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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2021

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Covid-19: Disabled People

What steps her Department has taken to help tackle the disproportionate effect of the covid-19 outbreak on people with a disability. (910489)

The Government are committed to supporting disabled people affected by the covid-19 pandemic. We are ensuring that disabled people continue to have access to disability benefits, financial support, food, medicines and employment support, as well as updated guidance in accessible formats.

I thank the Minister for her answer. We know that in the last lockdown over half of families with disabled children found that their essential care support was stopped, with a third of parents reporting no specific support for their child’s remote learning needs. That left many families in crisis with no respite. What steps are Ministers taking to ensure that both care and access to learning are made a priority for disabled children during this lockdown?

The pandemic has been extremely challenging for families with children and young people with special educational needs. Supporting them is a priority for this Government and their wellbeing remains central to our response. We have our £37.3 million family fund to help more than 75,000 low-income families raising children. The hon. Lady will note that the Minister for Children and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), is partaking in this session, and I am sure that she will be keen to update her further.

National Autism Strategy

What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the development of the new national autism strategy. (910490)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important issue and congratulate her on all the work that she does for autistic people. We are working across Government and particularly with the Department for Education to develop a new impactful all-age autism strategy. This will set out specific actions to address the significant inequalities that autistic people and their families face.

We aim to publish the strategy in the spring.

I was not really able to hear the Minister’s answer, but there was a report from the Care Quality Commission in October last year that was quite damning in its account of the experiences of people with autism and learning disabilities in mental health facilities. What work is the Minister doing—particularly in terms of the review of the Mental Health Act 2010 that we will hear about later today—to ensure that people with autism are treated sensitively when they end up encountering mental health services and having to spend time as an in-patient?

I know that the report to which the hon. Lady refers, which was commissioned by the Secretary State for Health and Social Care, did indeed have some very serious findings. We absolutely will take action based on that report. We are also working on the Transforming Care agenda to ensure that people with learning disabilities and autism are not inappropriately in in-patient settings. There is, of course, also the reform of the Mental Health Act, which will mean that it should no longer be used for the detention of people with learning disabilities and autism beyond the 28-day period for assessment.

Covid-19: BAME Communities

What steps her Department has taken to help tackle the disproportionate effect of the covid-19 outbreak on Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. (910491)

My first report on the disproportionate impact of covid-19 on ethnic minority groups in October concluded that there is no evidence suggesting that ethnicity itself is a risk factor. Rather, the evidence suggests that a range of socioeconomic and geographical factors, as well as pre-existing health conditions, largely explained the disparities. The report set out the range of measures that the Government had put in place as well as recommendations to target those risk factors, which we are carrying out across Government. We are also working with stakeholders, including the British Medical Association and the Community Advisory Group, specifically in relation to adult social care.

The disparities impact report did not say that race was not a factor. What it actually said was that data were not being collected. Has the Minister ensured that ethnicity data, including test-taking, positive tests, vaccinations and deaths at a national and regional level, are being collected to enable the robust monitoring of the impacts of covid-19 on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities? If she has, we will see whether her deep-rooted reluctance to acknowledge the role that structural racism plays is actually justified.

I am afraid that the hon. Lady seems to have completely misunderstood the report. I encourage her to re-read it. There is no evidence to suggest that structural or institutional racism is the cause of the higher infection rate for ethnic minority groups. In fact, data published by the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre shows that from September to December, the direct impacts of covid-19 have improved for ethnic minorities overall when it comes to the percentages of critically ill patients and deaths in England by ethnicity when compared with the first wave. We need to understand that this is a health crisis, and it is really sad that Opposition Members continue to politicise the issue and to look for racism, when medical experts have supported our report and shown what is driving these disparities.

Levelling-up Agenda

We are determined that everyone in Britain should be treated fairly and have a fair chance in life, whether they come from Redcar or Reading. That is why we have a new approach in the Equality Hub that is focused on the scourge of geographic inequality.

The Minister knows that Redcar and Cleveland rely a lot on our chemicals, manufacturing and engineering industry, and, like me, many young lads in Teesside go on to study apprenticeships in our industry. However, there remains a lot of work to do to address the gender imbalance that faces our industry. What more can the Government do to encourage young people of all backgrounds, but especially young women, to access engineering and help to level up places such as Redcar and Cleveland?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We know that 35% of the gender wage gap can be explained by the different occupations done by men and women. I am delighted that he is doing a lot to support Teesside’s chemical industry and to attract more young people, including women, into it. I am pleased to say that since 2010 there has been a 31% increase in girls studying science, technology, engineering and maths subjects.

Covid-19 Vaccination

What steps she is taking with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to promote the take-up of covid-19 vaccinations among all communities. (910493)

What steps she is taking with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to promote the take-up of covid-19 vaccinations among all communities. (910498)

The Government are committed to ensuring that everyone who is clinically prioritised to receive a vaccine has access to one as soon as possible. As part of the Government’s vaccine confidence campaign, briefing sessions are being held with community and faith leaders, with an expert panel of speakers taking questions and countering misinformation. That is part of an integrated campaign across multiple channels to improve public knowledge.

A recent survey carried out by the Royal Society for Public Health revealed that only 57% of respondents from BAME backgrounds were likely to accept the vaccine, compared with 79% of white respondents. I know, based on emails that I have received from constituents across Keighley, that there is an element of nervousness about vaccines among the BAME community, so will my hon. Friend outline how she will increase efforts to support vaccine take-up among BAME communities and reassure all that the vaccines are completely safe?

