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Business of the House

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 3 December 2020

The business for the week commencing 7 December will include:

Monday 7 December—Consideration of Lords amendments to the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill.

Tuesday 8 December—Motion to approve ways and means resolutions related to the Taxation (Post-Transition Period) Bill.

Wednesday 9 December—Consideration of a procedural motion, followed by Second Reading and Committee of the Taxation (Post-Transition Period) Bill.

Thursday 10 December—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments followed by general debate on the future of the high street.

Friday 11 December—The House will not be sitting.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business, but it is dummy business, because this is a dummy Bill next week. It has not even been published. I checked in the Vote Office this morning, and I checked online and it has not even been published. So could the Leader of the House try again when he responds? It is not actually a real Bill.

There is a very important day on 16 December, when the EU votes on a final deal. It is also the day that we come out of tiers. I just wonder if 17 December is an appropriate day for the House to be pencilled in to rise. They are two important debates. Could the Leader of the House say exactly when the House is likely to rise? We would like to know because we need to plan. If we are going into the following week, it would be important for us to know.

We have had the dummy Bill, but we have also had fake news. The approval of the vaccine has got absolutely nothing to do with Brexit, so I hope the Leader of the House will take back his tweet. It is great that the vaccine has been authorised and will be rolled out next week, and I want to pay tribute to all the scientists, the lab technicians and the volunteers who stuck their arms out to keep us safe. It is a reminder that certain things know no boundaries and that people can work together for the common good of humanity. I always think that the Opposition are very constructive, so I am pleased that the Government have taken up the suggestion of a Minister for vaccines. What I am concerned about is that he is doing two jobs. We had a Minister for snow, although I do not think many people will remember that, and a Minister for floods, and they just did that one job. Will the vaccines tsar now be accountable to the Minister and will the Minister be accountable to us? Could the Minister make a statement next week, so we know exactly where we are on the roll-out of the vaccine?

Yesterday, the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations published its criteria. Care UK has asked that unpaid carers be vaccinated immediately, and I do not know what the process is for feeding that into the Committee. Black and minority ethnic communities have also been hard hit by the virus, and we should also look at that, as well as multi-generational households.

The Government seemed to be fighting the rebellion this week rather than the virus, and almost 3 million people, despite the spending review, have been excluded from Government support. People are confused. In Walsall, we were in tier 2, infection rates came down, hospital admissions came down, but now we are in tier 3 and in with Birmingham. I know that the Leader of the House has got special dispensation for parts of north Somerset to be taken out of tier 3. I think they were linked with Bristol. I think the Secretary of State for Health has said he is going to look at that on 16 December, so that Somerset is all in one group. How do we do that in Walsall?

Can the Government now release all the data modelling of the sectoral impacts and potential job losses as a result of the tier lockdowns? Even Ministers do not know the difference between tiers—I think it is the Scotch egg test. But surely it cannot be right that details of contracts given under the pandemic will not be allowed to be published. A Minister in the other place, I think, said that they are not going to do that. It is like telling us all not to eat the sweets while the Government raids the sweetie jar behind our backs.

I know that the Secretary of State for Education has already been here, but on Friday he announced special funding for schools for the short-term covid workforce. That was put on the website on Friday, when the House was not sitting. Then there was a written statement on Monday. Could the Secretary of State come back and explain exactly why schools have not been compensated for everything from the time they were allowed to open in September? They have had to pay for heating—they have to keep schools ventilated, as well as keep up with the heating costs—and PPE, and some of them are putting food bags together for their children. But the key thing is that insurers are not even paying out. This is force majeure: this is a pandemic. Could the Secretary of State come and make an announcement on how schools will be supported?

I know we had Transport questions earlier, but may I ask the Leader of the House, given that there is going to be a border in the Irish sea, if he will take up the Irish Government’s suggestion that Father Christmas gets a travel corridor and is an essential worker?

Finally, let us remember people with disabilities. It is the International Day of People with Disabilities, and every day should be a day of disabilities, as we make this world more accessible for everyone.

Mr Speaker, I wonder, with your leave, if I may begin by saying a few short words of thanks to the Cabinet Office’s parliamentary adviser, Dr Farrah Bhatti, whose secondment to Government is coming to an end and who is returning to the House service as a Principal Clerk. Farrah Bhatti joined the Cabinet Office as parliamentary adviser in April 2018 on secondment to Government to advise Ministers on parliamentary procedure and handling. The period of her secondment has seen some unprecedented challenges and events in Parliament, including a number of meaningful votes and the response to the covid-19 pandemic. Throughout her time, Farrah has been a great servant both to the House and to the Government, bringing her invaluable wisdom and advice to successive business managers and Ministers. She is unbelievably knowledgeable, in the best traditions of the clerkly hierarchy. I try to ask her impossible questions, and she always—invariably —knows the answer. May I put on record that in the last 17 months, while I have been Leader of the House, any good procedural recommendations have come from her and any mistakes have been exclusively my own? I have a feeling that the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) will think there have been one or two of those. But may I finish by saying that Her Majesty’s Government’s loss is very much the gain of the House of Commons, and I am sure the whole House will want to wish her well in moving on to her new post?

