as this matter is, and the hon. Gentleman quite rightly wishes to get it in, this is not the question to do so—
It definitely is, Mr Speaker.
I am going to make that judgment, and the judgment so far is that it is not. We are wasting time for other Members.
One of many sources of hope at the US election result is that after four years of climate change denial, President-elect Biden is talking about the global climate crisis and the action we must take to address it. Will the Secretary of State support him in those endeavours by guaranteeing to put climate change co-operation and green technology at the heart of any US-UK trade deal?
I am absolutely delighted to hear somebody on the Labour Benches being in favour of a trade deal. That is a real step forward. Of course we will have strong environmental provisions at the heart of our trade deal with the United States. I remember that Labour Members did not support a trade deal with President Obama, and they do not support a trade deal with the current Administration, but I am delighted to hear that they are supporting a trade deal with the new Administration. I look forward to working with them to ensure that the climate change provisions are excellent.
A new US President and Congress will not ratify a trade deal if we scupper the Good Friday agreement; our banning of Huawei infrastructure has angered China, and now this Government are prepared to break international law in the way we leave the European Union. How many major global trading partners are this Government prepared to upset before they do more harm to our economy than covid-19 has done already?
We have already done trade deals with 52 countries and we are on course to do many more, and we are absolutely committed to the Good Friday agreement.
As one of the MPs for the Humber energy estuary, where we are doing pioneering work in areas such as carbon capture, it is heartwarming to hear American President-elect Biden talking about the global climate crisis and the action needed to address it, and seeing this as a way of generating the jobs of the future. Will the Secretary of State expand a little on what she thinks can be put into any trade deals in terms of this country’s green technology and making sure this creates the jobs needed on both this side of the Atlantic and the other?
In the new UK global tariff we have reduced the tariffs on 100 green goods, and we want to encourage more other countries to support that. Of course we are committed to working with the US, and next year we will have the presidency of the G7. That is a really good opportunity for us to pursue that agenda of tackling climate change, alongside our COP26 commitments, and of course we will be looking at putting these in all our trade deals.
Although we would all want a successful outcome to any trade negotiations with the US, will the Secretary of State confirm that, according to the Government’s own best-case scenario, any US deal with the UK will account for growth of only 0.16% over 15 years? Will she confirm what this will translate into if we do not get a deal with the EU? What loss in growth will we sustain?
Our assessment suggests that a £15 billion increase in trade will result from a US deal and also that we will see tariffs of half a billion pounds taken off fantastic British companies, be they in ceramics or the car industry, which will help to boost that growth. But the EU deal and the US deal are not in contradiction to each other; we should be aiming to do both. The problem is that the Labour party seems willing to agree any deal with the EU and willing to agree no deal with the US. What Conservative Members want is a good deal for Britain.
President-elect Biden has spoken powerfully about the need to end support for the war in Yemen and to stop selling arms that Saudi uses, in his words, for “murdering children”. Will the Secretary of State revisit her policy on arms sales in the light of the new President’s statement or will she choose to remain in lockstep with the blood prince bin Salman instead?
I am proud that we have one of the most rigorous defence export regimes in the world, and those are decisions we make on the basis of our values in this country.
Business Exports: Administrative Burden
I talk regularly with businesses, business representatives, and ministerial colleagues about how we can make exporting easier for businesses across the country. That is why I was delighted to announce our new Scottish trade hub in September, which is staffed by expert trade advisers and dedicated to helping Scottish firms to grow internationally. I am pleased to say that our work to reduce barriers to trade and increase exports is paying off; the UK overtook France in 2019 to become the world’s fifth-largest exporting nation. All nine of the other 10 largest exporting nations in the world saw their exports fall last year, according to UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development—the exception was the UK.
Around 250,000 businesses export to the EU and not to the rest of the world. Many of them are small, not VAT-registered and difficult to reach, and to continue to trade they will need to go through a long and tedious process to acquire an economic operator registration and identification number. As the party that wants to reduce red tape, what action are the Government taking to reduce the administrative burden to ensure that SMEs can continue, or start, to export into Europe but do not suffer disproportionately from a madcap Brexit?
We are working to engage with businesses, and I recommend that all businesses that have not done so go to gov.uk/transition and look at the practical steps they need to take to prepare for the end of the transition period. From my engagements with Scottish businesses, though, it is clear to me that it is the relentless pursuit of Scottish independence, rather than the support for Scottish business, that they find the concern. I want to ensure, by using the power of the Union and our global reach, that we can boost Scottish business; otherwise, if follow the path of independence, we know that would lead to a shrinking of Scottish business and a loss of opportunity for Scottish people.
Rod McKenzie, the Road Haulage Association’s policy director, gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament in which he highlighted a no-deal Brexit scenario in which lorry drivers would be forced to rely on European Conference of Ministers of Transport permits, of which the UK has been allocated around 4,000, despite more than 40,000 being required. In effect, that would stop the best part of 90% of companies trading with Europe. What assurances can the Minister give today that traders and hauliers will experience minimal disruption?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been working flat out to engage with businesses, to provide easements on the customs regime up to July next year and to make sure that we minimise the challenges as we end the transition period. Of course, the issue that Scottish businesses raise with me is that the biggest threat to their trade is not any friction as we move to the new settlement on the EU border, but the fact that 60% of all Scottish exports go to England, Wales and Northern Ireland—more than to the rest of the world combined. It is that, and the threat that the hon. Gentleman poses to Scottish business in that way, that really worries them for the long term.
Trade Policy: Consultation with Unions
We are committed to making sure that our ambitious global trade policy works for every corner of our United Kingdom. Trade unions and civil society are crucial to that, so I am delighted to have expanded our engagement to include a dedicated trade union advisory group and a series of civil society and think-tank roundtables from across the political spectrum, which I will chair.
I recently had a meeting with Jonty Cliffe and Claudia Bayley, the chairs of the Cheshire Young Farmers Club, and they were concerned to make sure that the views and priorities of all young people who work in agriculture and affiliated industries were fully integrated and taken into account by the work of the Trade and Agriculture Commission. I have raised this issue with the commission’s chair, Tim Smith, but will my hon. Friend also discuss it with the commission to make sure that those views and priorities are taken into account, because those young people are the future of British farming?
That is a great and typically thoughtful question. The TAC includes representative bodies from the length and breadth of Britain, so I encourage young farmers and others to continue to share their views with those bodies, which work proactively to provide insight to us and the TAC. Indeed, as my hon. Friend says, many young farmers—such as Jonty and Claudia in the Cheshire Young Farmers Club in my hon. Friend’s county and Tom Janaway in the National Farmers Union in mine—are already actively involved in sharing their views.
Japan Trade Agreement: Climate Change Commitments
The UK-Japan agreement locks in the benefits of the EU-Japan deal, including provisions on climate change such as those that reaffirm our respective commitments to the UN framework convention on climate change and the Paris agreement; those that promote trade in low-carbon goods and services; and those that support co-operation on trade and climate.
Although I am disappointed with some aspects of the Japan trade agreement, such as the provisions on data, I am heartened that there is no investor-state dispute settlement clause in the new UK-Japan FTA, as ISDS has been used by large corporations to sue Governments over environmental regulations on issues such as water pollution, deforestation and fracking. Will the Minister confirm that, to protect our natural environment, the UK will not seek such an arrangement with either Japan or any other new trading partners after Brexit?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. I ought to add first of all that we really welcomed the announcement that Japan made on Monday, in advance of COP26, that it will be seeking to become carbon neutral by 2050. On her question about ISDS, I will be frank. This country is already party to ISDS with dozens of agreements, but let us recognise that the UK has never lost a case brought against it in ISDS. It is something that is there as much to protect British businesses trading abroad as it is for foreign investors in this country, so her alarmism about ISDS is misplaced.
UK-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement
The UK-Japan CEPA will benefit farmers and food producers in Wales through lower tariffs than would have been the case without an agreement. It also allows more UK goods to access preferential tariffs than under the EU-Japan agreement, thanks to new rules of origin. New protections for more iconic Welsh food products may also be possible, including for Welsh lamb and coracle-caught sewin.
Twelve Welsh geographic indicator products have been protected in the UK-Japan deal on which I warmly congratulate the Department. I am particularly pleased to hear the Minister mention Welsh lamb. Can he reassure me that those products will be respected and protected in future trade deals, particularly with the US and Australia?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is the potential inclusion of around 70 geographic indicators, 12 of which are from Wales—she is quite right—including Welsh beef, Welsh lamb, Welsh wine, cider, perry, Caerphilly cheese, Carmarthen ham and others. One of our key objectives is to be able to sell Welsh lamb into the United States—British lamb overall is not currently allowed into the United States—but we will be fighting to get an improvement in Welsh lamb exports around the globe.
EU Trade Agreements: Rollover with non-EU Countries
We have made good progress. In under two years, we have agreed trade deals with 52 countries, covering £146 billion of trade, accounting for 74% of the value of total trade with non-EU countries that we set out to secure agreements with.
