The business for the week commencing 1 February will include:
Monday 1 February—Opposition day (16th allocated day). There will be a debate on a motion relating to cladding and building safety, followed by a debate on a motion relating to border security. Both debates will arise on a motion in the name of the official Opposition.
Tuesday 2 February—Second reading of the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 3 February—Motion to approve statutory instruments relating to sanctions, followed by a motion to approve the draft Value Added Tax (Miscellaneous Amendments to Acts of Parliament) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 and the Value Added Tax Act 1994 and Revocation) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 1544), followed by a motion relating to the Travellers’ Allowances and Miscellaneous Provisions (EU Exit) Regulations 2020, followed by a debate on a petition relating to grooming gangs. The subject for this debate was determined by the Petitions Committee.
Thursday 4 February—General debate on the future of the UK space industry, followed by a general debate on the towns fund. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 5 February—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 8 February will include:
Monday 8 February—Second reading of the Armed Forces Bill, followed by a motion to approve the Armed Forces Act (Continuation) Order 2021.
Tuesday 9 February—Motion to approve the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2021, followed by a motion to approve the Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2021, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Trade Bill.
Wednesday 10 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.
Thursday 11 February—General debate relating to the publication of the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, followed by a debate on a motion relating to the UK’s commitment to reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 12 February—The House will not be sitting.
Hon. and right hon. Members may also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the constituency recess at the conclusion of business on Thursday 11 February and return on Monday 22 February.
The question is, did the Leader of the House know before the Prime Minister announced it? But I thank him for that. He did not really give clarity on the end of the Session—I wonder whether he could do that.
This week, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) raised the issue of Anoosheh Ashoori in an Adjournment debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) wrote an article in The Telegraph, which was a timely reminder that Nazanin has less than 40 days before her sentence comes to an end. Both Nazanin and Anoosheh have been punished for visiting their parents in Iran. Now that President Biden has lifted sanctions in Yemen, Luke Symons must not be forgotten either. I do not think the Minister gave my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East a very helpful response.
The motion to carry over the Environment Bill was agreed. Talk about flip-flopping—on 13 December 2019, the Prime Minister said that he wanted to make Britain the “cleanest, greenest” country “on Earth”, yet the Government did not accept our Opposition amendment enshrining in the Bill the World Health Organisation air pollution guidelines that needed to be done by 2020. As for lifting the ban on bee-killing pesticides, we have just got our bees back—they are important pollinators. Will the Leader of the House look at whether, when the Bill comes back, the Government will accept this, given that President Biden has said that there is an “existential” climate emergency?
Unless we all tackle the climate emergency—-the scientists say that winters are becoming wetter and wetter—we will have more floods. Can we have clarity on what the Prime Minister meant when he said last year that he will “get Bewdley done”? Bewdley did not get done. It got flooded. When Labour was in power, we increased flood defences by 33%, and that was then cut by the Conservative party, but it was never restored back to the 33% higher level. Can we have a statement on this, or better still, can the Leader of the House publish the data from the Environment Agency that said that one in 20 of our flood defences are in disrepair and that more than 3,000 of those, which pose risk to life and property, are “almost useless”?
I know that the Leader of the House has announced the Adjournment of a week. He will remember that the bailiff-enforced evictions ban will expire on 21 February, so will he look at having a debate on the affirmative regulations, as they will run out then?
I know that the Government have a difficulty with having women spokespeople, but International Women’s Day is coming up, so could we have a debate on that in Government time?
People think of the recess as half-term, but many parents, teachers and teaching assistants will not have one. A headteacher wrote to me to say that
“the way we are working is unsustainable and at some point we will have to put our own health and the welfare of our own families first.”
He asked for clarity before the Prime Minister had made his announcement about 8 March. He wanted to know the conditions for schools to reopen after lockdown; how a return to schools would operate and whether it would be phased or by rota or bubbles; and what the role of lateral flow testing would be. He also wanted honesty over whether education staff would be prioritised for the vaccine, and to know the timetable for the consultation following cancelled exams. And he pleaded with me—he said, “I beg of you”—to ask the Government to establish the guidelines before they make an announcement. Could the Leader of the House ensure that the Secretary of State for Education comes to the House to make a statement before we run into difficulties with the Budget announcements?
Why did the Conservative party want to know the ethnic background of 10 million voters? Why has it acted illegally? It says that it is the party of law and order, but on Tuesday the Information Commissioner told a Select Committee that the Conservative party had acted illegally. Could we have a statement to say that all the data that was harvested has been destroyed?
On flip-flopping again, apparently businesses have been told that they need to set up in the EU if they want to get anything done. Ministers actually said that they had to go to Ireland so that they could be part of the single market. Could we have clarity on that position and whether or not it is better for them to be in the EU?
In another flip-flop, it has been announced that there is not going to be a bonfire of employment rights. I think that announcement was made to the media, so could we have a statement in the House?
I did not attribute it to him, but it was Clive Myrie’s moving film on our NHS workers that showed how difficult it is. Although the rates are going down, we have lost 100,000 people. People need to realise that they need to abide by all the rules.
Finally, I want to thank you, Mr Speaker, for commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day yesterday, and thank your staff for setting up the lighting of the candle. There will be an important debate later, but that represented, on the day itself, light over darkness.