The NHS will provide information to promote the take-up of the covid-19 vaccines among all communities, and will support anyone who has questions about the vaccination process. We are doing a lot of work across Government on this issue. We have had meetings with multiple stakeholders, including last week with the National Pharmacy Association, with which I and the Under-Secretaries of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friends the Members for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) and for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) discussed options to tackle vaccine hesitancy among minority communities.

Disinformation about the safety of vaccines has caused great alarm for many people. This scaremongering is hugely damaging when mass inoculation is the route out of the current crisis and will enable us to return to normal life. What steps is the Department taking to work with other Government Departments to ensure that accurate information on the safety of vaccines is conveyed to communities for whom English is not their first language?

The vaccine confidence campaign is a cross-Government one, and it includes work to translate key messages and guidance in over 10 different ethnic languages across radio stations and publications. I reiterate my hon. Friend’s point that vaccine disinformation is harmful and dangerous. It is everyone’s responsibility to access information from authoritative sources and not to share misleading information. The Government are also working to help social media platforms identify and take action against incorrect claims about the virus and vaccinations.

Thankfully, we expect uptake of the vaccine among older people to be high, but uptake in that group of people is low when it comes to pension credit. The NHS will have face-to-face contact with almost every older person on these islands this year. I see an ideal opportunity to work with the Department for Work and Pensions to get the message across that billions of pounds of pension credit is going unclaimed by older people. Will the Minister agree to meet to look at how we can do something about that?

The hon. Member’s question is not specifically related to vaccines, so I will defer to DWP Ministers to respond and meet her to discuss the issue.

It is crucial that the vaccine confidence campaign is accessible to those with learning difficulties, those with hearing impairment, those with visual impairment, and those without English as their first language. Will my hon. Friend outline what the Government are doing across all Departments to make sure that the campaign is as accessible as possible to those who are among the least advantaged in our society?

My right hon. Friend will know that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is giving advice on how to prioritise those most in need. The vaccine confidence campaign is specifically to do with vaccine hesitancy, which is not one of the issues that we have found among the groups she mentioned. We want to make sure that they are prioritised according to their need and vulnerability. However, I take the point that she has made and I am assured that that work is taking place across Government.

Equality of Opportunity: Children

What steps she is taking to help ensure equality of opportunity for children throughout the UK. (910494)

Spreading opportunity is a top priority across Government. That is why we are levelling up school standards, investing over £7.1 billion more in schools by 2022-23 than we did in 2019-20. We are committed to providing extra support for the education of disadvantaged children throughout the pandemic, including through our £350 million national tutoring programme; continuing to provide eligible children with free school lunches during term time; and securing over 1 million laptops and tablets, of which over half a million have already been delivered.

Coastal communities such as Lowestoft face particular challenges in improving social mobility. I would be most grateful if my hon. Friend outlined the co-ordinating action being taken to ensure that all Government Departments work together to ensure that children in seaside towns have every opportunity to realise their full potential.

Clearly, what we need to do for coastal communities—as we are doing, working with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford)—is to make sure that childcare is available for every child. That is why we are, in particular, keeping early years open, and why the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is working to make sure that we protect jobs and create new job opportunities for those in coastal communities.

Economic Recovery: Employment for Women

What steps the Government have taken to ensure the adequacy of employment opportunities for women during the economic recovery from the covid-19 outbreak. (910495)

The Government have taken significant steps to support employment opportunities for women, starting with protecting jobs. The coronavirus job retention scheme has supported 4.5 million jobs done by women, the self-employed income support scheme has issued grants to 1.4 million women, and we are providing an extra £4.6 billion to support sectors required to close during the lockdown, which predominantly employ women.

Female employment is highest in the services sector and has been hit particularly hard by redundancies in hospitality, retail and leisure. The new deal announced by the Prime Minister in June focused on house building, road building and infrastructure—all vital sectors, but heavily geared towards male employment. Can my hon. Friend confirm whether there are equivalent plans to stimulate female employment in the months ahead, and will he meet me to discuss this?

I thank my hon. Friend for what she is doing to encourage such employment. We are committed to having a fair recovery for all. During the crisis we have rolled out unprecedented levels of support to protect jobs for both women and men. Yes, of course I would be happy to meet her to discuss what more we can do to stimulate employment, including female employment, in the months ahead.

Research by the Trades Union Congress shows that about 90% of mothers have taken on more childcare responsibilities since the pandemic began, with 43% having to balance childcare with working from home. This is a particular pressure for single-parent households, the majority of which, research shows, are headed by women. With women at greater risk of redundancy and disproportionately employed in sectors hardest hit by shutdowns, will the Minister commit to creating a legal, enforceable and immediate right for parents to request paid, flexible furlough?

Certainly furlough is available for women and, indeed, men who have childcare responsibilities. It is the responsibility of the employer whether to give that, but if women feel unduly disadvantaged, they can approach ACAS.

Equalities Policy

What steps she is taking to ensure that her policies take a broad approach to equality beyond a focus on protected characteristics. (910497)

What steps she is taking to ensure that her policies take a broad approach to equality beyond a focus on protected characteristics. (910503)

I want to make sure that the equality agenda moves beyond just protected characteristics. Instead, we will make sure that we are focused on every individual in Britain having a fair chance in life and fair access to public services.