We learn from The Telegraph that the Minister has rejected the Ghana deal because it was a “a substantial departure” from the EU deal, but she says that the Japan deal goes far beyond the EU deal. What is it? Are the Government exercising new British sovereignty to produce far-reaching new deals, or are they just rolling over and accepting the same deals that we already had?
The answer to the hon. Gentleman is that we are seeking to roll over the Ghana deal, as we are other deals, but with Japan, we have gone through the process of producing a scoping assessments. [Interruption.] No, we were very clear that Japan was a deal that would go further and faster than the EU deal, alongside the new deals that we are negotiating with the US, Australia and New Zealand. There is a deal on the table for Ghana to agree to. It has already agreed to the same deal with the EU. There should be no block on Ghana being able to get tariff-free, quota-free access to the UK, and we are very happy to talk to its representatives at any time of the day or night.
Trade Deals: Human Rights Provisions
This Government have a strong history of promoting our values globally, including human rights. While our approach to agreements will vary between partners, our strong economic relationships allow us to have open discussions on a range of issues, including on human rights. We will not compromise our high standards in trade agreements.
In September, the UN said that the Saudi airstrikes in Yemen had led to
“a consistent pattern of harms to civilians”
unlike our own Government who said in July that there was no such pattern and therefore it was lawful to resume arms exports. Can the Minister tell me how his Government have looked at the same evidence as the UN and arrived at such vastly different conclusions?
May I remind the hon. Lady, as the Secretary of State said earlier in response to a question from the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), that the UK has one of the most rigorous arms control regimes in the world? We follow the consolidated criteria at all times. On trade agreements, I ask her to judge us on our deeds and not always on our words. In terms of the trade agreements that we have rolled over, there has been no diminution of human rights clauses in any of those agreements.
Exporting and Transporting UK Goods
The Department for International Trade is working closely with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and others to ensure that businesses are prepared for 1 January. We have delivered specialist webinars and support tools to ensure that industry understands the changes required to keep trading effectively with the EU as well as to start trading under preferential conditions, such as those with Japan. Looking forward, we are aiming to produce the world’s most effective border by 2025, simplifying and digitising border processes so that exporters across the country will be able to sell their products around the world more easily once our free trade agreements are agreed and in place.
A report published this month by the National Audit Office estimates that the number of HM Revenue and Customs declarations that will need to be processed from 1 January will increase from the current annual volume of 55 million to 270 million. That is a huge increase. What discussions is the Department having with other Departments to ensure that this huge increase in the administrative burden does not discourage exports to Europe and the world?
The hon. and learned Lady is quite right; there are a lot of challenges. That is why, across Government, we have been making such an effort to work with other Departments to make sure that we do everything possible to inform business and to facilitate the border, including investing hundreds of millions of pounds in improving customs processes and others.
Last week, we announced that the UK will be continuing our trade preferences scheme for developing countries in 2021. It is important that developing countries continue to receive the same market access under our unilateral trade preferences as they do at the moment. We remain firmly committed to the principle that trade helps to lift the poorest out of poverty, and early next year we will be launching a consultation on how we can improve the preference scheme and help to use trade as a tool for development. We will aim to have the new scheme finalised by the end of 2021.
With all our minds on both the health and economic recovery from the covid pandemic, may I ask my right hon. Friend what discussions she has had with her Israeli counterpart to further trade co-operation beyond the continuity deal, not least given the incredible and ground-breaking Israeli innovations to combat covid-19, such as through remote monitoring of patients and thermal scanning?
My hon. Friend is right. It is vital that we use trade as a way of motoring growth post this terrible covid crisis. We are working on negotiating a cat’s cradle of trade deals around the world to support British business. Of course, Israel is one of those priorities. It is very advanced in areas such as data and digital. There is strong scope for a world-leading agreement, and we are in discussions about that.
From 1 January, the Secretary of State will be responsible for our trading relationship with other European countries. With or without a deal, the services sector is concerned that its interests have been marginalised throughout the negotiations with the EU. This does not just affect financial and legal services, but engineers, technicians and others. Will the Secretary of State commit to securing—as a start—mutual recognition of qualifications to enable all these crucial sectors to work across Europe?
I am committed to having a positive relationship with the European Union. I speak to my counterpart, Valdis Dombrovskis, about issues concerning global trade. Of course, we want with every part of the world good trade deals that uphold our standards and facilitate increased trade in areas such as services, data and digital, but the important principle is that we cannot do that at the expense of the UK’s sovereignty. Those are the negotiations that are currently being conducted by Lord Frost.
What an excellent question. It is the reach, power and financial heft of this United Kingdom that has allowed us to be the only top 10 global exporter to increase exports last year and allowed us to attract more foreign direct investment than any other country in Europe. Shorn of the UK’s assets, businesses—and, more importantly, workers—in places like Scotland would be impoverished as a result. We seek to ensure that we use every part of the power of this United Kingdom to support jobs and investment in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there is no change in the effect of the existing EU trade deals when it comes to human rights and the role there of the UK agreements. I would urge him to look at those agreements and study the reports that have been produced comparing the agreements with the original.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. In fact, I am meeting the overseas territories on this very subject next week. You in particular, Mr Speaker, will be impressed by the Secretary of State meeting Fabian Picardo, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, only last month on this. Getting our overseas territories participating in the UK independent trade agenda is very important. We recognise fully the constitutional responsibilities we have for the OTs and we work closely with them to ensure that their interests are represented.
We are working very hard to secure a good deal with the European Union and negotiations are ongoing. However, it is important that our farmers have as many markets as possible. That is why we have worked hard to get the lamb market open in Japan in 2019, we are working hard to get lamb into the US, which is the second-largest importer of lamb in the world, and we are working hard to get more lamb into the middle east too.
My hon. Friend is correct. That is why we want to join trade areas such as the trans-Pacific partnership with very strong provisions reducing the level of bureaucracy required, and liberal rules of origin that help our manufacturers. That is also what we are looking to negotiate with the United States. It is important that we get the advanced digital and data chapters that the EU was not prepared to sign up to but which provide so much value for advanced manufacturers in being able to sell their products around the world.
I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman of that. I was delighted that the first cargo of British beef to leave for the United States of America for 24 years left from Northern Ireland.
We follow RCEP quite closely, but we are looking forward to making our application to join the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, or TPP-11, trading group in the new year. This is an excellent trading group. Its 11 countries are a mix of like-minded western trading nations such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, as well as more developing nations such as Vietnam and Peru. There are great opportunities for all of us, including my hon. Friend’s Morley and Outwood businesses.
I thank the hon. Lady for that question, which is important, because we must apply anti-dumping measures in a clear and accurate way. The Department has assessed which of the existing anti-dumping trade remedies should be transitioned, and evidence has been provided by British producers of bicycles, which thus far has indicated that there are not sufficient British sales to transition the measure, but we will review any further information. That information would need to demonstrate that the British market share of British-based producers of the product in question was above 1%.
I thank my hon. Friend for his invitation to the Board of Trade. It is likely that our next meeting will be held in Northern Ireland, but I will certainly be looking to Workington for a future meeting to see the fantastic work being done in advanced manufacturing.
Given that the Scottish National party voted for even fewer trade deals than the Labour party, and are even more anti-trade than the Labour party, I am delighted to hear that there seems to be some kind of turnaround and that under a Biden Administration, the hon. Gentleman will back a US trade deal.
East Midlands airport is the UK’s biggest pure cargo airport. It has lots of potential for growth. It has become a hub of investment for freight and logistics in recent years, and must surely be at the heart of our plans to make the most of our global trade. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be a brilliant site for an inland freeport? Will she put a word in with the Chancellor?
I thank my hon. Friend for his assiduous bidding on behalf of the east midlands. The bidding for freeports opened on Tuesday, and bids need to be submitted by 5 February 2021. I point out to him that these trade deals we are negotiating will just mean more and more trade coming into the freight hub, with or without freeport status, but I will of course mention what he said to the Chancellor.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for a few minutes.
DHSC Answers to Written Questions
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care if he will make a statement on his Department’s performance in answering written questions from right hon. and hon. Members.
Parliamentary questions are a key element of Parliament’s ability to scrutinise Government on behalf of the people of the United Kingdom. As the House would expect, we take them very seriously, and as you, Mr Speaker, and hon. Members will know, I take seriously all aspects of my and the Government’s accountability to this House. Prior to the pandemic, my Department had an exemplary record of providing accurate and timely answers. In the last full parliamentary Session, despite receiving more PQs than any other Department, we had the highest response rate in Whitehall. However, as hon. Members will be aware, DHSC, its Ministers and officials have been at the forefront of responding to this pandemic, with the attendant additional workload that has brought.