May I begin by agreeing so much with the right hon. Lady, and by thanking you, Mr Speaker, for arranging a very sombre and moving ceremony? How right it is that we remember one of the greatest tragedies, if not the greatest tragedy, that the world has ever suffered. The debate later is very important.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the 100,000 deaths. This is, for every family affected, a deep sadness, and we pray for the souls of the departed. We look forward to a brighter future as the vaccine is rolled out and people are protected from this terrible and deadly disease.
I am sorry that the right hon. Lady was not satisfied with the response given to the Adjournment debate in relation to people held illegally, particularly Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whose sentence, as the right hon. Lady said, comes to an end in 14 days. We expect people who are held improperly to be released. We expect states to observe the rule of law, and we hope that she will be released. The right hon. Lady is always right to raise this case, which I take up with the Foreign Office every week on her behalf.
I am glad that the right hon. Lady welcomes the announcement of the forthcoming recess. She asked if I knew about it. Yes, I did know about it, she will be reassured to know, and I think the motion formalising it is in my name, so it is lucky that I knew about it, too.
The Environment Bill is being carried over because, as much as anything, the House of Lords’ legislative programme—the Government’s legislative programme, delivering on our manifesto commitments—is very full. It turns out that when we do things remotely, they sometimes take longer than they did when people were physically present. Some inevitable delays are caused by the covid crisis, but that does not reduce the Government’s commitment to environmental improvement. The Prime Minister has set out the 10-point plan, and COP26 will take place in Glasgow later this year. This Government are a world leader in environmental improvement, and that will carry on being the case.
With regard to flooding, the £5.2 billion of taxpayers’ money announced last year is going ahead and will be implemented to provide more flood defences, protecting hundreds of thousands more homes. That shows the Government’s commitment to protecting people’s homes. The right hon. Lady also asked about repairs. Some £120 million has been set aside for repairs, so again that is taking place.
On the specific request for a debate in Government time on International Women’s Day, the right hon. Lady will remember that last year the Backbench Business Committee had not yet been set up, and therefore the Government provided time for the debate. The Backbench Business Committee knows that, when it was set up, one of the things that it had responsibility for was the International Women’s Day debate, as it has for the debate later today on Holocaust Memorial Day. These very important debates come out of the Backbench Business Committee’s allocation.
I completely understand the right hon. Lady’s frustration in relation to schools, with five children of my own being home schooled—although, I must confess that the burden is falling primarily on my wife, rather than on me. This is something that parents are finding difficult, because it is hard. But to ask for clarity in an uncertain situation is, I think, simply not reasonable. Things are developing all the time, sometimes for the better and sometimes not. We had a new strain that turned out to be more virulent, but now we have progress with the vaccine roll-out, so we have to deal with events as they arise. It is not possible to set out with complete clarity what will happen and be certain that that is what will happen, because of the unknowable nature of the progress of the virus and the responses to it.
With regard to EU businesses, we are much better off being out of the European Union. That is what the country wanted and what we have delivered, and we are seeing the benefits day by day. It is really good news that we are out. The Government have not advised businesses to set up in the European Union—that is a fiction.
Finally, the Government have been great supporters of employment rights in this country, but then the Tories have always been great supporters of employment rights. If I may claim Elizabeth I as the first Tory, as I am tempted to do, an Act of Parliament was passed in her reign—
The current members, Mr Speaker; I think I must be allowed to comment on previous members. Otherwise, all my exchanges with my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) would be out of order, because Alfred the Great was certainly a member of the royal family. I think I am allowed to refer to Queen Elizabeth I, who introduced an Act to protect people from unfair dismissal. Of course, it was Lord Shaftesbury, that great Tory hero, who was the mainstay of 19th-century improvements in employment rights. The Conservatives have always been committed to that and will continue to be, which is why employment rights in this country are much better than they are in Europe, including on maternity leave and holiday time. It is because this nation and the Conservative party have a great commitment to employment rights.
Mole Valley, like many other constituencies, is frequently plagued by Travellers illegally invading both public and private land, and by abuse of planning legislation. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Home Office are said to be introducing legislation to help deal with the problem, but I am hearing a disparity of approach. It would therefore be helpful if, prior to its presentation, there was a debate to enable Members to express their wishes on this prospective legislation.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. For many years, illegal Traveller encampments have brought crime to local areas, as well as antisocial and threatening behaviour. It remains the Government’s intention to bring forward legislation when parliamentary time allows that strengthens police powers to tackle unauthorised encampments. As we set out in our recent “Planning for the future” White Paper, we intend to review and strengthen existing powers and sanctions to ensure that they support the new planning system. We intend to introduce more powers to address intentional unauthorised development, consider higher fines and look at ways of supporting more enforcement activity. We want a fair system for all. The Government’s overarching aim is to ensure fair and equal treatment for Travellers, in a way that facilitates their nomadic way of life while respecting the interests of the settled community. I hope that my hon. Friend will make his views known to Ministers in the normal way, but an Adjournment debate might be an excellent means of getting his views further on the record.
First, may I associate myself with the remarks of the shadow Leader of the House and the Leader of the House regarding Holocaust Memorial Day?
