The Secretary of State was asked—
Support for Welsh Businesses
The Government have provided Welsh businesses with wide-ranging support, including more than £1.5 billion in bounce back loans, £503 million in coronavirus business interruption loans, £726 million for the self-employed income support scheme, in addition to the £5.2 billion funding guarantee given to the Welsh Government.
It is important that, as we build back better and progress the levelling up agenda, businesses in all parts of our United Kingdom are encouraged to maximise the benefits of Brexit and the multitude of trade agreements secured by the Department for International Trade. Can my right hon. Friend give me reassurances that he is working with the DIT to ensure that businesses get the best out of Brexit? Whether those businesses are in Wrexham, Clwyd South, or Sedgefield, we should work as one United Kingdom.
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. He makes a crucial Union point in his question. We have secured trade deals with more than 60 countries, which is good for Wales, good for Welsh business and good for the UK. I should also tell him that we are working with the Secretary of State for International Trade on putting a proper dedicated team into Wales to deal with these matters in that capital city.
It costs British Wool 50p a kilo to bring Welsh mountain sheep’s wool to market where it sells for only 30p a kilo. I wrote to the Prime Minister six months ago to ask what he was doing to boost this fantastic Welsh product now that his Government are responsible for procurement. Welsh wool as a raw material for carpets and upholstery should be woven into every relevant UK Government-funded public project contract by now. Why is it not?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady for raising that question. Indeed, she has raised it with me before, as have a number of others. I have strong sheep-farming interests in my own constituency and I know the problem to which she refers. We are working closely with our colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and indeed with the Welsh Government on this and a range of other issues. Since the end of the transition period, we do have more flexibility in our markets for wool and in other matters, but home procurement is very much top of the Government’s agenda.
Timing does seem to be a bit of an issue with the Government. Almost a month has gone by, and it seems that Wales is still waiting for a reply from the UK Government about our final financial settlement. This, of course, has created unnecessary doubt over the date of the Welsh Budget. Welsh businesses and public services are enduring ongoing uncertainty over funding, and this will handicap our response to the pandemic. Will the Secretary of State please explain what is the point of his office if he cannot even persuade his colleagues in the Treasury to speak to the Welsh Government?
That is a slightly strange question, given that the relationship between the Treasury and the Welsh Government, particularly around covid recovery, has been conducted on a daily, if not hourly, basis, with vast sums of money being made available to businesses and individuals of Wales, very much in the spirit of collaboration and co-operation. Rather than trying to make cheap political points, the right hon. Lady should acknowledge the fact that, in these very difficult times, two Governments have worked quite well together and the Union, which is perhaps the point that she does not like me to make, has been particularly crucial in that process.
Before I start, on behalf of the Labour party, I would like to pay tribute to Captain Tom Moore and send our deepest condolences to his family.
Cockle-gathering in both north and south Wales is not just a job, but a way of life, dating back generations. Gatherers, who are already alarmed at DEFRA advice that they could not resume the export of shellfish until April, now feel not just forgotten, but utterly betrayed to discover that UK Ministers knew all along that the EU ban on importing non-decorated UK shellfish would be indefinite. What urgent action will the Secretary of State and his Government take to facilitate the resumption of shellfish exports and save this traditional industry from disappearing forever?
I join the hon. Lady in her tribute. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be making a more formal statement in a few minutes’ time, but I do recognise—as does the whole House—the comments she makes.
On the industry and sector to which the hon. Lady refers, I am in close contact with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Cabinet Office and, indeed—through the Government—the EU, to make the distinction between teething issues that might be arising out of the particular subject to which she refers, and perhaps more permanent structural matters that may need a longer-term solution. I assure her and the industry that we are very seized of the challenges that the industry currently faces.
Small businesses in Cardiff North and across the country are struggling to cope with impossible red tape, with no time to prepare due to this Government’s eleventh-hour Brexit deal. Despite more than 10 days preparing the correct documents for full compliance, a local family export meat business has had its produce turned away in Italy, leading to thousands of pounds of stock being destroyed. The owners have subsequently been up all night every night trying to salvage and recoup. They do not want to hear excuses such as “teething problems” when it is their and their employees’ livelihoods on the line, so can the Secretary of State clarify what urgent actions he and his colleagues are taking to resolve these issues, and will he meet me along with this business to see how he can help?