As such, it is a matter of regret that we have been unable to sustain previous PQ performance, for which I rightly apologise to you and the House. However, it is explicable in the face of a trio of concurrent challenges. The first is volume: between March and October this year, we received over 8,000 written parliamentary questions across both Houses. This compares with 4,000 for the equivalent period last year. The second challenge is timeliness: we have met a rapidly, almost daily, changing situation, and answers drafted by officials are sometimes out of date shortly after they are drafted. We have been prioritising accuracy of response to Members over speed, but this can mean that responses have to be redrafted, with attendant delays.
The third challenge is policy input: despite increasing the administrative resources to respond to parliamentary questions, it remains the same policy officials who are responding to the pandemic operationally and drafting regulations and are the only people with the requisite policy expertise to input into parliamentary questions and responses.
That said, Mr Speaker, although we continue to field exceptional volumes of parliamentary questions, I want to reassure you and the House that we are not making excuses in providing these explanations, and are taking every possible step to recover our performance. We have instituted a parliamentary questions performance recovery plan and are delivering against it by increasing resource where we can and clearing the backlog, focusing on the oldest parliamentary questions first.
More broadly, throughout this challenging time the Secretary of State and Ministers have sought to make themselves regularly available in the House to be questioned and held to account. Between March and October, the Secretary of State made 18 statements and answered seven urgent questions. We have also seen seven general debates on covid since March, and that is not including junior Ministers’ appearances in the Chamber. This is not an alternative to written parliamentary questions, but it is an important reflection of our accountability to this House.
To conclude, written parliamentary questions will continue to be a top priority on which I am briefed weekly. I thank you, Mr Speaker, and hon. Members for your and their patience and recognition of the exceptional circumstances of recent months. In the weeks and months ahead, we will work hard to restore our leading performance, which hon. Members have a right to expect.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, which was born of extreme exasperation. I thank my hon. Friend for his response, his contrition and his apology, and for his offer to do better in the future.
If other Departments can answer 90% of named day questions on time, why cannot the Minister’s? Will he set a date for the clearance of the backlog to which he referred and guarantee future compliance with the rules and the spirit of the rules? This is not just about timeliness; it is about the quality of the answers. Since this is the week of resets, will the Minister now tell his ministerial colleagues and officials to abandon their tactic of, basically, dumb insolence towards those of us who ask challenging questions?
Does my hon. Friend accept that these questions and answers increase public trust in our democracy, and should be a catalyst for improving public policy? If his Department is in the lead in suppressing liberty in this country, is it surprising that there are more questions to his Department than to others? Because issues of liberty are at stake, surely it is all the more important that these questions are answered quickly.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As he will be aware, other Departments, while they have heavy workloads, are not leading the response to the pandemic. In response to his final point, he will not be surprised that I do not characterise it in that way. Instead, I would characterise it as the Department of Health being in the lead in saving lives and protecting the NHS in this country.
My hon. Friend asked two other substantive questions. I think his language was a little intemperate in respect of the serious efforts that officials undertake every day to try to provide accurate and timely answers. There is no suggestion that they seek to stonewall or to avoid responding. They do their best, but it is difficult and the situation changes day by day. Where answers are deemed to be inadequate, hon. Members often revert to me directly or table their questions again, and we endeavour to fulfil our obligation to provide accurate answers.
On my hon. Friend’s question about recovery, we have set a trajectory for each month in order to recover performance over the coming months. Of course, that depends to a degree on the workload of officials in responding to the pandemic, as well as in providing answers, but I do not see it as an either/or; we intend to recover performance in parallel with tackling the pandemic.
I thank the Minister for his response and for the hard work he and his Department put in. However, as he acknowledges, the performance here, like in so many other areas, is just not good enough. We know it is tough, but there comes a point when it begins to look like departmental scrutiny is being used as a cover for evading giving answers.
This morning, I looked at the Department’s response times to my own written questions over the past six months. I have had to wait over one month for an answer 29 times, over two months 11 times and over three months four times. I was actually thinking of putting in a question asking for the average response times to questions, but then I thought I would just be waiting a long time for that answer as well. I have even had to wait five months for the answer to what I thought was a pretty simple question asking what tests for covid-19 had been used. One hundred and sixty-eight days later, I received the utterly unrevealing answer:
“A large number of different tests have been used throughout the programme.”
I was lucky; my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) waited 18 weeks for an answer to a question on tests, only to be told:
“The information is not held in the format requested.”
Why did it take so long just to say that? Do Ministers even read the answers that they sign off?
This is not just about the time; the quality of the answers that we get back also needs improving. On dozens of occasions, I have been told that the Department does not hold the data, or no real attempt is made to answer the question that was asked. I accept that sometimes that information may not be easily acquired, but too often it looks as though the Department wants to keep us in the dark. I remind the House that the ministerial code requires Ministers to be
“as open as possible with Parliament”,
even when that may be inconvenient to them. In the spirit of openness, will the Minister also look at restarting NHS England and NHS Digital publications?
In conclusion, we all understand that the Department is dealing with many pressing issues, but scrutiny is important. Accountability matters, and if the pandemic is used too often as an excuse for standards to slip, that is how we go from questions not being answered to major policy changes being announced by media leaks, until we end up with the shameful spectacle of spivs and cronies pocketing millions from PPE contracts. Government must do better.
I was going to say that, as ever, I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his tone, right up to almost the end of his remarks. On his substantive points, when it comes to accountability to this House, he will know from our regular double acts at this Dispatch Box and in Committee that I and fellow Ministers do not shy away from our accountability to this House in all its forms.
On volume, as I have said, during the same period last year we received 4,000 written questions; this year, the figure has been 8,000. That cannot be addressed by increasing administrative resource alone, because the technical expertise of policy experts is required to provide accuracy in the answers that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members seek. The same policy officials are dealing, day to day, with all aspects of the response to the pandemic.
The hon. Gentleman talked about accuracy, and he is right about the importance of accurate and timely answers. Given that we have answered 8,000 parliamentary questions between March and, I believe, October, some may, sadly, not live up to his expectations. I know that he will hold me and other Ministers to account when that is the case.
In answer to another of the hon. Gentleman’s question, yes, I and other Ministers read not only the answers and the questions, but the background to those questions. If we do not, we will quite rightly end up at the Dispatch Box, being asked those questions again and being challenged on the Floor of the House. In view of that, and in view of our obligations to the public and under the ministerial code, it is absolutely right that we take the answering of written parliamentary questions very seriously.
On the hon. Gentleman’s final point about NHS Digital and the publication of data and so on, I am happy to take that away and look at it for him.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), who is a fellow member of the Procedure Committee. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the Department takes the answering of questions seriously, because the answering and the monitoring of written questions and correspondence from MPs will help Ministers to identify problems in the implementation and roll-out of their policies.
The Procedure Committee, which I chair, has shown some leeway to the Department in recognition of the pressures that it faces, but I invite my hon. Friend to come to the Committee in the next few weeks to explain how he is going to address the backlog.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. As a former member of the Procedure Committee, I recall when she kindly appeared before the Committee to answer questions on parliamentary questions at the Home Office. I look forward to the reversal of the position in the coming weeks.
Was she any good?
I would say that she gave exemplary answers, which fully satisfied the Committee. I have received the letter that she recently sent to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We are grateful for the pragmatic and reasonable approach that her Committee has adopted. She will, quite rightly, want to scrutinise performance, and I look forward to appearing before her Committee to answer detailed questions on the matter.
I am grateful for the Minister’s answer at the beginning of the debate. I initially thought that it was perhaps a tad unfair to single out his Department in the circumstances. In my experience, others have been worse—I hope his Treasury colleagues are listening. However, I will confine my remarks to his Department. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), the SNP health spokesperson, was delighted yesterday to receive an answer to a named day question that she tabled on 22 June. It referred her to a table of data that, unfortunately, was absent from the answer. Perhaps the Minister could ask his colleagues to get that table over to her, rather than her having to wait six months for a response.
I am again grateful for the tone that the hon. Gentleman adopts. We have adopted in our recovery plan an attempt to deal with the oldest questions first, to try to get as up to date as we can. If he or the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) lets me know the detail of that question, I will be happy to look into what he raises and to get that table to her.
No one could underestimate the challenges that the Department of Health and Social Care faces at the moment. I thank my hon. Friend for the way in which he has engaged with me and other colleagues during this time. However, there are clearly operational challenges as a result of this pandemic. My hon. Friend talked about the review that the Department is undertaking. Will he ensure that he shares the lessons learned from that not only with Members but across Government? We will have to look at being diverse in our operational structures, particularly within Government, to ensure that we expediently answer Members’ questions.
I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. Perhaps the best mechanism by which lessons learned can be shared will be through my written response—in due course—to and my appearance before the Procedure Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley). If appropriate, Mr Speaker, I will of course share that response with you and with the Leader and shadow Leader of the House.