I would like to ask for a debate on the role of Government Ministers and the Prime Minister in particular in setting an example by following the rules that they make for others during the lockdown. I know that every time the Prime Minister opens his mouth on the subject, his ill-informed views drive support for Scottish independence upwards, and I know also that his stage-managed visits to selected Scottish supporters make the SNP’s case for it. So in normal circumstances, he would be most welcome, but these are not normal circumstances. We are telling millions of people not to leave their homes and only to make essential journeys. The Prime Minister is more than capable of patronising us from his office in Whitehall, so what exactly is so essential about his 1,000-mile round trip to Livingston today? This galivanting is a blatant piece of electioneering, while most people are focused on fighting covid, but the real tragedy is that his actions will undermine the public health message, which we all need to succeed.
Let me turn to the Government plans to cut universal credit by 20% in April. This would be the most cruel and immoral decision of this Administration, heaping pain and misery on the very poorest in our communities, who have already borne the consequences of covid to a greater extent than most. The decision is extremely unpopular, even in the Tory party, but rather than have a proper debate on the matter, the Government are trying to buy time by delaying it until the Budget at the start of March. That may suit the Government, but to leave this threat hanging over the heads of so many families is unforgivable. The House should debate this measure now, not in March.
In December, the Government laid changes to the immigration rules that fundamentally altered the nature of asylum, leaving many vulnerable people in limbo. Members across the House have supported an SNP motion to oppose those measures. When will we get the chance to debate them? Finally, may I ask again when we will get a third party Opposition day, which is long overdue?
As always, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions. We have facilitated a debate, coming up shortly, in response to a prayer from the SNP on a statutory instrument. We are doing our best to facilitate all Opposition parties, but I bear in mind his request for an Opposition day debate, which is important, as set out in Standing Orders.
As regards universal credit, the hon. Gentleman is simply getting the wrong end of the stick or not paying attention. It was debated in the House not long ago in an Opposition day debate, as is the normal way of things being debated in the House. That is why there are Opposition day debates—so that people can discuss things that the Opposition want to talk about. The Government have made it clear that the £20 uplift introduced by this Government to help the least well-off in society during the pandemic is under review, and there will be an announcement in the Budget in the perfectly normal and proper way. It is cheap point scoring that does not score any points to complain about it at this stage, when the decision will be announced in due course.
As regards the Prime Minister’s visit to Scotland, I used to think that Mona Lott was a fictional character, but it turns out that it is actually the First Minister of Scotland. All Mrs Sturgeon can ever do is moan a lot. She moans when distinguished royal personages visit Scotland, and she moans when the Prime Minister visits Scotland—people doing their duty and doing their job. The visit to Livingston is something we should be proud of as a nation. The Prime Minister is visiting a vaccine factory that has made enormous strides to develop and produce a vaccine that is awaiting approval to help in the fight against covid. The Prime Minister is doing his job. Mona Lott will have something to moan about in early February, when Mr Salmond gives evidence to a committee of inquiry in the Scottish Parliament and we find out all that is going on up north to the disadvantage of the Scottish people, led by a hopeless Administration.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the management of trees by local authorities? While most people recognise the importance of tree-planting programmes, I am receiving a number of complaints in Southend about the damage that trees are doing to pavements and, sadly, to people’s property. There needs to be some sort of mechanism to resolve disputes between the local authority and the insurers.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. There are difficulties when roots push up into pavements or tarmac, and there are laws and rules relating to this. The effect of any tree on neighbouring land is for the relevant owners to discuss, and the Government recommend that arboricultural advice is sought from competent contractors and consultants. They or the local authority should be able to inform tree owners of their responsibilities and the options in any particular case. It is important that trees are inspected regularly, with necessary maintenance to ensure that they remain safe and healthy, and that it is safe for buses to pass under them on highways and so on. That responsibility falls primarily on local councils, but my hon. Friend has got his point on the record.
As always, Mr Speaker, I am very grateful to you for calling me.
I understand that the award of the Backbench Business time on Thursday 11 February may have been regarded as provisional by Government business managers; I hope that that is not the case. The Backbench Business Committee was established so that issues could be aired and debated as requested by Back-Bench Members across the House. Sometimes issues and subject matters may arise on which many Members want to contribute and which may, at the same time, be inconvenient for the Government of the day. But this is one of the reasons that the Committee was established—to allow parliamentarians, away from the Executive and the Front Benchers on both sides, to have a measure of input into the parliamentary agenda and the subjects of debate.
On a lighter note—I do hope that this is appreciated—the Backbench Business Committee has received an application for a debate on International Women’s Day, which is on Monday 8 March. Of course we would love to facilitate it, but the awarding of time to the Committee is up to the Government, and we are well behind the schedule within Standing Orders for the allocation for this Session.
The hon. Gentleman’s point about the Backbench Business Committee’s choice of debates is absolutely right. The Committee is there to choose debates that Back Benchers want to have. That may be inconvenient to both Front Benches, but that is perfectly reasonable and fair. As regards to the allocation of time, I remind the hon. Gentleman that Government time was found prior to the set-up of the Backbench Business Committee for what were essentially Back-Bench business debates, so we have done rather better than the bald figures indicate.