I received the hon. Lady’s letter about this particular constituent only last night. I am very happy to meet her and to see if we can resolve her constituent’s particular problems; that letter is already receiving the urgent attention that it deserves. I would challenge her on the readiness point that she makes more generally, given the numerous levels of engagement that I and other Government colleagues conducted in the run-up to the end of the transition period; and given the reaction since then from businesses and stakeholders across Wales. They are generally supportive of the fact that a deal has been reached and of the opportunities that it presents, and now actually want to get on with a positive relationship with the EU and the other countries with which we deal.
Covid-19 Vaccines: Delivery to Wales
I have regular discussions with the Minister for Vaccine Deployment, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), as well as Defence Ministers and the First Minister of Wales, on the delivery of covid-19 vaccines. Rapid vaccine roll-out is key to us getting back to normality.
The work being done in Wrexham to manufacture the vaccine is quite literally saving lives in my constituency of East Surrey. Will the Secretary of State join me in extending our thanks to all those workers and the supply chain for the vital work that they are doing to protect the nation?
I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in that tribute. The Prime Minister and I visited Wockhardt in Wrexham a few weeks ago to see the fantastic work that it is doing. Hers, like so many stories, is a story of a successful Union. As we all know, the vaccine roll-out is not a competition between Governments; it is a competition between Government and covid, and the Union is central to that.
The short answer is: a pivotal role. It has been a joy to behold the unbelievable enthusiasm, dedication and professionalism in Wales and across the rest of the UK from servicemen and women. We are regularly receiving requests from the Welsh Government for additional support, and we turn that support around in Cardiff just as soon as we can.
The mid-February target to vaccinate Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation priority groups 1 to 4 involves offering a dose to all those who are considered clinically extremely vulnerable. What discussions is my right hon. Friend having with the Welsh Government regarding the accuracy of data being used in relation to this group?
As my hon. Friend might imagine, there are regular discussions across all levels of government around data accuracy and the progress that we can make with this particular challenge. He is right to point out that it is, of course, a devolved issue. We are trying to ensure that we can find solutions to issues of a more permanent nature—perhaps persistent data problems, for example—but the ambition remains to get absolutely everybody in those cohorts done within the timescale, and we are currently on target to achieve that.
UK Shared Prosperity Fund
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has regular discussions with the First Minister and Welsh Ministers on a range of issues, including the UK shared prosperity fund. The Government will continue to engage with the Welsh Government as we develop the fund’s investment framework for publication.
From the figures that I have seen, the British Government may have conflated overrun spend from the previous convergence period for this financial year with the actual allocation of new money. Under the previous scheme, Wales would receive nearly £400 million per annum. Is not the reality that the Minister is unable to guarantee that the shared prosperity fund, when fully operational, will match that level of investment? Why will he not just admit that the communities that both the Secretary of State and I represent in Carmarthenshire are about to get fleeced?
The figures will show that on average Wales is receiving £375 million a year. What the hon. Gentleman may be referring to is the fact that over a number of years to follow there will still be some money coming to Wales from the European Union. Of course, it is absolutely right that that money should be counted towards the £375 million total, and the Government will guarantee to ensure that the amount of money to be spent in Wales in future will be exactly the same, or higher, than the amount that was spent previously.
Britain has left the European Union. The transition period has come to an end. There is no new money coming from the structural funds. Given that the Government announced the shared prosperity fund back in 2017, can the Minister at least tell us the timetable for the introduction of the new fund?
We have already made it very clear and demonstrated that the amount of money that is going to be spent in Wales when the SPF comes in will be identical to or higher than the amount of money that was spent in Wales that came from the European Union. There has been absolutely no secrecy about that. The way in which the fund will be managed is subject to discussions at this very moment, and I would expect full details to be publicised over the next few months.