I really welcome the Government’s agenda on women and equalities, and I commend my right hon. Friend for her outstanding leadership, but could I please also ask her to reassure me that we will never bow to those who suggest that white people should feel guilty for being white or to those who peddle the notion of white privilege? We are in this together, so will she please undertake today to write to other Government Departments to reinforce that?

Britain is one of the best places in the world to live, no matter what a person’s skin colour, sexuality, religion or anything else is. We need to be positively empowering people in Britain to succeed so that everyone has access to opportunity, and not using positive discrimination. That is the approach we are taking right across Government.

A very happy Lohri for the Dogra community, who are celebrating today. I agree completely with my right hon. Friend on the need to ensure that we move beyond the Equality Act 2010, but first we need to reform it. Will she bring forward proposals to remove caste as a protected characteristic from the Equality Act 2010, so that we can ensure that Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Muslim communities are not disadvantaged in our society?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Caste is not a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010, and case law has already shown that a claim of caste discrimination could qualify for protection under the race provisions in the Act.

Equalities Policy: Evidence Base

We can and must have an equality agenda that is driven by evidence, and that is why we have launched an equality data project, which will look at the life paths of individuals across this country and deliver hard data about the barriers that people face.

Over the Christmas break, I was disappointed to read comments in The Guardian by Halima Begum of the Runnymede Trust, who ridiculously claimed:

“I think the government’s long-term plan is to work up white nationalism for the next elections”.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only should that insulting thinking have no place in the setting of Government policy, but it should have no place in mainstream discourse?

I agree with my hon. Friend—these comments are appalling. They reflect an attitude on the left of politics that says, “If you’re not from an oppressed group, you’re not entitled to an opinion”, and I think that is fundamentally wrong. I believe that equality is for everyone, and I am not going to let this debate be dominated by a few campaign groups.

Topical Questions

As we recover from covid, we need to make sure that everyone in Britain has a chance to succeed and is being treated fairly in the workplace. We are broadening the focus of the Equality Hub from protected characteristics to equality for all and, in particular, tackling the scourge of geographical inequality. I will shortly be saying more about our new fight for fairness, delivering a better deal for everyone and standing up for fundamental human rights and freedoms across the world.

I very much welcome the fact that the equality agenda will be looking beyond simply protected characteristics. One key problem has been white pupils eligible for free school meals and how they have underperformed academically compared with other low income groups. Does the Minister feel that the equality agenda we have been working with, which has been almost exclusively focused on protected characteristics, may be an explainer in why that is the case?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The attainment score at GCSE for white British children who receive free school meals is lower than the equivalent for black and Asian children. At the Equality Hub, we are conducting a life path analysis to understand where the real issues are, and we are working closely with the Department for Education to take action on this issue.

The impacts of 10 years of austerity are stark: 14 million people are now in poverty, figures out today show that 45% of disabled people in work at the start of last year reported no earnings by summer, and figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that there are more women likely to live in poverty. In 2010, the Tory-led Government scrapped the Equality Act 2010’s socioeconomic duty. Addressing class and other inequalities is not an either/or. Given the Minister’s new-found passion for addressing class and poverty, will she now enact the socioeconomic duty?

We have made significant progress since 2010 in addressing disparities—for example, closing the attainment gap in education—but we recognise that, during the covid crisis, more needs to be done to address inequality and help to level up our country. The way we are going to do that is to focus on equality for everyone across our country, making sure that everyone has a fair chance—including addressing the issue of geographical inequality, which is severe in this nation.

The evidence shows that women face a significantly greater risk of violence and harassment than men in many aspects of their lives. To show their continued commitment to this issue, when will the Government ratify the International Labour Organisation’s new global convention outlawing violence and harassment at work, and will my right hon. Friend join me in supporting UN Women’s “Safe Spaces Now” campaign for better safety online and in public spaces? (910530)

We are finalising consultations across Government on the ratification of the ILO violence and harassment convention. Once complete, we will inform Parliament of our intentions regarding ratification. The Government share the “Safe Spaces Now” campaign’s goals to see street harassment stamped out and are committed to tackling all forms of abuse against women and girls.

In a speech last month, the Minister for Women and Equalities stated that she wanted to focus on “facts”, not “fashion”—she has made reference to that today—and to concentrate on “data and research”. The overwhelming body of evidence of structural racism is clear. It is a fact that black Caribbean children are more likely to be excluded from school. It is a fact that black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth. This is not fashion: they are facts. Does this evidence not point towards the need for action, rather than the continual denial and dismissal of the realities of systemic racism?

My hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities has already presented the clear evidence on the covid crisis. My point is that, rather than looking at equality through the prism of groups, we should be focusing on making sure that every individual in this country—regardless of their race, their background, their sexuality or their sex—has the opportunity to succeed. That is what the data project we are working on will look at.

I have been contacted by a WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—woman who is a carer for her severely disabled ex-partner. She stopped work in 2019 due to his escalating care needs and was awarded carer’s allowance. When she finally received her state pension after decades of paying into the system, she was shocked to find that she was no longer eligible for carer’s allowance. How can it be right that when they hit pension age, carers—72% of whom are women—are no longer eligible for support? (910534)

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I am sure Members of the House will want to join me in offering our condolences to the family and friends of our former colleague Brian Binley, who died over Christmas, and who was an irrepressible Member of this House.