To come to the right hon. Lady’s questions, I completely agree that we should recognise disability day, and we should ensure that we recognise and value everybody in this country as equal and of great importance to our society and to our nation. I can also reassure her that Father Christmas will be able to have a travel corridor. He will be able to come in, and he will not have to be vaccinated. I have six children who are waiting with bated breath, and who are filling out lists. The lists, Mr Speaker! You would not believe how long they are. Schleich is very popular with my infant daughter, and every possible item of Schleich seems to be on this list for Father Christmas, so I hope he can carry it all in his bag. [Interruption.] I see the Whip on duty, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), is asking what Schleich is. They are these little toy horses and things like that, and they are very popular.

Now to the areas where we do not agree so much. First, it is a real Bill that will be coming forward—a real Bill—on the EU taxation provisions, once we have ended the transition period. We will be doing the Lords amendments on Monday, and we will be pushing back all the amendments that were made in the Lords, including the ones relating to clause 5, and ensuring that we can put the best interests of the whole United Kingdom first. These are really important pieces of legislation. The right hon. Lady also mentioned Brexit and the vaccine—

It will be published. Bills are published before we vote on them. Patience! It is coming, as is Christmas, of course. [Interruption.] Christmas is coming —because we are in Advent. Dear me, I would have thought that, as a former cleric, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) would know the difference between Advent and Christmas, but there we go.

As regards Brexit and the vaccine, the UK should be really proud that our regulator got in first. We notice that the European regulator is a bit sniffy about it, wishes we had not done it, and that Germany and France and other European countries have not managed to do the same thing. We have, we are leaving—draw your own conclusions, Mr Speaker, as I am sure the British public will. We are now free of the dead hand of the European Union and will be even more free of it on 1 January. This is a huge British success that we should be proud of and pleased about.

The right hon. Lady talks about the Minister for vaccines. I remind her that Harold Wilson had a Minister for drought, so Ministers have had all sorts of responsibilities over the years. My hon. Friend the Minister will be doing a very important job in ensuring that the roll-out goes to the priority cases first, and the number of vaccines that has already been secured will ensure that we are able to have a very thorough programme. This is very good news because it is the beginning of the end. We should welcome that and be pleased about it.

In terms of tiers, the idea that Somerset is the same as Bristol is a ridiculous one. Somerset and Bristol are clearly different things. One is the great historic county of Somerset, and Bristol is a city important in its own right, but nothing like the same as the great historic county of Somerset. Bath and North East Somerset have a much, much lower number of cases per 100,000 than Bristol, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset. The whole county council area of Somerset is also in tier 2, along with Bath and North East Somerset, which is the right place for it to be.

The right hon. Lady mentioned support for businesses. I would just reiterate that £280 billion of taxpayers’ money has been spent to protect jobs, businesses and public services across the United Kingdom. This is an enormous package of support, including £1 billion of support for schools to help people catch up. If she has questions for the Secretary of State for Education, they should have come a little bit before me, during his statement, rather than afterwards.

Finally—Scotch eggs. We had better finish on Scotch eggs, because I know this is a matter of great interest. I refer to the elephant bird. Do you know, Mr Speaker, that the egg of the elephant bird, which is now extinct, could weigh up to 22 pounds? That is quite a big egg. If you turned that into a Scotch egg, it would unquestionably be a substantial meal. If, on the other hand, you were to take a quail’s egg and make that into a Scotch egg, it would be a mere snack. In between, the great British people will make their mind up, along with publicans up and down the country, as to whether it is a snack or a substantial meal.

Statistically, Carshalton and Wallington is one of the safest areas in London. However, over the past few months there has been a worrying number of catalytic converter thefts and other vehicle-related crimes. Indeed, only this morning I heard the story of Saffron, who challenged four men who were attempting to steal a catalytic converter on her road, and was chased back to her home by those men, who were armed with scaffold poles. Could we therefore have a debate in this place about how we can support our brave police officers in bringing these perpetrators to justice?

My hon. Friend raises a genuinely important issue, and he is right to stand up for law and order. Catalytic converter theft has been a growing problem in recent years, and I know that it has been a considerable concern up and down the country. The police are indeed brave and heroic—they run towards danger and do everything within their power to keep our communities safe—and he is therefore right to pay credit to them. Thanks to the efforts of the Home Secretary and the Policing Minister, we have made good progress in hiring new police officers towards the target of 20,000, with over 5,000 new recruits in 2020 alone. He raises an important point, and we must always focus on law and order.

On the timetable, can the Leader of the House now rule out Parliament having to debate the Brexit chaos between Christmas and Hogmanay?

Can we have a debate on the ministerial code and whether it should be strengthened to ensure that Ministers’ statements on social media are accurate and truthful? I ask because the Leader of the House claimed yesterday on Twitter that the accelerated licensing of vaccines in the UK was made possible by our leaving the European Union. In fact, as made clear by the regulator, the very opposite is the case and the licences were approved via a fast-track procedure provided for under EU regulations.