Many of my constituents are very sorry to see the hundreds of millions of pounds of EU funding that Wales received in recent years come to an end. Our departure from the EU made this inevitable, and of course I accept this, but they also believe that the Welsh Government should have full autonomy over their part of the shared prosperity fund, and I agree, so can the Minister provide some evidence that this working together is taking place?
I am sure that the hon. Lady’s constituents will be delighted to know that hundreds of millions of pounds will continue to be spent in Wales, and continue to be spent where it is most needed. I am sure that her constituents would be rather disappointed that we already know from the Audit Wales report that some of the money that has gone into, for example, pillar 2 agricultural funding has not been well spent. I urge her to recommend to her constituents that they look at the dossier presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams), which demonstrates that millions of pounds of European Union money that was handled by the Welsh Government was misspent. When that money becomes British taxpayers’ money, all partners in British Government, including the Welsh Government and local authorities with growth deals, will want to make sure that it is properly spent, and I am sure that her constituents will agree.
Covid-19: Employment Support
I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on our support for people affected by covid-19. The UK Government have funded the furlough of 8,900 employees and provided over £17 million to the self-employed in the hon. Lady’s own constituency.
The pandemic has exposed inadequacies in our welfare system to act as a safety net, from the insufficient level of statutory sick pay to the damaging impact of the two-child benefit limit on families. The idea of a universal basic income is gaining increasing traction as a solution to many of these issues, and there is increasing support in Wales and elsewhere for a UBI pilot funded by the UK Government. Will the Minister express his support for such a pilot and call on the UK Government to fund it?
The UK Government have already provided £5 million of extra funding to the Welsh Government to ensure that they have adequate funds to support businesses and individuals who have been affected by the covid pandemic, and of course the Welsh Government also have tax-raising powers. The reality is that this Government have spent hundreds of billions of pounds supporting businesses and individuals throughout this country, such is our commitment to ensuring that no one is left out as a result of the impact of this terrible pandemic.
The last year has been immensely challenging for many Welsh families, who have seen their lives completely upended by the virus. Despite welcome progress on vaccinations, the pandemic is not going away overnight, and many still feel grave uncertainty about the future of their jobs and their family finances, so why do the Government think that now is the time to cut universal credit by £1,000 a year, hitting more than 200,000 Welsh families who are doing their best to get by?
I have not yet been promoted to the Treasury, and I cannot possibly predict what might happen in the Budget that may or may not come in a few months’ time. Perhaps the hon. Lady knows something that the rest of us do not, but I can tell her that the Government have been steadfast in their commitment to supporting all those who have been left out. May I just point out that we will come through this crisis quickly as a result of the Government’s wise decision not to take part in the European Union vaccination scheme, which is why we have now vaccinated 14% of the population of the United Kingdom?
Anyone who took the initiative and started their own business within a year of the pandemic hitting was completely shut out of the self-employment income support scheme when it was announced last March. Many turned to universal credit as their only option. Now, nearly a year on, and with last year’s tax returns submitted to HMRC, will the Government think again, close the gaps in support and give the newly self-employed the help that they deserve?
The hon. Lady knows very well that I am not responsible for the policies of the Treasury, but I simply point to the fact that we have provided more than £9.3 billion of additional support through the welfare system for people affected by covid, including the £20 a week increase in the universal credit standard allowance. The Government’s commitment to supporting all those who have been affected by this pandemic is very clear to all.
We have provided £16.8 billion to the devolved Administrations to fight coronavirus, including £5.2 billion to the Welsh Government and £8.6 billion to the Scottish Government. We have also secured vaccines for all four nations, demonstrating the importance of the Union and how we are stronger together.
The fiscal settlement of this disunited kingdom means that the Treasury continues to impose unfair, unreasonable and inexplicable limits on the devolved nations’ borrowing powers. That has meant that at every step throughout the covid crisis, the devolved nations have had to wait for the Treasury to announce financial support before they could do the same. The next challenge is climate action, and with evidence from the Dasgupta review and the Committee on Climate Change showing how far we still have to go, will the Government now ensure that the devolved nations are fully equipped to meet this challenge by devolving borrowing powers?