Today, we are publishing our proposals for reforming the Mental Health Act. For too long we have seen rising rates of detention that not only had little beneficial effect, but left some worse off, not better off. That is why we are making sure the Act works better for some of the most vulnerable in our society and gives them more of a legal right in deciding what treatment works best for them. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will update the House shortly.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

I know the whole House will want to associate itself with the Prime Minister’s remarks about our dear Brian Binley.

One of the groups hit hardest by the pandemic is young people in full-time education, especially those facing exams last year and this, with all of the mental health challenges that come from such uncertainty. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those for whom exams have been scrapped this year would now benefit from the utmost clarity about how exactly they will be assessed? A clear plan announced early, without last-minute changes, would help teachers and students prepare for an even more challenging experience.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is clearly a problem of differential learning that has grown over the last few months and risks being exacerbated now by the current lockdown. We will do everything we can to ensure that exams are fair and that the ways of testing are set out in a timely way, and the Department for Education is launching a consultation with Ofqual to ensure that we get the right arrangements for this year.

Can I join in the condolences expressed by the Prime Minister, I am sure on behalf of the whole of the House?

Could I begin by paying tribute to all those involved in the vaccine programme? I went to the Newham vaccine hub last week, and it was really uplifting to see the NHS, the Red Cross and lots of volunteers all working together and giving real hope. They had a simple message to me, which was if they had more vaccine, they could and they would do more, and I am sure that is shared across the country.

I welcome news that has come out this morning about a pilot of 24/7 vaccine centres. I anticipate there is going to be huge clamour for this, so can the Prime Minister tell us: when will the 24/7 vaccine centres be open to the public, because I understand they are not at the moment, and when will they be rolled out across the country?

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for what he says about the roll-out of vaccines. I can tell him that we will be going to 24/7 as soon as we can, and my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will be setting out more about that in due course. As he rightly says, at the moment the limit is on supply. We have a huge network—233 hospitals, 1,000 GP surgeries, 200 pharmacies and 50 mass vaccination centres—and they are going, as he has seen himself, exceptionally fast, and I pay tribute to their work. It is thanks to the work of the NHS and to the vaccine taskforce that we have secured more doses, I think, per capita than virtually any other country in the world—certainly more than any other country in Europe.

I obviously welcome that, and urge the Prime Minister and the Government to get on with this. We are all happy to help, and there are many volunteers who are. The sooner we have 24/7 vaccine centres, the better for our NHS and the better for our economy.

The last PMQs was on 16 December. The Prime Minister told us then that we were seeing, in his words,

“significant reductions in the virus.”—[Official Report, 16 December 2020; Vol. 686, c. 265.]

He told us then that there was no need for “endless lockdowns” and no need to change the rules about Christmas mixing. Since that last PMQs, 17,000 people have died of covid, 60,000 people have been admitted to hospital, and there have been more than 1 million new cases. How did the Prime Minister get it so wrong, and why was he so slow to act?

Of course, what the right hon. and learned Gentleman fails to point out is that on 18 December, two days later, the Government were informed about the spread of the new variant, and the fact that it spreads roughly 50% to 70% faster than the old variant. That is why it is correct to say that the situation today is very troubling indeed: we have 32,000 covid patients in hospital, and the NHS is under huge strain.

I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all the staff, doctors, nurses, and everybody working in our NHS. They are doing an extraordinary job under the most challenging possible circumstances to help those who so desperately need it. I thank them for what they are doing. At the same time, I also wish to thank all those involved in what is the biggest vaccination programme in the history of this country. Once again, the NHS is in the lead, working with the Army and the legion of volunteers and everybody else. That programme of vaccines shows the way forward, and shows how we will come through this pandemic. I repeat my gratitude to all those involved, because they have now vaccinated 2.4 million people and delivered 2.8 million doses, which is more than any other country in Europe. This is the toughest of times, but we can see the way forward.

The Prime Minister says that effectively two days after that PMQs the advice changed, but the truth is that the indicators were all in the wrong direction at that last PMQs. Be that as it may, the Prime Minister says that he got that advice on 18 December, two days after PMQs, and we have all seen the SAGE minutes of 22 December, confirming the advice that was given to the Government. The Government’s advisers warned the Prime Minister that the new variant was spreading fast, and that it was highly unlikely that November-style lockdowns would be sufficient to control it. That was pretty clear advice on 18 December to the Prime Minister from SAGE: a tougher lockdown than in November is going to be needed. I have the minutes here; everybody has seen them. Yet instead of acting on 18 December, the Prime Minister sat on his hands for over two weeks, and we are now seeing in the daily figures the tragic consequences of that delay. How does the Prime Minister justify delaying for 17 days after he got that advice on 18 December?

I must disagree very profoundly with what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has just said. He knows very well that within 24 hours of getting the advice on 18 December about the spread of the new variant, we acted to put the vast part of the country into much, much tougher measures. Indeed, we are now seeing—it is important to stress that these are early days—the beginnings of some signs that that is starting to have an effect in many parts of the country, but by no means everywhere. It is early days, and people must keep their discipline, keep enforcing the rules, and work together, as I have said, to roll out that vaccine programme. I recall that on the day that we went into a national lockdown and, sadly, were obliged to shut the schools—even on that day—the Labour party was advocating keeping schools open. That was for understandable reasons—we all want to keep schools open—but I think it a bit much to be attacked for taking tougher measures to put this country into the protective measures it needed, when the Labour party was then calling to keep schools open.