This applies in other areas too. Previously the Leader of the House was somewhat coy when I asked if he agreed with the Prime Minister that devolution had been a disaster, but recently he has been opining on social media that the so-called Blairite constitutional tinkering needs to be corrected. Given that the principal constitutional change of the Blair Government was devolution, I presume it is this that he has in his sights. If the UK Government are about to reverse a policy of more than two decades, surely this Parliament ought to debate the matter. The current Government have no UK mandate for this change, and it represents a total and absolute disrespect for Scottish public opinion.

It seems that at the coming Scottish general election, two alternative paths will be offered to the electorate: either the Government’s assault on devolution ends up with direct rule from Westminster, or the Scottish people defend their right to decide matters for themselves by demanding the choice of becoming an independent country. Yesterday, another opinion poll by Ipsos MORI recorded a 12-point lead for independence—the 15th in a row to record a yes majority. The question for this Parliament is whether it will respect the results of the election in Scotland or whether it will ignore them and aim to govern without the consent of the people. Does the Leader of the House agree that at some point we must have this debate?

The failure of the SNP is not something I would have thought the hon. Gentleman would wish to boast about. The SNP in government has failed on Scottish education, it has failed on Scottish health, it has failed on Scottish law and order; it is a shameful record in Scotland of the SNP. It has let the people of Scotland down.

The hon. Gentleman loathes genuine elections because in 2014 he lost—L-O-S-T, lost. He had an election, and it was going to be for a generation. The generation has hardly lasted six years before he quotes opinion polls. Opinion polls are not proper elections where people go out and put their cross and put it in a ballot box; they are a taster of opinion at a passing moment of fancy, whereas a genuine election is what was had in 2014, and that is the result supported by the people of the United Kingdom.

It is worth reminding the hon. Gentleman of the success of the United Kingdom. The UK taxpayer has provided £8.2 billion to help Scotland through the pandemic. It is of fundamental importance and shows the strength of this nation together. It is the SNP that has been the failure, not devolution. Devolution could work perfectly well if only the Conservatives were in charge in Scotland, which would make a triumphant success of it. If anyone does not believe me, they just have to look at how well London was run when it had a Conservative Mayor and what a hash is being made of it by a socialist Mayor.

To come to the issue of Brexit and the vaccine, why is it that the UK has managed to approve this vaccine and our friends in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and so on have not? Do you think it might just be because we are leaving the European Union and we are taking back control? We are able to crack on. Now we see the European regulator does not think we should have done it in the first place. It is a bit miffed. Why is it miffed? Because we got there first. That is absolutely splendid and we should be proud of United Kingdom achievements.

There is a saying, Mr Speaker, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. It is no surprise, therefore, that the closure of retail during lockdown highlighted the value of our local shops. However, independent, family-run sports shops, such as Jim Hall Sports in Bramhall, are in danger of closing altogether, disappearing from our high streets, as major sports brands close their accounts, preferring big outlets, national chains and online shopping. While my call for a debate on the future of our high streets has been pre-empted, will my right hon. Friend join my campaign to save our independent sports shops, and does he agree that now is the time for big brands such as Nike, Adidas and Under Armour to get behind local communities and back our independent sports shops?

I commend my hon. Friend for campaigning for independent retailers in her constituency, and particularly for Jim Hall Sports. It is really important that the major suppliers help independent retailers. They should not use their quasi-monopolistic position to take away support from our high streets. I hope that point will be made in the debate on high streets next Thursday. The Government have provided a great deal of support during the pandemic, with £66 billion in loans and £11 billion in business grants, but really, this is going to be in the hands of consumers. We should all try to support our high streets where we can.

I am afraid to say that I am very disappointed that the Backbench Business Committee has no time allocated for debates next week. We had a tasty morsel or two lined up. We have debate applications that would neatly fit into any time that might become available between now and Christmas, with many keen applicants trying to get slots before Christmas.

The Leader of the House is right that there was a Minister for Drought under Harold Wilson’s Government. That was the right hon. Denis Howell in 1976, although he subsequently—in a matter of weeks—became the Minister for Floods, which only goes to show that we have to be very careful what we wish for.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The right hon. Denis Howell did indeed become Minister for Drought, and the drought ended. Whether this was because of the power of the Government or the power of a higher authority is not, I think, a particular matter for debate, as it happens.

We are having Backbench Business debates later today, and we continue with a regular programme of Backbench Business debates. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we try very seriously to ensure that the days’ debates are provided in accordance with the Standing Orders.

I am sure that children around the world, including my own special nieces, were very pleased earlier this week when the Prime Minister shared on Twitter that he had spoken to Father Christmas to confirm that he would be bringing joy to the world on his sleigh as he does every year. Will my right hon. Friend please confirm that Santa’s elves are also able to help in Santa’s workshop this year, so that we can further reassure children around the world not to worry, because Santa is coming this Christmas to bring cheer as he does every year?

I am sure that the elves are busily doing their magic work to ensure that Christmas stockings will be filled for children across the world. I think they count as key workers because they need to go into work to do their jobs. Whether they have to wear masks or not, I am not entirely sure; I have not yet found out. We should no doubt have an Adjournment debate on this important subject. We can be pleased that Christmas is coming, presents will be delivered and we will be able to see members of our families over Christmas. That is reassuring for one and all.