On the plus side, because I have the Minister’s and the Secretary of State’s mobile numbers, when I really want an answer, I just text them. To be fair to them, they have been phenomenally helpful at key moments. I think many hon. Members feel that. At the same time, to be honest, the comms strategy this year has been a complete mess and a disaster. I urge the Minister to go back to the Department and say that Parliament should not be used only for accountability but to try to speak to the people of this country and to get across clear messages in a timely fashion. In that regard, will he tell us when he will publish the national cancer recovery plan, because lots of people have major anxiety at the moment about when their cancer will be treated?
I am always pleased to receive messages and inquiries from the hon. Gentleman. He raises two important points. The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) is working on the national cancer recovery plan at pace. I am happy to revert to the hon. Gentleman when I have had an opportunity to speak to her. On his broader point, he is right that it is important that we in this House recognise that, in our democracy, people consent and comply because they are persuaded. It is important that we use this House and all the mechanisms within it to persuade and bring the public with us.
We have all had enormous increases in constituency correspondence during the pandemic, so I can only imagine what it must be like at the Minister’s Department. However, in looking at how his Department responds to MPs’ questions, will my hon. Friend reassure the House that any changes will not come at the expense of his Department’s excellent parliamentary engagement and briefings for Members with Ministers and scientific experts that allow us to question advisers on detailed scientific and medical matters?
My hon. Friend highlights that the workload from constituents has increased for all Members. I recognise that. It is important that we do our bit in trying to answer questions in as timely a fashion as possible, to assist colleagues in the House with responses to constituents. In response to his second point, he is absolutely right. As I alluded to, it is not only through attending the House and through its mechanisms that Ministers have been accountable; as a Department, we have sought to use multiple channels—briefings to colleagues, WhatsApp and a whole range of newsletters and other mechanisms—to get messages out and to communicate with colleagues and answer their questions.
I thank the Minister for his departmental response to covid-19 and many issues. As one of the Department’s most prolific questioners, I am aware of the pressure on the Minister’s Department to respond to a vast array of complex medical and social issues. Perhaps to assist the Minister, his team could work closely with the health trusts to provide up-to-date data in a timely manner.
The hon. Gentleman is indeed a prolific questioner, but his questions are always welcome and to the point. He highlights an important aspect that affects the response of the Department, which is that a significant number of questions, and the information required to answer them, is not held within the Department but by various health trusts, NHS England or other external bodies, which can occasionally introduce additional slight delays in the system. We are working closely with them to minimise that and get answers as quickly as we can to hon. Members.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) for raising this matter and I recognise the importance of parliamentary questions for their role in parliamentary scrutiny, but it is only right that we recognise the substantial weight on the shoulders of the Department of Health and Social Care as it leads the charge against this pandemic. I personally have been blown away by the readiness and willingness of Ministers to engage through a whole range of communications, including Zoom, email and WhatsApp. I am grateful, in particular, for their engagement when it looked as though Bishop Auckland residents might have been teetering on the edge of tier 3 over the summer, which we thankfully avoided. Can my hon. Friend confirm that efforts are being made to clear the PQ backlog, but that other communication channels will remain open for MPs and their engagement?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to the officials in the Department, who are working hard to clear the backlog and do take this very seriously. As I say, we are trying to clear the older PQs first, and then get back up to the performance we had before. She is absolutely right to highlight the other methods of communication. I may not be the most technological Minister in this House, but we have been seeking to use every means we can to try to answer colleagues’ questions and to give them the information they need.
In my time in this House, I have campaigned alongside women and families affected by sodium valproate. Many of the victims of this scandal have felt for decades that Governments have tried to push it under the carpet, so can the Minister understand the frustration and suspicion that these victims feel when written parliamentary questions about the Cumberlege review, which was published on 8 July, continue to take a long time to answer—and when those answers come, they are very poor—and their frustration that since July there has been no progress, beyond the apology in this House, in implementing that review? Can the Minister update the tens of thousands of victims of the Primodos, surgical mesh and sodium valproate scandals and assure them that their campaigns for justice remain high on his Department’s agenda?
Again, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the tone she adopts on what is actually a very sensitive and very important issue. I can reassure her that that issue does remain very high on the Department’s agenda. At risk of tempting fate, if she wishes either to write to me or to table a question to me, I will endeavour to get it answered very quickly so she has something on the record on that.
Let us head up to Harrow East with Bob Blackman and see if his replies have landed.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Can my hon. Friend also look at the quality and at the repeat questions that have to be asked to clarify the answers that are given to written parliamentary questions? In my case, I have had to submit often detailed letters to Ministers because WPQs basically do not supply the information required. Some that are now coming back after six months of waiting have been about, for example, offers to supply PPE to the national health service and people who have had tests but not actually got the results—and I could go further. The reality is that the quality of the answers to WPQs as well as the quantity have not been good enough, so will he look at those two aspects, please?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who landed his question very effectively. He is absolutely right to talk about the balance between speed and accuracy. In some cases where the issue is complex, a letter may be more appropriate for getting detailed information, rather than the short factual response to a parliamentary question. Sometimes the delay can be because Ministers—this goes to the point made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders)—on reading the question and the answer, and looking at it as a constituency MP as well, may realise that they want to send it back for redraft because it does not answer an hon. Member’s question. That can cause delays, but we endeavour to provide accurate answers as swiftly as we can.
I absolutely understand and appreciate the pressures on the Minister’s Department. However, it does grate that I regularly hear, in debates in this Chamber, Conservative Members saying how quickly and easily they can get direct responses from Ministers. He himself referred to a WhatsApp group a few moments ago, and I suspect that that is for Conservative Members. For those of us on the Opposition Benches, written questions and letters are often the only means to scrutinise, secure detailed information and hold the Government to account. Over a third of replies to my questions have been delayed for more than a month, and the longest delay was 190 days. I have had replies to letters outstanding for up to five months. Do my constituents have any less of a right to a response? Does the Minister have any advice for me as an Opposition spokesperson about how I can get more timely and detailed information?
Mr Bryant might have the mobile number for you.
I am a little bit surprised by the hon. Lady’s tone, because she and I regularly speak, and she has very easy access to me around the House, which she regularly uses, as do all Members. She has been on various briefing calls and other calls where we answer data questions and any question that Members wish to ask, and this House is for that purpose. Her constituents have exactly the same right to answers as anyone else, and they get exactly the same response as those of any other Member. Although this urgent question is about written parliamentary questions, I would flag that the Department has received more than 63,500 pieces of correspondence so far this year, compared with just 30,000 in the entirety of 2019. We have increased resourcing for that team, as we have for the PQ teams, and we are getting through the backlog as swiftly as possible.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in terms of support for my local party association. I have recently tabled written questions on suicide prevention on the railways; earlier in November, a person in my constituency sadly died after being hit by a train. Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to Land Sheriffs, a Harlow-based security company which, through its railway security programme, has intervened and prevented close to 300 suicides on the railways across England?
As my right hon. Friend mentioned, he has recently tabled a number of written questions on this issue, which I look forward to responding to in a timely fashion. I am happy to pay tribute to Land Sheriffs in his constituency for its impressive work in helping to tackle and prevent suicide on the railways. I know that the Minister for Patient Safety, Mental Health and Suicide Prevention will be very interested to hear about its work.
I thank the Minister for his answers today. I understand the pressure on his Department—I really do—but of the 28 questions that I have tabled to the Department of Health and Social Care, 86% were answered late, and if those due today are not answered, that figure will rise to 88%. I have to say that the quality of some of the responses is pretty poor too. Will he consider starting up the NHS England and NHS Digital statistical publications that were paused during the pandemic, so that we can get some of the information ourselves?
I think the hon. Gentleman has four parliamentary questions outstanding. By his timely intervention, he may find that when I get back to the Department this afternoon, I will ensure that the figure does not rise to 88% overdue. His substantive point is the same one made by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, which I said I will take away and look at.
I understand that since the start of the pandemic the Secretary of State has made 16 oral statements in the House on coronavirus and there have been seven urgent questions and five general debates on the topic. It is, of course, important that Members receive timely responses to inquiries, but does my hon. Friend agree that there have been significant opportunities for Members to raise concerns on the Floor of the House and to seek answers from Ministers?
I think it is fair to say that no one could accuse Ministers in the Department or the Secretary of State of not being willing to be accountable to Members in a multitude of ways. But of course, it is not an either/or, so we will endeavour to continue to perform well in attending this House and also to improve performance on written parliamentary questions.
Some might argue that it is the number of urgent questions we have allowed in order for debate.
Openness and transparency around the sharing of data is key to ensuring that the public and the business community buy into the draconian measures that we have introduced in the fight against covid. I genuinely thank the Minister for his and the Department’s efforts in ensuring that we get timely information, but on 21 October, I asked the Health Secretary for data relating to positive cases among those who had not been in the UK 72 hours before their test, and I still have had no answer. Will the Minister agree to provide that data, which will be key to informing the full reopening of our airports, getting our airlines flying again and kickstarting our aviation sector and its supply chain?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. My understanding is that there are, I think, five outstanding written answers due to her, dating from November. She mentions one from October, so I will check whether that has been answered overnight. If not, I will go back to the Department and look into that particular written question.