My constituency, Wakefield, close to the heart of God’s own country, is—as you know, Mr Speaker—a wonderful place to visit, work or live in. It generally enjoys a fine climate, blessed to it by the beneficent creator we are familiar with from the Gospels. On occasion, however, we have witnessed tempests more reminiscent of the Old Testament, and at such times Wakefield suffers severe flooding. Since being elected, I have aided my constituents in battling floods—most recently, just last week during Storm Christoph. With this in mind, will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House find Government time for a debate on the state of Wakefield’s flood defences and those of the wider Calder river system?
I did not realise that Wakefield had moved to Somerset and was therefore in God’s own county, but I will accept my hon. Friend’s suggestion; of course, we remember that Christ was taken to Glastonbury by Joseph of Arimathea, and that is why we have such a claim to being a divine county.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this point, because it is vital that we tackle flooding across the country and guard against it in future. As I said earlier, the Government are spending £5.2 billion on flood and coastal defence schemes over the next six years, and we have spent £2.6 billion between 2015 and 2021 to protect 300,000 homes. We are obviously working with communities and local authorities to make sure that this money is spent wherever the risk is highest, and where it will benefit the most people and property, so my hon. Friend will not have to build an ark and go in two by two.
The UK Government’s proposed Turing scheme is at every level a pale imitation of Erasmus, not least the funding of £105 million compared with the educational and fraternal powerhouse of Erasmus and its budget of £26.2 billion over seven years. Turing offers no funding to the international partners that we need to allow mobilities; it offers no support at all for adult education or youth work centres; and support for our colleges and schools will be drastically reduced. Can we have a debate in Government time on the incompetence of this Government’s damaging educational opportunity in Scotland, with specific reference to the provisions made under the 1707 Acts of Union?
It is always a delight to debate the virtues of the Acts of Union and what they did to create such a strong United Kingdom, to the benefit of everybody throughout the whole United Kingdom. I remind the hon. Gentleman of the £8.6 billion that the United Kingdom taxpayer has provided to help Scotland.
The Turing scheme will be backed by £100 million and will look at a broader horizon, rather than a narrow European horizon—we will turn our eyes to the whole of the world and it will provide UK students with the opportunity to study all over the world. It will potentially help 35,000 students in universities, colleges and schools to go on study and work placements overseas, starting in September 2021. The continuation of Erasmus would have cost the taxpayer £2 billion and we would have got less out of it than we put in. That would not have been fair on our taxpayers.
The eviction ban has been a positive policy overall, but my constituent Andy has experienced the negative side of it. His tenants have used it as an excuse not to pay their rent, even though they have remained in full-time employment and have even abused him for requesting it. They are now in serious arrears and, as it is his main income, he is seriously out of pocket. May we have a debate on supporting our constituents in respect of the unintended consequences of policies designed to support people, not to allow others to take advantage of them?
The Government continue, in all our guidance and communications, to urge tenants to pay their rent wherever possible and to speak to their landlord at the earliest opportunity if they have any difficulties in doing so. We have put in place a significant financial package to help tenants to pay their rent, including through support for businesses to pay salaries and the boosting of the welfare safety net. Our package of measures strikes a fair balance. Landlords can now action possession claims through the courts, although currently bailiffs cannot enforce evictions. There are exemptions for the most serious cases, such as antisocial behaviour and arrears equivalent to six months’ rent. It is important to strike a balance between the interests of tenants and of landlords, many of whom, as with my hon. Friend’s constituent, own only one property and are dependent on the income from it.
The Leader of the House will be aware from my previous questions of the concerns of thousands of my residents in Cardiff South and Penarth who are affected by fire and building safety defects, and of the need for UK Government legislative action on the issue. He will know that this concern is shared throughout the House. Will he be clear about when the Lords amendments to the Fire Safety Bill will come back to this House; whether there will be adequate time to discuss the many excellent amendments that have been tabled, including by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition; and when the draft Building Safety Bill will be brought before the House? My residents want to see action and they do not want leaseholders to have to pay the costs of the terrible defects in their buildings.
I will make announcements about business in the normal way. Of course, there is a natural progression of Bills. I should point out that 100% of Grenfell-style cladding either has been removed or is in the process of being removed from social housing, and the proportion is 90% across all housing. The taxpayer has provided £1.6 billion to facilitate that. What the hon. Gentleman asks about is being taken very seriously and steps are being taken, but Bills will receive their passage in the normal way.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that last week the deeply unpopular Streetspace scheme was found by the High Court to be unlawful because of the failure to consult residents, the failure to take into account the impact on taxi drivers and the failure to take into account the disabled and other protected characteristics. The schemes across London have cost millions of pounds, but the verdict has an effect right across the country, where road closures and cycle lanes are being put into place without proper consultation. Sadly, I was unsuccessful in the shuffle for Transport questions, so may we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport to the House on the impact of the verdict on the various schemes throughout the country, and particularly in London?
My hon. Friend is very wise in how he uses the House’s mechanisms, because the lines I have here come from the Department for Transport, although I would add my own line that the car-hating Mayor of London wanted to do his best to upset motorists, and neither is he very fond of taxi drivers, who Disraeli called the gondoliers of London and who should always be respected and admired for the work they do.