I am sure that the House will join me in congratulating housing association Habinteg on its 50th anniversary. Accessible homes are vital for older and disabled people. With the Government consultation on accessible homes having just ended, will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on accessible housing in Government time, and can he say when the Government will respond to the consultation?

The hon. Lady raises a point that we should all celebrate—that is, that accessible housing is important and organisations that provide accessible housing should be congratulated, particularly on a 50th anniversary. As the hon. Lady says, the consultation has closed and a response will be produced in due course. I cannot promise a debate in Government time, but it is a subject that the House may well want to discuss. There are obviously slots in Westminster Hall and Adjournment debates that may prove suitable.

I will be spending Small Business Saturday visiting small shops in Notting Hill and North Kensington. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that we need a fundamental reform of business rates, or, indeed, as I would argue, a reduction in business rates—I know that he probably cannot comment—if we are to see high streets in Kensington and across the country continue to prosper?

First of all, I congratulate my hon. Friend on her determination to ensure that Small Business Saturday is marked properly and effectively, and on leading the way in her own constituency by visiting small businesses. It is really important that we back small businesses, which really underpin our whole economy. Job creation usually comes from small businesses, and my hon. Friend is right to support them and to support high streets. I cannot make promises about rates reform—that is a matter for the Chancellor—but I would say that we Conservatives believe in low taxation always and everywhere; it is a fundamental principle of being a Conservative. Through the pandemic, there has been considerable support for small businesses, including the waiving of rates, £11.7 billion of initial grants of up to £25,000 at the start of the outbreak and £1.1 billion to councils to support businesses more broadly. There is a fundamental review of business rates going on and responses to the call for evidence are being considered, so I hope there will be news in spring 2021, and we will see where that goes.

On Friday 23 October in this Chamber, I called on all Members of the House to support the Government’s commitment to ban live animal exports. I was delighted to hear this morning an announcement by the Government and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that we would continue to do that, and I ask the Leader of the House to ensure that we bring that forward as soon as possible.

On a point that is more pertinent and closer to home right now, the coronavirus regulations that, as we all know, were passed earlier this week put rural West Dorset and vast swathes of rural England into tier 2. I very much support the Government’s refreshed approach to regional tiering, but I believe that a more localised approach should be possible. May I ask that, when the review comes in two weeks’ time, the House be able to give proper scrutiny to this issue?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s point on live animal exports; that is something we can do because we are leaving the European Union, so it is another advantage of being free to make our own laws. With regard to the placing of areas in each tier, that will be reviewed every fortnight, with the first review taking place on 16 December. The Government are keenly aware of the views of hon. Members across the House, and decisions will continue to be based on a range of indicators, including analysis of cases across age groups and the rate at which cases are rising or falling. There will certainly be plenty of opportunities to discuss those matters in the House. Indeed, there have been frequent oral statements, and more Government time has been made available for general debates on covid.

Order. As well as business questions, we have another statement and two debates to get through, so I would ask for succinct questions and answers.

According to Open Doors, there are more than 93 million Christians in Nigeria at risk of persecution. I have also received a very worrying inquiry from a constituent regarding the burning down of six synagogues in Nigeria. Can we have a much needed statement on what can be done to ensure the protection of vulnerable religious minority groups from persecution in Nigeria?

This is a matter of considerable concern to the Government, and the Government have been raising it with the Nigerian authorities. I will pass on the details of the hon. Lady’s question, because we must do whatever we can to ensure religious toleration across the world.

Never has parliamentary scrutiny of Government become more important than it is now. In the light of that, will my right hon. Friend agree to allow the House to sit until Christmas Eve so that we can discuss all these important issues, not least the tiering process, and to enable the House to have a chance to consider an issue dear to Mr Speaker and the Deputy Speakers—namely, whether or not we should introduce a change to the Standing Orders relating to the length of speeches?

It is a matter of great concern that speeches are much too short. I know that Members of the House would like speeches to go on for many hours as they used to in the 19th century—particularly those of my hon. Friend, who has made some spectacularly long speeches in my period in this House and done so with great panache and verve. I agree with him that scrutiny is fundamental, but I can assure the House that we will not be sitting on Christmas Day.

That is a relief to hear. I am sure the Leader of the House is aware that this week is Welsh Electrical Safety Week and that a survey from Electrical Safety First has shown that 57% of Welsh consumers will use online platforms and marketplaces to purchase Christmas gifts. The concerning thing, as he will be aware, is that many platforms, including Amazon and, will allow third parties to sell faulty goods with electrical concerns that people are unaware of, which can cause house fires. Could he find time for a debate to ensure that we can look at how the regulation of the marketplace in relation to the selling of electrical goods could be improved and fully regulated?

I have to admit to a shocking lacuna in my knowledge. I was unaware that it was Welsh Electrical Safety Week, but I am now better informed of this important week. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about the sale of electrical goods. Faulty goods ought not to be sold. I suggest that he raise the matter in an Adjournment debate in the first instance.