May I thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing so many urgent questions and statements, which allow so many Back Benchers to ask questions? I am very grateful for that.
All Departments have had a higher volume of questions, not least the Department of Health and Social Care, because of the health pandemic. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the uptake of other forms of communications that have been made available?
My hon. Friend rightly raises the other methods of communication with right hon. and hon. Members and the other ways they can access information—not as an alternative to written questions and scrutiny in this Chamber— which appear to have been extremely popular with Members on both sides of the House. We intend to continue to make such briefings and access available to all right hon. and hon. Members.
Does the Minister accept that questions are sometimes tabled to Departments in response to issues raised by our constituents, and that by failing to engage with Members in this way—I understand all the reasons why it is taking longer—it is ultimately the public who suffer the consequences?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I refer her to the answer I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood). We recognise both the increased workload on hon. Members from their constituents and the importance of timely answers to written questions in helping them to discharge that obligation to them.
I thank the excellent Minister for his response, but may I suggest that the covid situation is allowing the Government to dodge issues they do not want to answer? On the Floor of the House, I asked the Secretary of State how many tests with false positives and false negatives there are. He dodged that question, so I tabled a named day question on 21 October, asking for his estimate of how many tests with false positives and false negatives there are. Yesterday, I received a response saying that they had no idea. They must have known they had no idea on 21 October, so it seems to me that that delay had more to do with not wanting to put that information out than any other reason. Can we have accurate and timely answers, not politically motivated delays?
It is always a pleasure to see my hon. Friend and to be questioned by him, both at this Dispatch Box and in other forums. I have to say to him that I do not think it is a fair reflection to suggest that the Government or others are dodging answers. We are at this Dispatch Box regularly. We do answer questions regularly. I will look into the particular question he raises, but often to answer we require information from external bodies or other NHS bodies, which can take time.
The Minister emphasises other means of engagement to written questions, delays to which I too have experienced far too often. In April, I wrote to the Minister for Care, the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) with the concerns of a constituent of mine over personal protective equipment for care homes. I received a response in October. Will the Minister acknowledge that those kinds of delays undermine the confidence of my constituents in the Government’s public health measures? Will he commit, which I do not think he has done so far, to putting in place the capacity and resources to respond to constituents’ concerns in a timely manner, in whichever format they are expressed?
I hear what the hon. Lady says, but we have already put in place that capacity. We have doubled the capacity for parliamentary questions and I have significantly increased capacity for correspondence. The only thing I would say on correspondence, which she alluded to, is that at any normal time we have 850 pieces of correspondence open. Reflecting the volume that comes in at the moment, that is about 10,000. We have increased the capacity in the Department, but, of course, as long as volume remains high it will always be a challenge to keep up with that demand. We are doing our very best.
I thank the Minister, because he has been courteous in the way that he has dealt with this matter. He certainly has had the short straw.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for a few minutes.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House please give us the forthcoming business?
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 in a debate virtually 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 as 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 they were 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 he 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. 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 importantly, 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. Please do take part in the survey and send any contributions to Alison Stanley directly.
May I 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 for her once again 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. So 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. This 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 were 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 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—
You’re not letting them!
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 so 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 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 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 he 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 comes 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 for making provisions for them to participate. I have sympathy with 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. They 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 referenced 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, who rather wish 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 this House, I was for 27 years a member of Gateshead 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, something like £22 million, but the expenditure on managing the pandemic is something like £70 million, 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 provided 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 through to councils to support them in this very difficult period, which means that councils 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 in funding 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 ensure that they are held to account. Last year, the Government commissioned Sir Tony Redmond to undertake a comprehensive review into 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 truly 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 end 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 around 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 being 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 on 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 this 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—you can make a detour off 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 he travels past in 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 as to why no Government Minister has picked up the phone to our council leader, Councillor Stephen Brady?
I know 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 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, to allow 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 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 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 pensioner credits 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 for 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.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on the Government’s integrated review of foreign, defence, security and development policy.
Our review will conclude early next year and set out the UK’s international agenda, but I want to inform the House of its first outcome. For decades, British Governments have trimmed and cheese-pared our defence budget. If we go on like this, we risk waking up to discover that our armed forces—the pride of Britain—have fallen below the minimum threshold of viability, and, once lost, they can never be regained. That outcome would not only be craven; it would jeopardise the security of the British people, amounting to a dereliction of duty for any Prime Minister.
I refuse to vindicate any pessimistic forecasters there may have been by taking up the scalpel yet again. Based on our assessment of the international situation and our foreign policy goals, I have decided that the era of cutting our defence budget must end, and it ends now. I am increasing defence spending by £24.1 billion over the next four years. That is £16.5 billion more than our manifesto commitment, raising it as a share of GDP to at least 2.2%, exceeding our NATO pledge, and investing £190 billion over the next four years—more than any other European country and more than any other NATO ally except the United States.
The Ministry of Defence has received a multi-year settlement because equipping our armed forces requires long-term investment, and our national security in 20 years’ time will depend on decisions we take today. I have done this in the teeth of the pandemic, amid every other demand on our resources, because the defence of the realm and the safety of the British people must come first. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Defence Secretary, who believe in this as fervently as I do. Reviving our armed forces is one pillar of the Government’s ambition to safeguard Britain’s interests and values by strengthening our global influence and reinforcing our ability to join the United States and our other allies to defend free and open societies.
The international situation is now more perilous and intensely competitive than at any time since the cold war. Everything we do in this country—every job, every business, even how we shop and what we eat—depends on a basic minimum of global security, with a web of feed pipes, of oxygen pipes, that must be kept open: shipping lanes, a functioning internet, safe air corridors, reliable undersea cables, and tranquillity in distant straits. This pandemic has offered a taste of what happens when our most fundamental needs are suddenly in question. We could take all this for granted, ignore the threat of terrorism and the ambitions of hostile states, hope for the best, and we might get away with it for a while, before calamity strikes, as it surely would. Or we could accept that our lifelines must be protected but we are content to curl up in our island and leave the task to our friends.
My starting point is that either of those options would be an abdication of the first duty of Government: to defend our people. My choice—and I hope it will carry every Member of the House—is that Britain must be true to our history and stand alongside our allies, sharing the burden and bringing our expertise to bear on the world’s toughest problems. To achieve this, we need to upgrade our capabilities across the board. We have already united our international effort into a new Department combining aid and diplomacy, led with grip and purpose by my right hon. Friend the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Secretary. Next year will be a year of British leadership when we preside over the G7, host COP26 in Glasgow, and celebrate the 75th anniversary of the first United Nations General Assembly in London. We are leading the world towards net zero with our 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution. We are campaigning for our values, particularly freedom of religion and the media, and giving every girl in the world access to 12 years of quality education.
But extending British influence requires a once-in-a-generation modernisation of our armed forces, and now is the right time to press ahead, because emerging technologies, visible on the horizon, will make the returns from defence investment infinitely greater. We have a chance to break free from the vicious circle whereby we ordered ever decreasing numbers of ever more expensive items of military hardware, squandering billions along the way. The latest advances will multiply the fighting power of every warship, aircraft and infantry unit many times over, and the prizes will go to the swiftest and most agile nations, not necessarily the biggest. We can achieve as much as British ingenuity and expertise allow.
We will need to act speedily to remove or reduce less relevant capabilities. This will allow our new investment to be focused on the technologies that will revolutionise warfare, forging our military assets into a single network designed to overcome the enemy. A soldier in hostile territory will be alerted to a distant ambush by sensors on satellites or drones, instantly transmitting a warning, using artificial intelligence to devise the optimal response and offering an array of options, from summoning an airstrike to ordering a swarm attack by drones, or paralysing the enemy with cyber-weapons. New advances will surmount the old limits of logistics. Our warships and combat vehicles will carry “directed energy weapons”, destroying targets with inexhaustible lasers. For them, the phrase “out of ammunition” will become redundant.
Nations are racing to master this new doctrine of warfare, and our investment is designed to place Britain among the winners. The returns will go far beyond our armed forces, and from aerospace to autonomous vehicles, these technologies have a vast array of civilian applications, opening up new vistas of economic progress, creating 10,000 jobs every year—40,000 in total—levelling up across our country, and reinforcing our Union. We are going to use our extra defence spending to restore Britain’s position as the foremost naval power in Europe, taking forward our plans for eight Type 26 and five Type 31 frigates, and support ships to supply our carriers.
We are going to develop the next generation of warships, including multi-role research vessels and Type 32 frigates. This will spur a renaissance of British shipbuilding across the UK, in Glasgow and Rosyth, Belfast, Appledore and Birkenhead, guaranteeing jobs and illuminating the benefits of the Union in the white light of the arc welder’s torch. If there is one policy that strengthens the UK in every possible sense, it is building more ships for the Royal Navy. Once both of our carriers are operational in 2023, the UK will have a carrier strike group permanently available, routinely deployed globally, and always ready to fight alongside NATO and other allies.