It would be wrong of me to comment on the specific judgment because it may be under appeal from Transport for London and it is not proper to discuss current legal cases. However, the Government have made it clear to local authorities that they must consider the effect on all road users when developing cycling and walking schemes through the active travel fund. Allocations from tranche 2 of the active travel fund were announced last November. These were subject to LAs demonstrating that they have consulted local communities on proposed schemes. The Government’s additional network management duty guidance on reallocating road space was updated in November alongside the tranche 2 announcements and strengthens the advice on consulting disabled people. It recommends that authorities carry out quality impact assessments and reminds them of their duties under equalities legislation. But I think the real answer to my hon. Friend is: vote Conservative in the local elections and let us have a Tory Mayor.
It is a bit disappointing that the Leader of the House, my constituency neighbour, does not take more seriously the need to tackle air pollution, but I want to ask about something else today. Two weeks ago, he suggested that fish
“are now British fish, and they are better and happier fish for it.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2021; Vol. 687, c. 510.]
Obviously he was being a bit silly, which he likes to do from time to time, but if he does really care about the emotional wellbeing of fish, or any other sentient beings, above and beyond nurturing their sense of national identity, perhaps he might find parliamentary time to bring forward the animal sentience Bill that was promised to this House as long ago as 2017. There is no excuse for the delay and no excuse for breaking that promise to the House, so can he just get on with it?
First, I do not know why the hon. Lady thinks I do not mind about air pollution, which is a matter of great seriousness. It has to be remembered that it was the last socialist Government who encouraged people to have the diesel cars that have done so much damage to our air quality. She ought to remember that when phrasing her questions. On the animal sentience Bill, it was in the manifesto and there is every intention of bringing it forward. The Government are going to meet their manifesto commitments.
On 15 February last year, Emily Moore from my constituency died while in a local mental health facility. Emily had committed suicide just days after her eighteenth birthday. Her father David has been campaigning hard for better mental health support for young people. In the context of covid, there are widespread concerns about the detrimental impact of the pandemic on mental health. Is it possible to have a debate on this in Government time to see whether we in this House can find solutions to help to ensure that no young person has to follow Emily’s fate?
I am incredibly sorry to hear about the death of my hon. Friend’s constituent, Emily. We pray for her soul and for the comfort of her family, and those who are bereaved.
As a society we need to do everything we can to support vulnerable and at-risk people, as well as those in crisis, and give them the help they desperately need. This is particularly true during the pandemic. We recently had Brew Monday with the Samaritans, raised by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), and that is something also to bear in mind. The Government are putting more money into and taking more action on mental health than any previous Government. Mental health funding increased to £13.3 billion in 2019-20.
The Government are clear that the best place for children to be is in school for their learning, development and mental health. That is why we have done all we can to keep schools open through this pandemic. For those children who may be struggling with their mental health, schools have the flexibility to offer a place to vulnerable children, who might include those for whom being in school helps them to manage their mental health. Schools will continue to offer pastoral support to pupils working remotely, supported by £8 million of taxpayers’ money that the Government have provided for wellbeing training and advice, while Public Health England has provided guidance for parents and carers on supporting children’s and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. What Emily’s family are campaigning for is something that I think we all support.
Last week, the Education Secretary announced that the teaching grant would be removed from high-cost C1 subjects while increasing support for strategic subjects. This would severely impact institutions like Bath Spa University, which the Leader of the House and I share in our constituencies. From product design to computer software engineering to the creative arts, these subjects are vital to our economy and our wellbeing. Can we have a debate in Government time on the enormous value of creative subjects and their role in rebuilding our economy when recovering after the corona crisis?
The hon. Lady mentions Bath Spa University—its main campus is in North East Somerset, at Newton St Loe—which is a very fine establishment. In all decisions of this kind, there are difficult balances to be made when allocating resources. There are not unlimited resources and there are many things that clamour for taxpayers’ money, so it is really a question of getting that balance right.
Mr Speaker, thank you. I was worried to hear that some of our colleagues do not realise that Somerset is God’s county.
My right hon. Friend will remember that the Vikings were very pleased to get other people’s money. They begged it, borrowed it, stole it, buried it. Unfortunately, that is what has been happening in the county council: it has been hoarding the covid grants. It thought it had been given £32 million, as it said publicly. It turns out that the accountants tell it that it has been given £80 million, which is what it should be using for covid. We want to know what has happened to the money, and we want to see the proof.
Unfortunately, this county council wants to become a unitary, which is going to be disastrous for the people of Somerset. We need a full-county solution and we need a debate. King Alfred and I would love such a debate, and I wonder if my right hon. Friend will be so kind as to give it to us both.
My hon. Friend, as always, raises an important point. I am delighted to hear that the council has found more money. It sounds rather like the card in Monopoly that says, “Banking error in your favour”, which very rarely seems to happen in real life, but clearly has happened in Somerset.
I have indeed received communications from the county council about what it calls its “One Somerset” proposal. The problem with this is that it does not include the whole of Somerset—it leaves out both North Somerset, and Bath and North East Somerset—and it is always an irritation when people pretend to represent the whole great county of Somerset when they are only representing a part of it.
The North-East Joint Transport Committee’s “Connected North East” blueprint sets out vital asks of Government to upgrade our regional transport and digital connectivity in order to rebuild and revitalise our economy and communities post covid, including long overdue upgrades to the congested east coast main line and long-distance high-speed rail services calling at Newcastle airport. Can we therefore find time for a debate on how the Government will support north-east communities to deliver this ambitious package, developed by our region for our region, so the north-east can forge its prosperous future?