I would have thought that the Scottish people, with their reputation for understanding the importance of money, would be quite pleased that the UK Government have provided £8.2 billion of extra funding for the Scottish Parliament, rather than expecting it to borrow money and pay it back at some point. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman might like to familiarise himself with the report from the London School of Economics this morning, which suggested that independence for Scotland would end up costing every Scottish taxpayer thousands of pounds a year, in addition to the £8 billion that they would have lost as a result, as the UK Government would not have provided that extra money to the Scottish Parliament.
Welsh Lamb Exports
The UK Government have taken significant steps to support and promote Welsh lamb exports around the world. That includes securing a tariff-free, quota-free deal with the EU and securing the protection of the Welsh lamb geographical indicator as part of the Japan deal.
Rules on international trade require sanitary and phytosanitary rules to be based on risk and science, so will the Government put immediate pressure on the European Union to lift the unreasonable compliance requirements it is imposing on British food exports? They are disproportionate, given that our food standards and rules are among the very toughest in the whole world.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, particularly in her last point, and I can offer that guarantee. We are in regular contact with our colleagues in the EU about this specific point, and there are meetings later this week involving the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on this and related issues.
Lamb exporters in west Wales have raised concerns about the delays they are facing at EU ports, reporting that some shipments have been held by customs officials for two to three days because of to the supposed issues with animal export health certificates. Can the Secretary of State enlighten us as to whether he expects an urgent resolution to this problem?
I do not know how “urgent” would be defined in the EU at the moment, but certainly there is an urgency to resolve some of these problems. As I have mentioned, there are some teething issues that can be resolved quite quickly. If there are longer-term structural issues, they need to be looked at in more detail. I have sheep farming interests in my constituency, as does the hon. Member, and it is worth pointing out that there are some big opportunities across the rest of the world that we should be exploring, rather than necessarily just concentrating on some of the difficulties with the EU.
Welsh lamb is a premium product that is wanted across the world. Welshpool livestock market, which is usually the heart of my farming community, is quieter because of covid, but the sheep meat prices are still robust. Will the Secretary of State meet me, farmers and slaughterhouses in Montgomeryshire to discuss the health certificates and the wider SPS issues on the EU border, which are clearly out of order?
I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend and his constituents; I used to live in his constituency, so I know some of them quite well. He is right to raise this issue. One of the companies in question is meeting the Cabinet Office later this week; that is progress. I am delighted that Welshpool mart has done some good business. I see that lamb prices have increased by around 17% in 2021, and consumer spending was £652 million, but the rest-of-the-world opportunities that I mentioned—particularly the Gulf, the middle east and the US, once we get the small ruminant rule resolved—will help the lamb industry across Wales and the UK.
Apprentices: Wales Office
Will my right hon. Friend outline what progress the Welsh Government have made towards meeting the public sector apprenticeship target of 2.3%, and what progress frontline services in Wales such as the police have made on offering apprenticeships to their employees?
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has raised this point. The public sector apprenticeship target is applicable only to bodies in England, but he raises a critical point about devolution. We are concerned that, for example, Welsh police forces are paying into the apprenticeship levy scheme but not getting anything out of it because the Welsh Government do not support police apprenticeships. I suggest that it would be very interesting for his Committee to look at why Welsh forces are paying in but getting nothing out the other end by way of apprenticeships.
EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement
Getting the Brexit deal across the line before the end of the year was important, and huge credit is due to the Government for securing it, but we have a serious situation emerging at Welsh ports, with freight levels way down on where they should be. Will my right hon. Friend work urgently with ministerial colleagues, HMRC and trade bodies to find simpler solutions to the problem of checks and paperwork, which risks making the UK land bridge more costly and less attractive for trade between Ireland and the continent?