Next year, Queen Elizabeth will lead a British and allied task group on our most ambitious deployment for two decades, encompassing the Mediterranean, the Indian ocean, and East Asia. We shall deploy more of our naval assets in the world’s most important regions, protecting the shipping lanes that supply our nation, and we shall press on with renewing our nuclear deterrent. We will reshape our Army for the age of networked warfare, allowing better equipped soldiers to deploy more quickly, and strengthening the ability of our special forces to operate covertly against our most sophisticated adversaries.
The security and intelligence agencies will continue to protect us around the clock from terrorism and new and evolving threats. We will invest another £1.5 billion in military research and development, designed to master the new technologies of warfare. We will establish a new centre dedicated to artificial intelligence, and a new RAF space command, launching British satellites and our first rocket from Scotland in 2022. I can announce that we have established a National Cyber Force, combining our intelligence agencies and service personnel, which is already operating in cyberspace against terrorism, organised crime and hostile state activity. And the RAF will receive a new fighter system, harnessing artificial intelligence and drone technology to defeat any adversary in air-to-air combat.
Our plans will safeguard hundreds of thousands of jobs in the defence industry, protecting livelihoods across the UK and keeping the British people safe. The defence of the realm is above party politics, and we all take pride in how British resolve saved democracy in 1940, and in how British internationalism, directed by Clement Attlee, helped to create NATO and preserve peace through the cold war. The wisdom and pragmatism of Margaret Thatcher found a path out of confrontation when she met Mikhail Gorbachev in 1984. In each case, Britain tipped the scales of history and did immense good for the world. Now we have a chance to follow in this great tradition, end the era of retreat, transform our armed forces, bolster our global influence, unite and level up across our country, protect our people and defend the free societies in which we fervently believe. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement.
Under my leadership, national security will always be Labour’s top priority. Britain must once again show global leadership and be a moral force for good in the world, both in how we tackle present and emerging security threats, and in how we build a fairer, greener and more secure world. So we welcome this additional funding for our defence and security forces, and we agree that it is vital to end what the Prime Minister calls—with, I have to say, a complete lack of self-awareness—an “era of retreat”.
This is, however, a spending announcement without a strategy. The Government have yet again pushed back vital parts of the integrated review, but there is no clarity over their strategic priorities. Then there is the question of money. How will this announcement be paid for? Such is the Government’s handling of the pandemic that the UK has had the sharpest economic downturn of any G7 country. Next week, the Chancellor will have to come here and set out the consequences of that. Can the Prime Minister tell us today: will the commitments that he has made require additional borrowing and tax rises—if so, which ones?—or will the money have to come from other departmental budgets? In particular, at the election last year, there was a very clear Conservative party manifesto commitment
“to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI”
on international development. A straight question, Prime Minister: are the Government going to keep to that manifesto commitment? He must know that if he breaks it, that will not only undermine public trust, but hugely weaken us on the global stage.
The Prime Minister spoke of an “era of retreat”—a really interesting phrase, after a decade of Conservative government and under-investment in our armed forces. I remind the House that defence spending has fallen by more than £8 billion in real terms over the past 10 years. Over the same period, UK regular forces have decreased by a quarter, and on top of that, the National Audit Office estimates that there is a black hole of up to £13 billion in the MOD equipment plan. The additional funding announced today is on foundations that have been seriously weakened over the past 10 years.
Let me come to a point that is very important to our armed forces personnel. Can the Prime Minister tell us whether there will be any further cuts to the size of our armed forces over the period of this spending review?
There are a number of other holes in the Prime Minister’s plan. With less than six weeks to go until the end of the transition period, there is still no clarity about the direction of our post-Brexit foreign or trade policy. The Government have not yet rolled over existing trade agreements with 15 countries—deals worth up to £80 billion of trade a year. The Prime Minister speaks of tackling global security threats and improving cyber capability—that is all welcome, and we welcome it—but four months after the Intelligence and Security Committee published its report concluding that Russia posed, in its words,
“an immediate and urgent threat to our national security”,
can the Prime Minister tell us why he has still not acted on that or followed through on the Committee’s recommendations? When will he do so?
There was very little beyond warm words about how the UK will lead the global efforts against the biggest threat we face: the international climate emergency. The COP26 conference is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, but the Committee on Climate Change says that the UK’s domestic measures
“are not making adequate progress in preparing for climate change.”
Yesterday’s announcement—another press release without a strategy—will do nothing to address that.
This is a time of huge global uncertainty. It is time for Britain to emerge from a decade of decline. I know that the Prime Minister is always keen to talk about the bits of government that he enjoys—big announcements, space programmes, moonshots—but this statement shows that the Government still lack a clear strategy, a coherent vision for Britain in the world or any idea of how the promises that the Prime Minister makes will actually be delivered.
Of all the humbug that I have heard from the right hon. and learned Gentleman, that really takes the cake. This is a man who campaigned until December last year to install in government a Prime Minister who wanted to scrap our armed services and pull out of NATO, and his own record of support for our armed services is very thin indeed.
I am glad that the right hon. and learned Gentleman now welcomes this package, although his comments scarcely do it justice. This is the biggest package of support for our armed services since the end of the cold war. It bears absolutely no relation to discussions about overseas aid. This House and this country should be incredibly proud of what Britain does to support people around the world. Under any view, this country is, has been and will remain one of the biggest contributors to aid of any country on earth. I am proud of that, and I am proud that this package will help to deliver 40,000 jobs around the UK.
The Conservative party fundamentally believes in defence of the realm, supporting our armed forces and ensuring that the country as a whole is strong and able to project our strength around the world. It is notable that, in government, we have instituted such extra protections for the armed services as wraparound childcare for armed services families and, by the way, protection for our veterans and their families from the misery of continual vexatious prosecution by well-paid lawyers long after the alleged crimes were committed and with no new evidence provided. The Opposition, under the leadership of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, refused to vote in favour of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which will give veterans that protection and reassurance.
I do not think I have heard so much phoney stuff from the right hon. and learned Gentleman in all the time that we have faced each other. This is a guy who campaigned actively to install in government somebody who wanted to break up our armed forces and pull out of NATO. I do not know what he was thinking. He never mentioned his support for the armed services then, and frankly I do not attach much credence to it now.
I call the Chair of the Defence Committee.
I welcome the commitment to significantly upgrade our defence posture, for which the Prime Minister knows I, the Defence Committee and others in this House have been calling for some time. I also welcome his honesty in recognising that the UK, and indeed the west, has become too risk-averse in standing up to some of the threats we face. I recall my frustration as a Foreign Office and Defence Minister in wanting Britain to play a more assertive and proactive role on the international stage, not only with our hard and soft power but with our thought leadership. However, there was ever less appetite to do so, so I very much welcome this statement today.
Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that, as we take on the presidency of the G7, we will work closely with the new US Administration in boosting western resolve to confront a growing number of hostile competitors, including China, who have for too long been allowed to pursue their own destabilising and competing agendas?
I thank my right hon. Friend; he is completely right. This package will encourage and bolster our friends and alliances around the world and enable the UK to project global influence into the future. That is why it is a multi-year package. I do not think that anybody around the world will doubt, after this announcement, our commitment to NATO, to the transatlantic alliance and to the security of our friends and allies around the world.
I call the leader of the Scottish National party.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement.
In the SNP, we support a refocusing on the contemporary threats that we face. We need to readjust our defence capabilities for the modern world and it is especially important that a focus is given to issues such as cyber-security, but what we do not accept are the priorities of this Government and the threat of the disbanding of historic regiments such as the Black Watch. Disbanding the Black Watch would show that the promises made to Scotland during the Scottish independence campaign have been broken, buried and forgotten by this Government. We were promised 12,500 personnel stationed permanently in Scotland; the number remains well below 10,000. Such broken promises not only mean fewer jobs in Scotland, but undermine Scotland’s security interests. Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money are still being spent on Trident nuclear weapons. Scotland remains overwhelmingly opposed to weapons of mass destruction on the Clyde. We need to respond to today’s challenges rather than on vanity projects.
The SNP also has serious reservations regarding such a windfall to defence spending during these unprecedented times of hardship for so many. This review will reportedly see the UK as Europe’s biggest defence spender, when just three weeks ago this Government refused to provide free school meals for children during the holidays. We have learned that the UK Government are considering cutting the overseas aid budget by billions of pounds. The Prime Minister may use the term “global Britain”, but on these Benches we believe the Prime Minister has his priorities all wrong. The Tories have closed the Department for International Development, one of the most successful Departments of Government, in order to politicise instead of focusing it on sustainable development goals.
In our submission to the integrated defence review, we have put forward sensible suggestions on how to meet the modern-day threat picture, but not to the detriment of our historic regiments in Scotland. I ask the Prime Minister today: will he rule out scrapping the Black Watch—[Interruption]—and cuts to international aid spending? [Interruption.] It is an absolute disgrace, in the face of the threats, that we get contempt yet again from the Defence Secretary and his colleagues on the Tory Benches. It is shameful, and he really ought to grow up and show some respect to the regiments of Scotland.