I want to ask about an issue that affects every corner of the country and infuriates the nation, and on which every MP in this House will have emails: the small, irresponsible minority of people who wreak havoc on our green spaces, our footpaths and our footwear. Councils are trying everything to tackle dog fouling. Barking and Dagenham Council has even tried DNA testing dog mess. We need to give back councils the power to tackle this issue. Will my right hon. Friend grab me time to have a debate on the prevention of pooches pooping in public places?

Pooches pooping in public places should be attacked doggedly, particularly in Barking, obviously. It is very important that these issues are raised. Although they seem small, they cause disproportionate inconvenience and unpleasantness to people. It is a local council duty. I know my hon. Friend’s local council is a socialist local council, so it may be well worth him giving them a poke to encourage them to ensure that dog mess is removed from public spaces. There are methods of enforcement and fining people, but, by and large, I do not think that fines and aggressive enforcement are the way to proceed; the way is to encourage dog owners to be responsible, which I think increasing numbers are.

The collapse of the Arcadia Group and the threat to thousands of jobs has focused the minds of many, and I am so sorry for the stress and worry that has been caused to my constituents and all those across Newport West and the UK. Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate in Government time on what steps the Government are taking, or not taking, to level the playing field between the high street and online retailers?

The hon. Lady rightly raises the issue of Arcadia and the distress there must be for the people employed there, particularly as we are coming up to Christmas, who will be potentially losing their jobs. It is a horrible event for them. One has heard of people who have worked for those stores for many, many years who will be losing their jobs and that is very difficult. It is important that we understand the effects of this issue. There is a debate next week on the high street, which will be an opportunity to raise these issues on the competition between the high street and online retailers.

In recent conversations, the Car Wash Association expressed to me its discomfort about the thousands of illegal car washes across the country. I wonder if the Leader of the House might advise on how best to progress that issue within Government. Secondly, in relation to the recent controversy at Eton College, I wonder whether the Leader of the House might use his good offices, through the usual channels and in discussion with Mr Speaker, to look favourably on a debate request that has been put in for Westminster Hall on the importance of freedom of expression? I wonder if he has any views on that matter.

Illegal car washes—that is an interesting subject. I am not quite sure how one can wash a car illegally, but there may be ways. As regards Eton, my and my hon. Friend’s old school, it would be wrong of me to interfere in, or express a view on, an internal disciplinary matter, other than to say that the panel will be chaired by Dr Andrew Gailey, who was probably there in both his time and mine, and who is a man of the utmost propriety and integrity. He is someone in whom I would personally have the fullest confidence. Freedom of speech as a general issue is one of the pillars of our constitution. I was very reassured that my noble Friend Lord Waldegrave of North Hill said that Eton would stand four-square in support of freedom of speech. That is something we should all encourage.

I recently surveyed my constituents across Stirling on fireworks. We have obviously just gone through the latest Guy Fawkes night season, which now extends beyond just one night of the year, and 89% of the people who responded were in favour of banning the private use of fireworks altogether. May we have a debate about how to regulate fireworks properly, because the obnoxious antisocial behaviours that we are increasingly seeing need to be limited?

Ryan Passey, a constituent of mine, sadly lost his life at the hands of a knife, and the perpetrator was acquitted in an absurd verdict that shocked the whole town. We sometimes hear young adults say that they carry a knife for self-defence. We know that it is illegal to do so, so could the Leader of the House make time for a debate on further tightening of the law in this area so that self-defence cannot be abused as a legal defence in cases like Ryan’s, particularly when Ryan carried no weapon himself?

It is always very sad to hear of cases of this kind, and I thank my hon. Friend for raising this really serious matter with the House. Knife crime is a great scourge on our society, and it is truly dreadful to see people’s lives taken away and to sense that justice has not been done. I do not know the details of the case she mentions, and I therefore as a Minister ought not to go into the details. It is essential that our justice system is able to operate free from political interference, but we must bring violent criminals to justice as well. The Government are spending over £200 million of taxpayers’ money on early intervention projects to prevent young people from committing violent crime in the first place, and we will also be piloting new knife crime prevention orders, introduced through the Offensive Weapons Act 2019. These are preventive orders that will provide an additional tool for police to steer young people away from serious violence. My hon. Friend will have the opportunity to raise this issue specifically at Justice questions on Wednesday 8 December.

I, too, want to raise the issue of the Arcadia collapse and the people in my constituency who work at Debenhams and Topshop and look like they are going to lose their jobs before Christmas. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for ensuring that there is a general debate on the future of the high street, but can I have his assurance that there will be sufficient time for this debate if any forthcoming Brexit legislation is published at the weekend, and that it will not be bumped?

The hon. Lady asks me a particularly difficult question, because although next Thursday is scheduled for Lords amendments, the guarantee I can never give is what may come along in terms of statements and urgent questions, which depends on the demand from this House to be kept updated about affairs that are going on. It is always a difficult balancing act, in that the House wishes and has the right to be informed of things first, but it also has its regular business to go through. That debate is scheduled for the whole of the day, and therefore I hope that there will be sufficient time. I will at least do my best to ensure that I am not too long-winded when making my own statement.