Just for the record, I wrote to the Prime Minister on 22 December—I had not seen the SAGE advice at that stage—saying to him that if the advice indicated that there should be a national lockdown, he should do it immediately and he would have our full support. I will put that in the public domain so that people can check the record.

More fundamentally, the Prime Minister says, “We took measures straightaway; we put people into different tiers.” The advice was that a November-style lockdown was not enough. How on earth was putting people into a different tier system an answer to the advice that was given? Is not the situation that every time there is a big decision to take, the Prime Minister gets there late?

The next big decision is obvious. The current restrictions are not strong enough to control the virus; stronger restrictions are needed. There is no point Government Members shaking their heads; in a week or two, the Prime Minister is likely to be asking Members to vote for this. Can the Prime Minister tell us, when infection rates are much higher than last March, when hospital admissions are much higher than last March, when death rates are much higher than last March, why on earth are restrictions weaker than last March?

We keep things under constant review and we will continue to do so, and certainly, if there is any need to toughen up restrictions, which I do not rule out, we will of course come to this House. But perhaps, as is so often the case, the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not listen to my earlier answer, because I pointed out to the House that actually, the lockdown measures that we have in place, combined with the tier 4 measures that we were using, are starting to show signs of having some effect. We must take account of that too, because nobody can doubt the serious damage that is done by lockdowns to people’s mental health, jobs and livelihoods.

To listen to the right hon. and learned Gentleman over the last 12 months, you would think he had absolutely no other policy except to plunge this country into 12 months of lockdown. As for coming too late to things, it was only a few weeks ago that he was attacking the vaccine taskforce, which has secured the very doses—the millions of doses—that have put this country into the comparatively favourable position that we now find ourselves in.

That is just not true. Every time I have spoken about the vaccine, I have supported it. The Prime Minister says we are balancing health restrictions and the economy, yet we ended 2020 with the highest death toll in Europe and the deepest recession in any major economy, so that just is not a good enough answer.

I want to turn to the latest free school meals scandal. We have all seen images on social media of disgraceful food parcels for children, costed at about £5 each. That is not what the Government promised. It is nowhere near enough. Would the Prime Minister be happy with his kids living on that? If not, why is he happy for other people’s kids to do so?

I do not think anybody in this House is happy with the disgraceful images that we have seen of the food parcels that have been offered. They are appalling; they are an insult to the families who have received them. I am grateful, by the way, to Marcus Rashford, who highlighted the issue and is doing quite an effective job, by comparison with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, of holding the Government to account for these issues. The company in question has rightly apologised and agreed to reimburse.

It is because we want to see our kids properly fed throughout this very difficult pandemic that we have massively increased the value of what we are providing—another £170 million in the covid winter grant scheme, £220 million more for the holiday activities and food programme, and we are now rolling out the national free school meal voucher scheme, as we did in March, to give parents the choice to give kids the food that they need. This Government will do everything we can to ensure that no child goes hungry as a result of the privations caused by this pandemic.

The Prime Minister says that the parcels are “disgraceful”, but it should not have taken social media to shame the Prime Minister into action. Like the Education Secretary, he blames others, and he invites me to hold him to account, so let me do that because blaming others, Prime Minister, is not as simple as that, is it?

I have checked the Government guidance on free school meals—the current guidance, published by the Department for Education. I have it here. It sets out an

“Example parcel for one child for five days”—

the Department for Education, Prime Minister; you want to be held to account—

“1 loaf of bread…2 baking potatoes…block of cheese…baked beans…3 individual”

yoghurts. Sound familiar? They are the images, Prime Minister, you just called “disgraceful”. The only difference I can see with this list and what the Prime Minister has described as “disgraceful” is a tin of sweetcorn, a packet of ham and a bottle of milk. He blames others, but this is on his watch. The truth is, families come last under this Government, whether it is exams, free school meals or childcare. Will the Prime Minister undertake—he wants to be held to account—to take down this guidance by the close of play today and ensure that all our children can get a decent meal during the pandemic?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s words would be less hypocritical and absurd if it were not for the fact that the—

I do not believe anybody is a hypocrite in this Chamber. I think we need to be a little bit careful about what we are saying to each other. There was a “not true” earlier and there were also comparisons to others. Please, let us keep discipline in this Chamber and respect for each other. We are tidying up how this Parliament behaves and I certainly expect the leadership of both parties to ensure that that takes place. Prime Minister, would you like to withdraw the word “hypocrisy”?