I hope the hon. Lady is pleased that we have managed to find time for a Petitions Committee debate, which I promised I would do when Westminster Hall was temporarily closed.
The Government have a record infrastructure programme, with £600 billion in the next five years to deliver on the promise to upgrade and level up infrastructure. That is for roads and railways, along with gigabit broadband and 5G. On railways, there is £40 billion for rail, including £17.5 billion for renewal and upgrades over the next three years. So there is money available, it is being spent and the hon. Lady is right to petition for it for her part of the country.
With covid cases in remote rural North Devon at 60 per 100,000, neighbouring Torridge at 50 per 100,000 and our hospital having just seven cases currently, will my right hon. Friend secure Government time to debate the timing of schools being able to fully reopen? With some of the worst broadband in the country, no visitors travelling into the area and the vaccine roll-out going well—and thanks to residents who have consistently kept cases below the national average—is there an opportunity for some Devon schools to have early confirmation that the good work being done in keeping infection rates down will result in schools opening on 8 March, if not earlier?
The Government’s priority every step of the way has been making sure that no young person would be disadvantaged by the situation we are in and returning to face-to-face learning as soon as we possibly can, while giving a fortnight’s notice for schools to reopen. There is support for children who may be falling behind. There is the £650 million catch-up premium, helping schools to support all pupils this academic year—worth £80 per pupil in most schools and £240 per pupil in special schools—in addition to the £350 million national tutoring programme targeted at the most disadvantaged students. The Government will set out plans as soon as we reasonably can, but as I said in response to the right hon. Lady the shadow Leader of the House, the certainty that is asked for cannot necessarily be given with an evolving pandemic.
The Government’s kickstart scheme seems to need exactly that. Despite the Chancellor’s trumpeting of the scheme, the experience for many businesses, training providers and those bidding for contracts is of frustration, bureaucracy and receiving no feedback on why bids are rejected. The reality is that the scheme has delivered only 2,000 jobs for young people on the ground. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a Government debate or a statement to inform the House of what the Government intend to do to get the scheme back on track?
The kickstart scheme is really important in helping young people get employment. It is rolling out and is will help young people. Of course, if the hon. Gentleman has any specific concerns, or if there are specific areas where he thinks things could be improved, if he would like to send them to me, I will pass them on to the Secretary of State.
As my right hon. Friend will know, Derbyshire Dales again experienced flooding last week due to Storm Christoph. The River Wye in Bakewell burst its banks and homes were flooded, causing serious damage and much anguish. This is now a near-annual event. Will my right hon. Friend allow time for a debate on the effective long-term management of the River Wye and the River Derwent, so that my constituents can sleep easy in their beds when it rains?
My hon. Friend is not the first Member to raise this issue this morning; it is clearly a matter of concern across the House and the country. I reiterate the figures on the planned expenditure—the £5.2 billion. There is a worry for people where flood defences are imperfect, and it is important that that money is spent effectively, in addition to the money being spent to repair defences. The right hon. Member the shadow Leader of the House raised the state of repair of some flood defences. I know from my own county, when the Somerset levels flooded—not in my constituency, but nearby—the terrible effect this has on families and businesses. It is something that the Government are working hard to deal with. As regards the specifics on the Derwent and the Wye, I suggest that that is a matter for an Adjournment debate.
Diolch, Mr Speaker. I thank the Leader of the House for addressing my issue with proxy voting. I am grateful to him. News broke last night that a DVLA worker has sadly passed away following a positive covid test. From my conversations with constituents, it appears that the Prime Minister was poorly briefed in his answer yesterday. The testing system he refers to has not been applied uniformly across the DVLA estate. In the main building, workers are cramped on each floor in an environment that appears not to be covid-secure. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Transport to come to the House to make a statement, so that Welsh MPs are able to convey the concerns of our constituents, because his answer earlier today will not have alleviated them?
As I understand it, the DVLA has worked hard to make its Swansea headquarters covid-safe and has carried out, I think, 2,000 tests to detect covid within its workforce. Out of that workforce, the number I am aware of who have tested positive for covid over the course of the pandemic is in line with, if not below, the national average. It is important to remember that the DVLA carries out an absolutely essential service that needs to be done within an office environment. Driving licences and vehicle documentation need to be printed securely—it is not work that can easily be done from home. Dare I say that points need to be deducted from people’s licences securely when that unfortunate occurrence may arise. The DVLA needs to have people physically present, but I believe it is working hard to ensure its headquarters is a covid-safe environment.
May I add my voice to those Members who have highlighted the importance of marking International Women’s Day this year? The theme this year is Choose to Challenge, with events across the country and abroad, celebrating women’s achievements and raising awareness of the inequality and bias that, sadly, still remain for too many women and girls across the globe. On behalf of the all-party group on women in Parliament, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), will my right hon. Friend please agree to a debate in this place in Government time to mark International Women’s Day?
I refer my hon. Friend to my earlier answer that this is a matter for the Backbench Business Committee. It is why it was given so much time in the Chamber, so that it could take care of these very important debates, such as the one that we are having later today for the holocaust memorial. I would add that the Government prioritise the rights of women and have done a great deal of work in terms of their international aid budget regarding the education of women and girls to ensure that girls up to the age of 12 receive an education, and therefore it is a Governmental priority.