With independence, Scotland can have a foreign policy that reflects our values and interests and a defence capability that matches capabilities to threats. With our submission to this review, we are looking to play a constructive role in informing UK policy, but we will be setting out how Scotland can play a full role as a normal, law-abiding and values-driven independent country on the world stage.
I can certainly give the right hon. Gentleman that guarantee. Once again, he seems to be a veritable geyser of confected indignation. Of course we are going to guarantee the Black Watch. DFID will remain in East Kilbride, as long as he does not continue with his ambitions to break up the United Kingdom; and even if he does, DFID will remain in East Kilbride.
It is preposterous to listen to the Scottish National party talking about its desire to support defence spending when everybody knows fine well that it is thanks to UK-wide investments that we are able to deliver not just the Black Watch and DFID in East Kilbride, but a fantastic programme of shipbuilding in Govan and Rosyth. Under his plans, it is not just that there will be no deterrent; there will be no shipbuilding and there will be no Black Watch in the land of the SNP. That is the reality.
May I say to my right hon. Friend that this statement smacks not only of promises kept, but of promises exceeded? I congratulate him on that. Does he accept that in an era when global cyber-attacks threaten our entire way of life—from the economy to the NHS—we need to spend more of our defence budget on assets that we cannot see as well as on updating our core assets, and that that needs to be clearly explained to the British people? In this war of the invisible enemy, does he believe that cyber doctrine has evolved to match our capabilities, especially on existential threats, in order to provide adequate deterrence?
My right hon. Friend is an expert on what he is talking about. I can tell him that the National Cyber Force is working on doctrine that is currently evolving, but we will deploy our cyber capabilities, as I am sure he and the House would expect, in accordance with international law to protect the British public and our citizens.
We all owe an enormous debt to the brave men and women of our armed forces and security services for their work in keeping our country safe. We will give the review the study it merits, but I immediately welcome the extra investment in cyber-security so that Cheltenham’s GCHQ and the amazing people who work there can continue to ensure the UK remains a world leader in this crucial aspect of modern defence. With data and cyber so important to modern defence, the Prime Minister will know that access for our security services and police to European crime databases is vital to keeping the British people safe. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that we will retain direct, real-time access to all European databases after 1 January?
We will make sure that we have all the co-operation. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point, which is a very important one, and I agree with him on what he says about GCHQ and Cheltenham. I am assured that we will be able to maintain all the co-operation and collaboration we need to protect our people and our citizens, not just with our European friends and partners, but with Five Eyes and other allies and friends around the world.
My right hon. Friend has delivered for our armed forces today and he deserves the support of the whole House, particularly as he seeks to improve the procurement mechanisms of the Ministry of Defence. Will he bear in mind the wise words of General Mattis, the former US Defence Secretary, who told Donald Trump that the more you cut aid, the more I have to spend on ammunition? Britain’s development leadership—standing by our promise to the poorest by keeping the 0.7%, which was a manifesto commitment—will stand my right hon. Friend in very good stead as he assumes the chairmanship of the G7 on 1 January and promotes the important values of global Britain.
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s points. He has done extraordinary work to champion the poorest and neediest around the world. This country, as I say, can be very proud of our record on overseas aid. We will continue to lead the world on that under this Government. What I can say is that this statement is about our defence and security, and there is no read-across to any other issue. This is driven by our need to protect the British public and keep the world as safe as we possibly can, and to unite and level up across our Union with 40,000 more jobs.
I thank the Prime Minister for his commitment to the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Will he confirm that while the goal is speed, readiness and resilience, as opposed to mass mobilisation, for the British armed forces to remain the best in the world the training of personnel must be a top priority to ensure that while we are ready for technological warfare, we also remain ready for physical forms of war? How will the review of recruitment procedures secure that very goal?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The defence review will ensure that we remain full spectrum capable. I think that is the phrase the House should use: full spectrum capable.
I strongly welcome and support my right hon. Friend’s statement. We live in difficult times, but, as he states, the defence of the realm must always remain a top priority. The announcement will be warmly welcomed by so many British businesses who rely heavily on our defence industry. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this will safeguard jobs, helping us to build back and level up opportunity across our nation?
My right hon. Friend is completely right. We will use this defence package and spending review not just to modernise and update our armed forces in a truly revolutionary way but to drive jobs across the whole of the UK. It is a very exciting prospect.
If this boost for defence spending is the first fruits of the departure of Dominic Cummings, it is most welcome, especially in ensuring that we can continue to work effectively alongside our long-term allies and partners including the United States—even more so with the welcome arrival of President Biden. Will the Prime Minister ensure that, wherever possible, spending is directed to firms in the UK and that orders are pulled forward to get British industry moving? He can start with the fleet solid support ships by telling the Ministry of Defence to send out the invitations to bid not in some ill-defined spring as the MOD says, but early in 2021. That would be a welcome Christmas present and new year message not only for our shipyards but for our engineering and steel industries and their communities.
The right hon. Gentleman speaks for many in what he says about the fleet solid support ships—he certainly speaks for me. This is a great moment for shipbuilding in this country. Be in no doubt of the ambition of my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary, the shipbuilding tsar who is now leading a renaissance in shipbuilding. I am sure he heard the right hon. Gentleman’s points loud and clear.
I welcome in the strongest possible terms the incredible announcement from the Prime Minister. Before joining this place, I worked for a County Durham start-up in research and development and saw at first hand the incredible value that R&D brings to society, particularly when tech is developed that can be applied to other uses. I have no doubt that investing in military R&D will lead to advancements for civilian applications in areas such as aviation and autonomous vehicles. Indeed, the technology that allows us to see the Prime Minister beamed on to our screens today first came from a military communication innovation. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this package of funding will be underpinned by a strong commitment to military research and development?
I can indeed. There is big, big chunk of this package specifically dedicated to research and development in cyber, AI and drone warfare—all the warfare of the future. The victors of the future will be those who are able to master data and new technology in the way that this package supports.
I really welcome this commitment to our armed forces. The Prime Minister spoke in his statement about defending our people and keeping the world safe, which I would argue are development objectives, thinking specifically about climate change, food security, creating stable Governments and investing to end violence against women and girls. How will he ensure that development remains front and centre of the UK’s new international policy following the integrated review? Will he please quash rumours and confirm his manifesto commitment to the 0.7% both now and going forwards?
As I have said several times to the House, we can all be proud of our record on overseas aid, and that will continue, but it is also by investing in our armed services that we can do some of the greatest things for the poorest and neediest people around the world. I have often found, when travelling around the world to countries in real distress, that the single export they crave the most is the help, reassurance and security that comes from the British armed services. That is one of the reasons why helping to keep our world safe is a huge part of this agenda.
Our armed forces have played a crucial role in our response to the pandemic, not least in setting up and scaling the mega lab in Milton Keynes. Looking beyond Milton Keynes to the world, does the Prime Minister agree that this investment sends a huge message to our friends and allies around the world that Britain is serious about security, and to those who would do us harm and threaten the security of our people and our nation that Britain is serious about defending our people, our businesses, our economy and our values?
That is exactly the purpose of this announcement. It is a long-term plan that allows us to reform our defences. They must be reformed and they must be improved, while allowing us to project force and stability around the world. That is what it is designed to do. It simultaneously creates tens of thousands of jobs across the whole of the United Kingdom. So it has a big economic benefit as well.
I welcome the commitment to additional future funding, but we should not forget that British boots are on the ground in Afghanistan today. A consequence of President Trump’s threat to reduce troop numbers would be that the UK needed to play a greater role in building peace, security and resilience. So does the UK stand ready to meet that challenge and ensure that the people of Afghanistan are afforded the opportunity of a more peaceful and prosperous future?
I thank the hon. Gentleman and I recognise and admire the service that he has given to this country in our armed forces. He is completely right to point to the issue of a proposed potential American draw-down in those areas. We are watching it very closely, and we will be working with our American friends in the new Administration to do whatever we can to protect the stability and security of those troubled countries.
Thankfully, the Prime Minister is fulfilling his leadership election promise on defence spending. Given that the National Cyber Force formally announced today involves offensive cyber operations, I welcome the fact that the ISC will provide oversight of this joint MOD-GCHQ venture. Is my right hon. Friend fully satisfied that the ISC is now properly constituted to conduct this scrutiny impartially and independently?
Yes. I believe that the Intelligence and Security Committee is well equipped to provide exactly that further layer of scrutiny of cyber operations.
The Prime Minister has outlined his ambition for a space control to secure space launch capability from the UK, but concerns have been raised by some in the UK-based space industry about the recently published US-UK technology safeguards agreement, which has not yet been scrutinised by this place. What guarantee can the Prime Minister give the UK-based industry that it will be central to any space programme, and will he meet me to discuss this in more detail?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important and interesting issue. I will do my best to ensure that his concerns are addressed and that the House is able to look at all the technology safeguard measures that we are putting in place. That is obviously right.