I am delighted to be advised by you, Mr Speaker. Let me confine my criticism to the absurdity—which I hope is acceptable, Mr Speaker—of the right hon. and learned Gentleman attacking us over free school meals when it was a Conservative Government that instituted free school meals—universally approved— not a Labour Government. Of the £280 billion that we have spent securing the jobs and livelihoods of people across this country, uprating universal credit and, in addition, increasing the living wage by record amounts this year and last year, as well as increasing the local housing allowance, the overwhelming majority of benefits—the bulk of the measures—fall in favour of the poorest and the neediest in society, which is what this House would expect.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman takes one position one week and one position the next. That is what he does. That has been his whole lamentable approach—if I can get away with lamentable, Mr Speaker—throughout this pandemic. He says he supports the vaccine now. He says he supports the vaccine roll-out, and he tries to associate himself with it because he senses that it is going well, but be in no doubt, that that was the party that wanted us—this country—to stay in the European Union vaccine programme. That is absolutely true. He stood on a manifesto, which he has not repudiated, to dismantle the very pharmaceutical companies that have created this miracle of science, which is true—

Prime Minister, there are questions and sometimes we have got to try to answer the question that was asked of you. To run through the history is one thing, but in fairness, it is Prime Minister’s questions. It was the final question. We have lots of others to go through, so I think I am now going to move on to Simon Jupp in Sidmouth, who is desperate to ask a question of you, Prime Minister.

The hospitality industry is the lifeblood of East Devon. Our pubs, restaurants, cafés and hotels provide thousands of jobs, places to meet and places to stay. The generous support package now put in place will tide many of these businesses over for now, but they will need further support. Will my right hon. Friend consider extending the VAT cut for hospitality to give them a helping hand when they are back open for business? (910641)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has done everything he can to help businesses throughout this pandemic, and that is why he has extended the grants and why we have the cuts for both the VAT and for business rates. We will do everything we can to help as we go forward, but the best thing would of course be to ensure that we roll out this vaccine programme and bounce back as fast as possible. Any further announcements my right hon. Friend makes will be well ahead of 31 March, by which time we intend to have a Budget.

My constituent in Lochaber, a producer and exporter of shellfish, is experiencing his worst nightmare. After loading a lorry of fresh local seafood on Monday, as he has done for 35 years, his driver faced bureaucracy and delays. Brexit red tape meant that £40,000 of his fresh, high-quality produce was lost, unable to be sold. That £40,000 of produce is income for more than 100 local families in many remote and fragile communities. Will the Prime Minister tell my constituent where the sea of opportunity is that he and his Scottish Tories promised?

We are putting £100 million into supporting the fishing industry in Scotland and across the whole of the UK. It is the policy of the Scottish nationalist party not only to break up the United Kingdom under its hare-brained scheme but to take Scotland back into the EU and hand back control of Scottish fisheries to Brussels, thereby throwing away all those opportunities in a way that I think even the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) would say is totally absurd. I am amazed that the right hon. Gentleman continues on this track.

I am amazed that the Prime Minister continues to traduce the name of the Scottish National party. He has been told before, and he really should get it right. Frankly, that answer was an insult to all the fishermen today facing loss. The reality is that a third of the Scottish fishing fleet is tied up in harbour; some boats are landing in Denmark, rather than Scotland, to avoid Brexit bureaucracy; and Scottish seafood exporters are losing upwards of £1 million in sales a day. Seafood Scotland says all the extra red tape is an almost impossible task—it has even forced ferry operators to pause load deliveries to the continent. The European Union has put in place a €5 billion fund to support businesses with the costs of Brexit. Last night, it was revealed that Ireland will receive €1 billion of that. Will the Prime Minister tell Scottish businesses when they will get the same level of support? Where is the compensation for my constituent who is losing £40,000 today?

The right hon. Gentleman continually advocates the break-up of the Union of the United Kingdom and going back into the European Union, even though that would be immensely destructive to the Scottish economy—to jobs, livelihoods, pensions and the currency. So far as I understand it, the Scottish nationalists are already spending money in Scotland on what they call indyref2 when they should be getting on with fighting the pandemic. That, I think, is what the people of Scotland want to see. He might pay tribute, by the way, to the merits of the United Kingdom in rolling out a vaccine across the whole country. I am told that they cannot even bring themselves to call it the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Perhaps he could just say that he likes the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine?

With the vaccination programme making very encouraging progress, can the Prime Minister reaffirm that lifting restrictions and returning to normal as soon as it is safe is an overriding national priority? May I invite him to consider drawing a line in the sand, in terms of the vaccination of sufficient numbers of the priority group, the reaching of which will trigger a phased relaxation of controls as immunity widens? (910643)

I can confirm that we are going to go down the top four priority groups, who sadly count for 80% of covid deaths. The target, as he knows, is that by 15 February there will then be an opportunity to look carefully at the measures we have in place. We will try to reverse the restrictions as soon as we reasonably can, in a way that does not involve overwhelming the NHS.

The Prime Minister promised us that Northern Ireland would continue to have unfettered access to the UK internal market, yet consumers in my constituency are facing empty supermarket shelves and cannot get parcels delivered from Great Britain, small businesses cannot bring spare parts and raw materials into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, steel importers are facing tariffs and we have many other problems, all caused by the Northern Ireland protocol. What I and the people of Northern Ireland need to know from the Prime Minister, as leader of the United Kingdom, is what his Government are going to do to address this, and whether he will consider invoking article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol to resolve these issues. The trader support service is welcome, but it alone is not the solution. We need direct Government intervention to deal with this now.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, and I can tell him that, at the moment, goods are flowing effectively and in normal volumes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. So far, no lorries have been turned back. Yes, of course there are teething problems, but I can confirm that if there are problems that we believe are disproportionate, we will have no hesitation in invoking article 16.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his trade deal with the EU and welcome the prospect of a more global approach to our trading policy. Would he agree that a free port based at East Midlands airport, connected to the world by trains, planes and automobiles and focused on generating green growth, is key to the success of global Britain? (910645)

I am delighted that my hon. Friend is campaigning for a free port. I am a passionate supporter of free ports. There will be a process, as she knows, and successful applicants will be announced in the spring.