The Leader of the House may be aware that Dudley borough now has a full complement of Conservative MPs. He may also know that Dudley borough is being run very robustly by a Conservative administration. So, much is happening in Dudley now, and with the allocation of the proposed £35 million to the towns fund, now is the time to redevelop the centre of the capital of the Black Country. Will the Leader of the House therefore request that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government ensures that the most robust amount of consultation is given so that local populations can own the redevelopment of their town?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on being a leading figure in this revolution that has turned Dudley blue. It is a great triumph of conservatism, and it is leading to better government in Dudley. We do indeed want to ensure that the towns fund, with its guidance, ensures that town centres and high streets that are facing particular challenges have the flexibility to prioritise investment across the town in a way that is agreed with the town and MHCLG, so there is flexibility. The town deal board is responsible for producing the final town investment plan, including putting forward suitable projects that align with the objectives of the towns fund, so it is going to be a case of local government working with national Government, but the local government views are of great importance.

This week’s loss of Debenhams and 25,000 retail jobs is yet another blow to the sector. This Saturday is Small Business Saturday and, like the hon. Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) I will champion local businesses, in Bath, as many are already struggling. With permission, may I press the Leader of the House on this again? Does he not agree that the Chancellor should conclude the business rates review by substantially reducing that tax on retail at least until the sector has recovered sufficiently? May we have a full debate in Government time on this important issue of business rates, including how to create a level playing field with online retail giants?

The hon. Lady and I share a local authority. We therefore have a considerable joint interest in local businesses in our area doing well. We are well aware that the rates and indeed rents paid by businesses, particularly in her constituency, are fundamental to the finances of the local council that covers both our areas, so the importance and prosperity of local businesses are fundamental.

As I said earlier, the Government are undertaking a fundamental review of the business rates system, and are currently considering responses to the call for evidence. A final report setting out the full conclusions of the review will be published in spring 2021, so there will be an opportunity to consider that then. As I said, there will be an opportunity to debate it next Thursday, and I hope that the hon. Lady will participate in that debate.

Price & Kensington teapot works in Longport, outside the mother town of Burslem, could be a catalyst for economic growth and regeneration but, sadly, an absentee and rogue landlord is allowing it to rot. My ten-minute rule Bill, the Planning (Proper Maintenance of Land) Bill, was inspired by that case and seeks to achieve more forceful action against those who would damage local communities in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke and across the UK. Will my right hon. Friend be willing to commit parliamentary time to debating what further legal action can be taken against absentee and rogue landowners?

It is a very difficult issue. Property ownership is a fundamental part of our constitution, and the rights of property are of great importance. Landowners do not have to change their properties if they do not want to. On the other hand, seeking regeneration is an important objective of policy. I encourage my hon. Friend to work with the business, rather than thinking that there are necessarily legislative measures that would work.

May we have a debate on the duty of care that High Speed 2 has, or should have, to communities it will travel through? It is about to cause irreparable damage to Wormwood Scrubs, a unique and precious open space that provides much-needed ecology and recreation in the inner city. Having backed HS2, do the Government not have an obligation to see that it goes ahead without wantonly destroying local communities and community assets?

HS2 is an important infrastructure programme that will transform railway travel in this country. Of course, builders of all kinds need to be considerate builders. That ought to be part of HS2’s programme.

The vast majority of people in Blackpool supported the Chancellor’s decision last week to reduce international aid. The public finances will come under considerable pressure in the years ahead, and the decision to spend the money here in the UK rather than abroad is without doubt the right one. Although we could spend that funding several times over in Blackpool—or indeed in Doncaster, Madam Deputy Speaker—there will be a wide variety of choices and views on where the money should go. Will my right hon. Friend therefore make time available in this House to discuss how best to spend the money here in the UK?

Madam Deputy Speaker, I think that was the most charming application to be called early in debates in future, by suggesting that many billions of pounds should be spent in your constituency. Yes, it is absolutely right in the financial circumstances we face that overseas aid is reduced. We have a responsibility to the public finances and to protect jobs and the NHS. There has been a huge additional expense, so we have to prioritise urgent domestic needs and keeping borrowing under control. I think that there will be opportunities to raise that in many debates in the House, but we must always be careful to remember that we can only spend the money once. Therefore, there are limits to what can be done.

Decent sick pay is essential if we are to ensure that people testing positive for covid can self-isolate, but at just £96 a week, it leaves many having to choose between isolating for their health and putting food on the table. To put that in context, The Times has reported that the Leader of the House is set to receive an £800,000 dividend this year alone. It would take someone on sick pay salary levels over 150 years to earn that amount. I am sure the Leader of the House thinks no one can live off £96 a week, so will he allow an urgent debate on sick pay levels?

The Government have introduced a test and trace support payment of £500 in additional support to help people who have to remain away from work because they are being tested. There is also a £50 million discretionary fund for those facing hardship when self-isolating who are not eligible for the £500 payment. There has been £9 billion of additional welfare support. I think what the hon. Gentleman is asking for has been done by the Government providing this additional support.