First, may I hugely welcome this announcement? It is a fantastic statement of resolve for the UK at home and abroad. It does more than guarantee the future of the Black Watch. It invests in businesses from Arbroath all the way to Abergavenny. It is a fantastic statement of the defence capability of our nation—of a whole United Kingdom. It also raises questions. This spending package is enormously important because it allows the planners to think about the future confident in the money that they will have to spend. Will my right hon. Friend commit to bringing forward as soon as possible the integrated review so that we have a strategic approach to that spending? This time, we cannot outspend the communists; we have to out-think them.
My hon. Friend is spot on. What this package does is set out much of the basic structure of the integrated review. We can start to see the tools that we will be using, but we will shortly be completing the review. He is absolutely right in his fundamental point that this is about having smarter forces to outwit our foes. Every time the UK has been asked to do that, we have always historically risen to that challenge. This will give us the tools to do it.
As a Scottish MP, I have no doubt as to the vital role that Scotland plays in the defence of the realm. When we think about the recruitment of personnel, as the Prime Minister mentioned, establishments such as Rosyth and RAF Lossiemouth are great examples. On 7 September 1921, the Cabinet met outside London for the very first time in history. This was to consider the Irish crisis and it met in the Town House in Inverness. May I suggest that the UK Cabinet meet again in the Inverness Town House on 7 September next year? This would be to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1921 meeting and to enable the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to review the defence of the UK by visiting places such as RAF Lossiemouth, and perhaps also to learn about the great role that our armed forces played, and play right now, in beating the covid pandemic?
The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point about the role of our armed services in beating the covid pandemic, which I should have made earlier on myself. I was up in Scotland—actually in Lossiemouth—talking to members of our armed services who are doing the testing and helping to fly patients from remote islands to hospitals. It was wonderful to see the way that the UK armed services have helped during this pandemic, Mr Speaker/Madam Deputy Speaker—I am sorry but I can hardly see you down there with the TV screen here. What I can say is that I will keep very closely in mind the hon. Gentleman’s invitation to come to Inverness for a Cabinet meeting next year. We will study that with interest.
It was a great pleasure in the previous business to praise the Prime Minister for his leadership in delivering Brexit. It is also great to be able to praise the Prime Minister’s leadership in delivering this multi-year settlement for our wonderful men and women of our armed forces. Would he like to thank all those officials and civil servants in the Ministry of Defence and all the armed forces who have worked many hours to help deliver this multi-year settlement? In particular, would he like to thank the Secretary of State for Defence whose robust work on this has helped to ensure that we have come to this point and delivered for our armed forces?
It is always a pleasure to thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence whom I have known for many, many years and is a good friend of mine. He is supported, as my hon. Friend rightly said, by thousands of brilliant officials, to say nothing of the members of our wonderful armed services who have helped to make this package what it is. I believe that it will deliver for our people and deliver for our country for years and years to come.
In the mid-‘90s, the UK was one of the largest contributors to UN peacekeeping missions in terms of troops and personnel. Now we have only 600 personnel worldwide whom we contribute. Will this budget turn that around and take us back to our proud tradition of peacekeeping troops, and will the Prime Minister commit to ensuring that the 0.7% is not devalued at all in this wider review?
One reason why I am so excited about going up to 2.2% of our spending on defence, as the hon. Gentleman points out, is that it will allow us to do more on peacekeeping. By the way, he is right to draw attention to the fact that the UK could do more on peacekeeping. I am proud of what we are doing, for instance, in Mali, but this programme, this investment, gives us the scope to do even more.
This is a hugely important announcement, which, as a member of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust, I know will be much welcomed by our armed forces. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it will in fact strengthen our global influence and secure jobs across a range of supply chain industries, some of which are located across the Dudley borough and the Black Country?
Yes, indeed. This will be big for the Black Country. The west midlands, once again, is at the cutting edge of technological change and the new industrial revolution. The technologies that we will need and that are foreseen in this spending package will certainly drive jobs in the west midlands and around the whole UK.
Britain is the penholder for Yemen at the UN Security Council, with the responsibility to support the peace process and a real opportunity to show global Britain at its best, but will the Prime Minister tell us why his Government have resumed indefensible arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which has credibly been accused of human rights violations that may amount to war crimes?
Under the consolidated guidance, we have some of the strictest rules about exports of weapons to any country in the world. Everything is closely overseen and scrutinised by our lawyers, and, indeed, judicially reviewed. I am content that we are doing everything in accordance with the law and in accordance with humanitarian law.
I very much welcome this increased commitment to invest in our armed forces, though to pay for it by reducing the commitment to global peace, which our overseas aid budget represents, would be a mistake. How is the Prime Minister going to ensure that jobs are created across the country through this investment? Innovative, high-tech businesses in Newcastle tell me that it is easier to secure a contract with the American Department of Defence than with the British Ministry of Defence, so what is he doing to improve procurement opportunities for small businesses?
I am interested that the hon. Member says that, because, as I recall, one cannot even sell rulers or paperclips to the US military under the Pentagon’s procurement policies; but I may be in error. The hon. Member makes an important point about the need to source as much as we can from the UK. That is obviously what we are going to do. It is a big opportunity to buy British, to stimulate jobs and technology, and to drive jobs across the UK, and I have no doubt that Newcastle and the north-east will be big beneficiaries.
May I say to the Prime Minister that this is the best and most intelligent defence statement that I have heard in a quarter of a century in the House of Commons? Will he assuage, however, two concerns that I have? The first is that it appears that the numerical size of the armed forces is still on a downward trend. The evidence of recent wars—most recently in Nagorno-Karabakh—is that the route to success is through both novel technology and conventional forces. How are we going to cope with that? Secondly, since the era of the Duke of Wellington, the MOD has not been very good at managing big, expensive projects. What are we going to do about that?
First of all, it is important to understand that there are no redundancies in this package. My right hon. Friend is right about the need to maintain full spectrum, and that is what this does. We also have to fight the wars of the future—to adapt and change. That is what this package allows us to do; it permits us to modernise. My right hon. Friend’s final point is a very important one. We are going to be following this with a very beady eye. There have been historic over- spends and historic mistakes in procurement—some painful episodes that we do not need to go into, in which investments have not turned out well. We are setting up a unit to ensure that we get value out of this massive package.
There is much to welcome about the investment in our armed forces in this statement. The Prime Minister will be aware that in the last month, we have seen atrocities against civilians in Nigeria, jihadis on the rise in the Sahel and Mozambique, attacks on democracy in Uganda and Tanzania and now a spiralling conflict in Ethiopia, with huge refugee flows, attacks on civilians and the destabilising of the region. On that specific issue, will the Prime Minister say what he is doing now to seek an urgent de-escalation in Ethiopia and humanitarian access? More widely, given his statement today, what role does he see for us as a partner for peace, development and security in Africa, not least given the crucial role that the 0.7% commitment has played, as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) set out so clearly?
We have made representations to the Government in Addis Ababa to de-escalate in Ethiopia. We continue to make our points with them. This package will help us to step up our commitment to Africa and, as the hon. Gentleman may recall, when I was Foreign Secretary and now under my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, we are opening up embassies, opening up UK representation across Africa, and this package will help us to support that.
I thank both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor for finding a way to provide this long-term financial stability for defence, despite the huge financial pressures that covid has brought upon us this year. Getting our defence funding on a sound footing affords us the chance to ensure that it can be genuinely resilient, so does the Prime Minister agree that ensuring that we get going at pace on the shipbuilding commitments he has set out is critical not only for the next generation of Royal Navy ships to be in service as soon as possible, but because the UK, in building ships and boats across the four nations of the Union that they defend, can lead the world in adapting to green maritime technologies?
My right hon. Friend is completely right because not only are we massively expanding shipbuilding with the two frigate production lines that I have described, the five Type 31s at Rosyth and the six Type 26s in Govan, and we are also committed to the Type 32, but we want to be in the lead globally—as she and I have discussed, and I thank her for all the work she has done to champion shipbuilding and the Royal Navy—in clean, green marine technologies so that our ships are also emitting less carbon. That is perfectly feasible.
The Prime Minister has announced an additional increase of just over £4 billion a year in the defence budget. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence admits that it already has a £6 billion budget shortfall in its equipment plan. That shortfall could rise to as much as £13 billion over the lifetime of the plan, so will the Prime Minister tell us what he thinks the MOD’s equipment budget shortfall will be at the end of the four-year period covered by his statement today?
As I say, this is the biggest increase in defence spending since the cold war. It gives us a long-term ability to reform, but it also delivers more ships, cyber, artificial intelligence, drone technology and the future combat air system, which will be absolutely vital to this country—all of it creating 40,000 jobs across the UK, so this is a big step forward for our whole country.
I warmly welcome this statement from the Prime Minister and his continuing commitment to strengthening our