I hope that the Prime Minister will join me in congratulating the local GPs and all the admin, medical and volunteer staff who have set up the Batchwood Hall vaccination centre in St Albans at incredible speed. They have already vaccinated thousands of residents, but their enormous local success is being hampered because they are being provided with only enough vaccine supplies to vaccinate 1,100 people a day on just two days a week, and they are often getting the vaccine deliveries at very short notice. Will the Prime Minister personally intervene to ensure that Batchwood Hall vaccination centre in St Albans and all primary care network-led local vaccine services have a much greater and more consistent vaccine supply, so that they can get on with the job of vaccinating the country against covid? (910640)

I certainly thank the GP vaccination centre in St Albans for what it is doing and for its wonderful work. It is thanks to primary care networks across the country that we have done 2.8 million vaccines for 2.4 million people. The constraint is not the distribution network; it is the supply, but don’t forget that we have a bigger supply than all other European countries—indeed, we have virtually done as many vaccines as all the other European countries put together—and we will be ramping up that supply in the days and weeks ahead.

Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking Shropshire’s defence engineers, in both the public and private sectors, who are currently working on the Warrior and Boxer military vehicle programmes and doing a great job? As the Government consider making a decision on the Challenger 2 life extension programme, will he bear in mind that excellent workforce in Shropshire, who have such a history and a modern-day practice of delivering UK defence? (910647)

Of course I am familiar with the superb workforce in Shropshire to which my hon. Friend refers. There is a competition currently going on, and negotiations are going on with the modernisation that he speaks of. As he knows, we have made the biggest investment in our defences since the cold war with the recent spending review, but it would not be right for me to comment on those negotiations at this stage.

Widening inequalities are tearing communities apart, and covid has made things much worse. In Hornsey and Wood Green we have a 182% increase in joblessness. Today, will the Prime Minister pledge to reverse the planned £1,000 per annum cut to universal credit, to provide a certain future for the increasing numbers of people who use universal credit as a lifeline? (910642)

Not only have we uprated universal credit by £1,000, but, as I have said, we have increased the local housing allowance, the living wage and many, many other benefits. We will keep all this under constant review. I know that the hon. Lady speaks for the Labour Front Bench. Current Labour policy, as far as I understand it, is to abolish UC. Many people in receipt of UC, knowing how important it is, will find that stunning, in view of what she has just said.

Here in East Yorkshire, North Lincolnshire and the Humber, we have some of the highest flood risk in the country, and we are still waiting for the report on the flooding of the River Aire at East Cowick and Snaith, just up the road from me here, which took place 10 months ago. I welcome the doubling of flood defence funding, which is most welcome in an area such as mine, but we often come up against the challenges of bureaucracy and sometimes Treasury funding rules. So may I ask the Prime Minister to look at what more can be done to reduce the red tape in bringing schemes forward? Although I appreciate the need for national agencies, will he also look at what we can do to utilise lead local flood councils or drainage boards by providing them with direct cash, as well as the Environment Agency, to bring forward projects that will protect homes and people? (910648)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about the need to improve flood defences, which is why we are investing £2.6 billion in 1,000 flood defences in England in the next six years. The Humber estuary, the area he represents so well, is one of four areas that will benefit from trials on long-term ways of making all our country more resistant to flooding.

There is real disappointment that a reciprocal work permit-free deal for touring musicians and performers has not been agreed with the EU. No one is interested in a blame game. It is clearly fixable and in Britain’s economic and cultural interest to fix it quickly, but it needs leadership from the top. So will the Prime Minister meet on this virtually with a small group of MPs, including the Conservative Chair of the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport? We are all singing from the same song sheet. Will the Prime Minister please say yes to the meeting? (910644)

I will, of course, ensure that there is a proper meeting with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on this subject, which is extremely important. I know that our friends in the EU will be wanting to go further to improve things not just for musicians, but for business travellers of all kinds, because there is a mutual benefit.

For the first time in my lifetime, we are now a fully sovereign and independent nation, so I would like to thank the Prime Minister, on behalf of the people of Redcar and Cleveland, for getting Brexit done. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) pointed out, one key benefit of Brexit is our ability to create 10 new free ports. In Teesside, we have the largest brownfield development site in Europe, the deepest port on the east coast, a fantastic Tees Valley Mayor in Ben Houchen and a plan to create 15,000 jobs over the next 20 years. So does the Prime Minister agree that the best place for our first post-Brexit free port is Teesside? (910649)

There has been a bit of a theme to the interventions from my brilliant free port campaigners behind me. They are absolutely right. We do not hear about it from the Labour party, but Mr Hydrogen, as I think my hon. Friend is now known, makes an excellent point. As I said earlier, the bidding process is under way and it would be wrong of me to comment any further.