As my right hon. Friend already knows—we have heard it in these business questions—North Somerset has been unfairly lumped in with Bristol in the tiering system. Does my right hon. Friend remember—I am sure he does—that it was King Alfred who passed the law for everyone to take a break from Christmas day until twelfth night and then resume the defence of our borders with added vigour? Sadly, the county of Somerset is now under threat from a very dishonest county council dictator who wants to grab, loot and pillage the cash reserves of the districts and steal more power. These people are actually worse than the Vikings, if that is possible. Somerset needs to be reunited and strong. We owe it to King Alfred to make that happen. Therefore can we have time in Government time to debate a crucial question not only of our constitution, but of our history?

It is worth bearing in mind that were it not for Somerset, there would be no United Kingdom. The whole history of our nation is born out of our great county, because if Alfred had not defeated the Danes, we would never have seen the evolution of our country as it has happened. Alfred the Great was the founder of the Royal Navy, our pride and our security—

“an ornament and a safeguard”,

one might say, although that is actually the motto of the Scottish Crown. It is so important that we remember our history in our bureaucratic structures, because they bring a reality to them that underpins them and gives them support from the people who are governed. I am very sympathetic to what my hon. Friend says about the county being reunited after the vandalism of the late Sir Edward Heath.

According to news reports, between Friday 6 November and Sunday 8 November, a Daesh-affiliated militant group attacked several villages in Mozambique and decapitated more than 50 people, including women and children. This armed group, which turned a local football pitch into the site of a brutal mass execution, has wreaked havoc in northern Mozambique since late 2017, killing hundreds, displacing communities and capturing towns. Will the Leader of the House agree to a statement or a debate on this pressing issue?

Her Majesty’s Government are deeply concerned by the deteriorating security situation in northern Mozambique and the increasing attacks by groups with links to Islamic extremism. On 10 November, the Foreign Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), publicly condemned the recent attacks. The Government are working with the Government of Mozambique to address the root drivers of this conflict and instability in northern Mozambique, including through engagement with the Government of Mozambique’s regional development authority in Cabo Delgado and by providing targeted technical assistance under the framework of a defence memorandum of understanding.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his tireless campaigning on this issue. As with the issue raised earlier about the persecution of Christians in Nigeria, it is a matter that the Government take very seriously, and I encourage him and other Members to keep on raising it on the Floor of the House.

I welcome the Government’s efforts to increase funding for mental health, but as we see the light at the end of the tunnel with the pandemic, it is critical that we do not have a new crisis. Mental health is a subject that many in Broxtowe have raised with me, and they are right to do so. We must consider a long-term and targeted approach to support those experiencing crisis.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on how this Government can ensure that those in need are not reduced to breaking point before they gain help, but that early intervention is there to support those who are experiencing crisis, not least our extraordinary medical staff who have seen inordinate pressure this year and the scores of people in my constituency who are experiencing loneliness, isolation and anxiety during the pandemic?

I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this point, because all of us as constituency Members of Parliament see constituents who need help, and we try to get it for them. That is therefore a subject at the forefront of many Members’ minds. More money is being provided and more action taken on mental health. There is going to be an overall increase in funding to £13.3 billion in 2019-20, and there is a long-term NHS plan that has at its heart the largest expansion of mental health services in a generation, with further funding support to 380,000 more adults and 345,000 children. My hon. Friend is so right that this is ultimately about individuals and trying to get them support at the right time so that they can get through difficult periods in their lives. I will therefore pass his comments on to my hon. and right hon. Friends at the Department of Health and Social Care.

News from Tata Steel last month that it is looking to sell its Dutch operations is clearly causing uncertainty in the UK, particularly in steel communities in south Wales. That highlights just how important it is that the UK Government protect our steel industry. Please can we have an update from the steel Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who is now also responsible for the vaccination programme —on what steps the Government are taking now to help our industry at this critical time?

May I commend the hon. Lady on tirelessly supporting the British steel industry, which she has done for many years with great effectiveness? I will pass her comments on to my hon. Friend the Minister and get her a full answer on what is being done to support the British steel industry.

While my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) might purport to represent the capital of the Black Country, I certainly represent its beating heart—the communities of Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton. As the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), pointed out, the Black Country has been placed under tier 3 restrictions. I—and, I am sure, many Members from the Black Country—have been inundated with messages from our hospitality industry and pubs looking for support. The Chancellor’s announcement of the £1,000 grant is welcome, but my constituents are also looking for a wider debate on supporting the hospitality industry and pubs. Will my right hon. Friend schedule a debate, perhaps in Government time, on how we support the pubs and hospitality industry post covid, and how we ensure that fantastic establishments such as the Port ‘N’ Ale in Horseley Heath in my constituency get that support and are able to survive and thrive post pandemic?

The Port ‘N’ Ale will best be supported by my hon. Friend going there and ordering lots of drinks once the pandemic is over and we are allowed to return to what are referred to in the jargon as “wet pubs”, which I think are better known as boozers. We will all need to support our local boozers when the restrictions are lifted, with or without scotch eggs. Indeed, by the time we are back we might be allowed a creme egg, because we will be heading towards Easter; I confess that I rather prefer them to scotch eggs.