Shopworkers, particularly those in supermarkets and other food stores, have really been on the frontline during this pandemic, keeping us supplied with the essentials of life. They do not have the option of working from home. Yet, too often, retail workers face abuse and poor treatment from a few customers. Just yesterday, one of my staff witnessed a shopworker being spat at for asking someone to wear a mask going into the store. Can we have a debate in Government time on the impact of covid-19 on retail workers?
May I begin by saying that I hope the hon. Lady did not mind my mentioning her earlier, without having given her notice, with regard to the Samaritans, but as I saw that she was in the Chamber, I hoped that she would take it as a compliment?
The issue that the hon. Lady raises is a really serious one. The protection of the vital work done by people in supermarkets is one that we should not forget. We often talk about the vital work done by people in the emergency services, but, actually, during this pandemic, ensuring that people have access to the necessities of life has been courageously done by shop workers across the country. They are protected by the normal law, and if somebody has spat at a worker in a supermarket, that is illegal and the police should be notified and the law should be enforced. Certainly, the Government will do everything they can to encourage the correct enforcement of the law.
If vaccination is, as he believes, the cavalry riding to our rescue, may we confidently expect a statement from the Prime Minister as soon as the vulnerable have had their jabs and absorbed them on how he will lift restrictions in an orderly way and set the people free?
I am always a bit nervous about these military analogies, though the distinguished Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee will know a great deal more about this than I do, because some cavalry charges are more successful than others. It depends whether we are talking about Omdurman or—[Interruption.] Balaclava, indeed. Thank you for that helpful prompt, Mr Speaker. None the less, my right hon. Friend makes a very important point. The delivery of a safe and effective vaccine is the best way to protect the most vulnerable and save thousands of lives, and great strides are being made in protecting the population. There remains a long and difficult road ahead and there will be a considerable time lag until we can expect these vaccinations to help ease pressure on the NHS, bearing in mind that it takes a fortnight from vaccination for the vaccine to begin to take its effect. If we succeed, we will be protecting huge numbers of people from the virus. Eventually, that will allow us to remove many of the restrictions that we have endured for so long. It is wonderful that the Prime Minister is in Scotland today visiting Valneva, so we are rolling out more vaccines potentially and this has had great support from Her Majesty’s Government.
The Ministry of Defence recently disclosed to me that Saudi armed forces were trained with £2.4 million of taxpayers’ money from the secretive integrated activity fund. Can we therefore have a debate in Government time on British security support to Gulf countries with abysmal human rights records, such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, that continue to wage a disastrous war in Yemen while imprisoning hundreds of peaceful political prisoners, such as Hasan Mushaima, who should be immediately freed?
The Government have very strict rules, both on arms sales and on our relationships with countries around the world in terms of military development. These matters are regularly debated in the House. We work with our allies to help them in their military, and it is right and proper that we should do so, but we also maintain the highest standards of human rights.
My hon. Friend is a model of brevity in her questions. I will not be quite so brief in the answer, because this is a key subject. The Sponsor Body is due to publish its strategic review on the restoration and renewal programme soon. That will enable the parties involved to consider options in the light of the economic effect of the coronavirus. As Leader of the House, I want to ensure that the Palace of Westminster remains the home of our democracy for future generations. In the first instance, that means getting on with the works that are immediately possible; restoration and renewal should not be used as a cause for delaying works that everyone knows need to take place—I am thinking of things such as the restoration of the Victoria Tower, which the Commons, at any rate, is keen to proceed with, and, in particular, works relating to fire safety. A great deal has been done on that, but concerns have recently been raised with me about the hammer-beam roof in Westminster Hall, and I would make that an absolute priority in terms of fire safety. It has lasted since the reign of Richard II and I hope it can last another 700-odd years. I hope I will still be here then and you too, Mr Speaker—[Interruption.] Well, 700, I am not that ambitious! I am glad that progress has been made on reducing the fire risk already, but more is required, which is why it is good news that the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority, which were established in legislation during my time as Leader of the House, are on schedule to prepare options for Parliament to consider in a timely fashion. When we come to consider those options, we need to be anxious to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent on vital works, not on a gold-plated scheme. We have to explain to our constituents when we spend money on ourselves, so the vital works test will be a key one. As we save the Palace, there must be no blank cheque.
Last week, the Prime Minister disagreed with me when referring to the conclusions of experts, doctors and others on the role of structural racism in the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. Surely any vaccine hesitancy strategy must include addressing that if it is to maximise its success. Although the Government have not heeded calls to prioritise these communities for vaccine roll-out, the Government have finally begun to see some sense and, as I understand it, will now at least record ethnicity data as part of the roll-out. Will the Leader of the House confirm whether the Government will consider allocating time to debate the evidence on the success of the vaccine roll-out, particularly in relation to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on BAME communities? Does he agree that it would be helpful for the vaccine ethnicity data to be publicly released regularly, not least to inform this House’s debates accordingly?
My hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities has been looking into the effects of the coronavirus on minority communities, and has reported and spoken to the House about it before. Obviously, this is an issue of concern and I am sure it will be brought up in the House in future. As regards the vaccine, I think the hon. Lady is extremely helpful in raising this issue, because she can help get across the message, better than I can, that this vaccine is safe for all communities and all communities should be encouraged to come forward for it. That is certainly what the Government are trying to ensure happens, but her help in doing this, with her constituents and more widely, is extremely welcome, and I am grateful to her.
Due to the excellent progress in rolling out the vaccines, we can start to look ahead with increasing clarity. One sector of business that has faced real hardship is the conference industry, a sector with a long and diverse supply chain, ranging from hospitality to exhibition stand construction. Please may we have a debate about that sector, to consider what can be done to ensure that it bounces back quickly, as it is so important for jobs and it is central to the economy of not only Harrogate and Knaresborough, but, of course, other constituencies around the UK?
Her Majesty’s Government recognise that the conferencing and wider events and exhibitions sector has been most severely affected by covid-19. The Government also recognise that in normal times, the sector makes a significant economic contribution to the UK, not just in direct expenditure by business visitors, but through the trade transacted at events, so it is unfortunate that this has not been able to resume. While activity is prohibited, event venues and organisers can make use of the Government’s economic support package, including the coronavirus job retention scheme and the various grant schemes. I join my hon. Friend in praising the Harrogate convention centre for becoming a Nightingale hospital and therefore being able to help the community widely.
Now that we have taken back control and parliamentary sovereignty has been restored, how will the Government respond to resolutions made by the House on motions proposed by Opposition parties? In the past two weeks, the House has agreed four propositions, with cross-party support and no dissent, after the Government withdrew their amendments. How or when will the Government respond to those resolutions of the House, as they did during the 2017-19 Parliament?
As a general rule, the Government respond to debates during the debate. The Government’s position is set out from the Dispatch Box, at both the opening and closing of the debate, but it is important to remember the structures of the House and that resolutions of this House regarding expenditure have to come on Crown initiative. This is an important constitutional point. The House of Commons is here to challenge the Government over their expenditure, not to tell the Government to make expenditure, so all motions must be borne in the context of understanding the constitutional significance of Crown initiative on expenditure.
Will my right hon. Friend continue to ensure regular updates to the House on Britain’s world-leading vaccination roll-out programme? Will he join me in praising Northamptonshire NHS, which has one of the very best records in the whole country for the vaccine? As of yesterday, 86,000 Northamptonshire residents have been vaccinated, which includes 86% of those over 80 and 66% of those over 75.
I congratulate Northamptonshire on its success. I am sure it is down to having my hon. Friend as a Member of Parliament that it has done so well, because he is an absolute champion for his constituency and for his county. The figure I have is that so far, 7,164,387 have been vaccinated. Yes, the House will be kept up to date, though I suggest to the House that Sky News has a fantastic website that has a number spinning up so that one can see exactly how many vaccinations have taken place. I hope it has not been updated since I have been in the Chamber, but over 7 million is very impressive. More than 80% of over-80s have now been vaccinated, along with more than 75% of elderly care home residents, so great progress is being made, and it is obviously important to ensure that the House is kept informed of that success.
I thank the Leader of the House for writing to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on 20 January, asking the Minister to respond to me on the various questions I have raised on fire safety. I am also grateful that the official Opposition will be using their debate on Monday to discuss fire safety, but we still need the Government to review the programme motion on the Fire Safety Bill to allow more time to properly debate the various amendments tabled by Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs to protect leaseholders from exorbitant costs. Can the Leader of the House update us on any conversations he has had with the Secretary of State in that regard?
I actually wrote to the hon. Lady yesterday with some news on chasing the Department for a response for her. As regards the programme motion for when Lords amendments come back, what she says and asks for has been heard and noted, but that is not a promise of any change; it is merely a recognition that it is not an entirely unreasonable request.
Given the success of the stamp duty holiday in boosting home sales, will the Chancellor of Exchequer come to the House to make a statement on extending the holiday until the end of 2021 to help shore up economic growth and avoid the risk of a slump in the housing industry at a critical time?
I think I am not allowed to refer hon. Members to what I wrote on this subject before I joined Government—which are, of course, not necessarily the views I hold any more. I will undoubtedly make representations on behalf of my hon. Friend to the Chancellor, because it is worth bearing in mind that cutting stamp duty has boosted an industry that employs nearly 750,000 people. However, it is also worth bearing in mind that the Government need some revenue to pay for all that the Government have to do.
I am more than happy to take that advice, Mr Speaker. Thank you.
The Prime Minister said:
“It was only recently that the shadow Transport Secretary was saying that quarantine measures should be relaxed.”—[Official Report, 27 January 2021; Vol. 688, c. 366.]
He went on to repeat a similar comment. This relates to a statement that was made over 200 days ago in July last year and had nothing at all to do with current regulations or our current covid rates. It was in response to the Government themselves lifting quarantine restrictions for a list of countries. We have been critical of the Government for failing to have a proper track and trace system and failing to do pre-screening and testing on arrival, so, far from calling for relaxation, we were criticising the Government for their own failures. I think the record should be put straight.
That is not a point of order for the Chair, but hopefully those on the Treasury Bench will have picked up on it. If nothing else, it is now on the record. I will now suspend the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.