I join my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition in paying tribute to those involved in the vaccine roll-out, but the Yorkshire Post highlighted this week that many of the country’s 11,000 community pharmacies stand ready, willing and able to deliver desperately needed covid vaccines, yet the Prime Minister’s Government have seemingly shunned an army of fully trained, experienced and registered technicians. Pharmacies such as Witham pharmacy in east Hull are at the forefront of the flu vaccine every single winter and are ready to play their part in the national effort, so will the Prime Minister now take control, fully mobilise the skills and expertise of community pharmacies and get Britain vaccinated? (910646)

There are 9,000 fantastic community pharmacies across our country. They do an amazing job. What we want to ensure is that we get doses to the places where they are going to be distributed most effectively the fastest. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not want to see doses distributed to many places where they might not all be used in the course of the day. We need at this stage to avoid any wastage at all. That is why we are concentrating on the 233 hospitals, 50 mass vaccination sites and 200 pharmacies already, and we will wrap that up. It will be particularly important as we come into the phases when we need to reach people who are harder to reach in local communities, and there, local pharmacies will, as he rightly says, play a vital role.

I am sure the Prime Minister will join me in saying that we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to all our carers, including unpaid carers, young carers and those throughout the social care profession, for the tireless work they have done during the pandemic. Representing North Norfolk, the constituency with the oldest demographic, I have seen their work at first hand. Yet these professionals often feel forgotten about, and that needs to change. Will he commit to a 10-year plan for social care to match the one for the NHS as the foundation to start reforming social care in this country? (910652)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the extraordinary work done by carers and social care workers up and down the country. They have got through this pandemic. We must continue to look after them in any way that we can and we must commit, as we have done, to reforming the sector and giving people the certainty they need. We will be bringing forward proposals later this year.

On Monday, thousands of British Gas workers finished striking in protest at the threat of being fired and rehired on reduced terms and conditions. Of course, it was British Airways’s shameful fire and rehire actions that prompted the Prime Minister to say that he was looking at what he could do. He has also called for employers to display “fairness and respect”, but clearly that has not happened and is not happening, and he must now step up. I have a Bill with cross-party support that would outlaw the practice, so will he meet me to discuss how we can provide more protection for all our workers? (910650)

As the hon. Gentleman says, we believe that using threats of firing and rehiring is unacceptable as a negotiating tactic, and there are laws in place to ensure that contractual conditions cannot discriminate against people on grounds of race, sex or disability, but I will take up his point by saying that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is working with ACAS, businesses and employee representatives to discuss what more we can do.

Jay Fathers died in hospital having been stabbed in the early hours of new year’s day. Last week, the killers of Dom Ansah and Ben Gillham-Rice were sentenced to life imprisonment. Knife crime is destroying lives in Milton Keynes, across the Thames valley and across the UK, even during a pandemic. Can my right hon. Friend outline what support the Government are giving to provide police forces with the tools they need to make our streets safer?

First, we are introducing knife crime prevention orders, which are placing curbs and limits to deter young people from going equipped and getting involved in knife crime. We have made sure that we deliver on the serious violence strategy, engaging with young people and steering them away from knife crime, but what it takes is continuous and serious law enforcement, making sure that people who carry a knife do get the sentences they deserve. That is why we are also putting more police out on the streets of our country and have recruited almost 6,000 of the additional 20,000 that we committed to at the last election.

Workers in Cardiff North and across the country are facing continued job insecurity and, as we heard, shameless fire and rehire tactics, forcing British Gas workers to take a stand against them and strike in the most difficult of circumstances. The director of British Gas responded by boasting that covid has kept this strike out of the news. Will the Prime Minister condemn those remarks and protect the livelihoods of thousands of workers and their families by finally outlawing fire and rehire? (910651)

In so far as that was the gentleman’s intention, he has failed in that. Possibly the best thing I can do is repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), who has already raised the subject of the strike. We regard fire and rehire as unacceptable, and we will continue to make that point and seek further means of redress.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the opportunity to chair an early years healthy development review on behalf of the Government. He knows only too well how awful the lockdown has been for new parents and their families, in addition to the existing pressures under which new parents find themselves. Can he assure me that the recommendations of this important review will form a core part of his ambition to build back better and make sure that every baby gets the best start in life?

For many years now I have been listening to my right hon. Friend making her points with the passion and knowledge that she does, and I know she is right. I look forward very much to her review, and to her submitting her findings, and I look forward to working together with her to achieve the change that we want for early years children.

This week, I got an email from Elena Hough, the deputy head of Wendell Park Primary School in my constituency. She says that lack of Government guidance means that her staff will soon be teaching over 100 children in school—10 times the number in the first lockdown. Having a lockdown in name only may suit the Prime Minister. He can feign tackling the virus while tipping the wink to his anti-lockdown Back Benchers and bending the rules himself, but as Miss Hough says, her pupils and staff, who, like all Hammersmith schools, are doing a fantastic job under the most difficult of circumstances, deserve better. Why are they being hung out to dry by the Prime Minister and his Education Secretary? (910653)

I thank very much all the schools in Hammersmith, and indeed throughout London and throughout the country, who are working so hard to look after vulnerable kids and to look after children of key workers. At the moment the percentage in school is about 14%, which is, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, higher than it was in March. I think the gist of his question was that schools should be closed altogether. I do not think that is right. I think what the country wants to see is the children of key workers and vulnerable kids getting the education that they need. I thank very much the teachers and all the staff involved for making that possible.

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 three minutes.

12.43 pm

Sitting suspended.