The Government have been doing things to help during this difficult period and 27,000 businesses will be helped by the extra £1,000 each. There is also the £3,000 per month for pubs forced to close in tier 3, and the cut in VAT from 20% to 5%. We will all look forward to going out as the restrictions ease. Ultimately, businesses need our business, so we can enjoy pubs—in moderation—once they are reopened.

May we have a debate on the incessant racket and howling over north-west Wales caused by the new RAF Texan training aircraft? Apparently, they are unsafe to be flown over the sea, hence their intensive use over land, including over our national park. One would have thought that this drawback might have occurred to those in the higher echelons of the Ministry of Defence before the aircraft were bought.

RAF Valley, where the Texans are based, is on Ynys Môn—literally, the island of Môn—and north-west Wales is, of course, surrounded by sea. That might have been a concern for the Chief of the Air Staff, given that he was educated at Friars School in Bangor. I have taken this matter up with the station commander at Valley and put questions to the MOD, as has my right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), but despite reassurances that something is being done, the racket and the howling continue unabated. It is now the time for a Minister to come before the House to account for this failure.

If I may, I will make two points. One is that it is really important that our armed forces are able to train and practice and, therefore, they should have support in that, though it might sometimes create inconvenience. The other is that if the hon. Gentleman is not receiving responses in a timely manner from Ministers, I will of course do whatever I can to ensure that those responses are received. If he has been promised responses that he has not got, I will take that up immediately after this session.

Many supermarkets have seen a boost in sales during the pandemic and some, such as Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s, among others, have made the positive announcement that they will repay money received from the Government. I hope that others follow suit, but other businesses have struggled severely and are still struggling, particularly those in tier 3 areas in the hospitality sector whose doors are still closed, such as Grants and the Tinker & Budget, those in the supply chains and my brilliant independent businesses. Will the Leader of the House allow a debate in Government time on how best to use this money to support those businesses, such as mine in Hyndburn and Haslingden, that still face uncertainty?

I think the whole House will want to congratulate Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s on this fantastic gesture. It is absolutely brilliant, and we should be grateful to our supermarkets, which have done so much to improve the standard of living of the British people in recent decades. They are real models of good, healthy capitalism, and they have done something very impressive in handing back the tax rebates that they have received, which they were not under any legal obligation to do. As regards a debate on where the money will go, I am sorry to say to my hon. Friend that as £280 billion has been spent on supporting our businesses during the pandemic, this just reduces the figure to about £279 billion, so I am afraid the money has already gone.

Can we have a debate on inequality? I know the Leader of the House uses the word as though it is a kind of foul slur, but I am proud to be a socialist. I believe that we were all created equal. I do not believe that poverty is a mysterious dispensation that descends like manna from heaven. It has human causes and it must be susceptible to human remedies. If we are going to talk about inequality, would it not be good for us to recognise that we should not judge people according to the colour of their skin, their gender, their sexuality, what accent they speak with or, indeed, what school they went to? In that light, would it not be a good idea if girls as well as boys were allowed to go to Eton?

Everybody is equal before God, and if we are equal before God and every soul is valued by God equally, that must also be true between us all individually. That is, I think, a point of agreement between me as a Conservative and the hon. Gentleman as a proud socialist. He is entitled to be proud of being a socialist and I am entitled to think that “socialism” is a disagreeable word. I think that is part of freedom of speech. As regards girls going to Eton, much though I might like my own daughter to go there, I think it works very well as it is, thank you very much.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the future role of local directors of public health? While I do not enjoy having needles stuck in me, the best Christmas present we could have been given was the announcement of the vaccine. During the coronavirus pandemic, these officials have come into their own, so it would be good if the House looked to their future enhancement.

I echo my hon. Friend’s comments on the critical role played by local directors of public health and their teams, working tirelessly to help to protect the health of local people. As we establish the new National Institute for Health Protection, with a focus on our capacity and capability to respond to health threats, we will pay close attention to developing the best possible relationship between our expanded national health protection capability and local directors of public health. My hon. Friend has placed his praise on the record, which is a good, parliamentary way to thank people.

With household debt linked to covid soaring by 66%, the chief executive of the debt charity StepChange has urged a long-term vision for those financially affected by the pandemic to avoid the real danger of lasting economic and social damage, which will deepen inequality and act as a drag on economic recovery. Will the Leader of the House make a statement setting out the Government’s long-term vision to deal with this serious societal challenge, with 1.2 million people living with severe debt and 3 million people at risk of falling into arrears with their bills?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. One thing on which the Government and individual Members of Parliament can help is pointing people in the direction of assistance when they have a debt problem. Many organisations up and down the country help people to reschedule their debts so that they can get them under control and work out how to get their family finances back in order. Citizens advice bureaux are good at helping with that and with pointing people in the right direction. There is certainly a good local organisation in my constituency that is able to assist people in these difficult circumstances, and that is a role we all have as Members of Parliament.

Sitting suspended.