As my right hon. Friend knows, I am in touch with Pembroke, Fishguard and Holyhead about this issue, and we are trying to make a distinction between what we can assign to covid changes in business and the other, more permanent factors that he refers to. There are some complications to do with port infrastructure, which is the responsibility of the Welsh Government. We have meetings tomorrow to try to push the Welsh Government to get that process under way more quickly. We have discussions with road hauliers about the land bridge. I assure him that we want this business to return to as near as possible as soon as possible, and I am happy to work with him and others to achieve that goal.
Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I want to express, on behalf of the whole House, our deep sadness at the death of Captain Sir Tom Moore. His dignity and determination in raising money to support NHS charities caught the nation’s mood at the most difficult time. He exemplified the best of our values. I know the whole House will want to join me in sending our condolences to his family and his many friends. I invite Members to join me for a minute’s silence to commemorate Sir Tom’s life, and to pay our respects to those who have lost their lives as a result of covid and their families and friends.
The House observed a one-minute silence.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Captain Sir Tom Moore—or Captain Tom, as we all came to know him—dedicated his life to serving his country and others. His was a long life lived well, whether during his time defending our nation as an Army officer or, last year, bringing the country together through his incredible fundraising drive for the NHS that gave millions a chance to thank the extraordinary men and women of our NHS who have protected us in this pandemic. As Captain Tom repeatedly reminded us, “Please remember, tomorrow will be a good day”. He inspired the very best in us all, and his legacy will continue to do so for generations to come. We now all have the opportunity to show our appreciation for him and all that he stood for and believed in, and that is why I encourage everyone to join in a national clap for Captain Tom and all those health workers for whom he raised money at 6 pm this evening.
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 certainly echo those words about Captain Tom, a decent and inspiring man.
The Social Democratic and Labour party has warned for the last five years about the destabilising impact Brexit would have on Northern Ireland, though we take no pleasure in the disruption or in the injury some feel to their British identity. The last few days have seen a rash decision—thankfully withdrawn—by the European Commission, which was condemned by all parties here and both Governments and which, unfortunately, was followed by sporadic criminal behaviour and threats. Will the Prime Minister, in affirming the rule of law in Northern Ireland, consider seriously the impact of their words, and work together through the available structures to ensure that the new arrangements work for everybody in Northern Ireland?
I certainly agree with the hon. Lady that it was most regrettable that the EU should seem to cast doubt on the Good Friday agreement and the principles of the peace process by seeming to call for a border across the island of Ireland. I can tell her that we will work to ensure that there are no such borders—we will respect the peace process—and, indeed, no barriers down the Irish sea, and that the principle of unfettered access across all parts of our United Kingdom is upheld.
I join the whole House in paying tribute to Captain Sir Tom Moore, who was indeed an inspiration to all of us, a beacon of light at a time of darkness and a true gentleman.
I am sure my right hon. Friend is aware that my ten-minute rule Bill would increase the maximum penalty for death by dangerous driving to life imprisonment. The policy and the Bill have cross-party support. The policy has Government support; the Bill does not. The Government say they will introduce the policy in their sentencing Bill, of which we have as yet seen no sign. So, will the Government now give Government time to my Bill to ensure that this necessary change is put on the statute book as soon as possible?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend, and she is absolutely right to campaign for punishments that fit the crime; we are therefore bringing forward exactly those changes in our forthcoming sentencing Bill. Our proposals will, I believe, go as far as, if not even further than, those that she wants by raising the maximum penalty for causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and they will tighten the law for those who cause serious injury by careless driving.
May I join you, Mr Speaker, and the Prime Minister in sending my condolences to the family of Captain Sir Tom Moore? He perhaps more than anyone embodied the spirit of Britain; he will be sadly missed, and I welcome the initiative that the Prime Minister spoke of for a clap this evening. Our thoughts are also with the family of Maureen Colquhoun, the first openly lesbian MP and a great champion of women’s rights.
Let me pay tribute to our NHS and all those on the frontline who are delivering the vaccine. Today we are likely to hit 10 million vaccinations, which is remarkable. The biggest risk to the vaccine programme at the moment is the arrival of new variants, such as the South African variant. On that issue, the Government’s own scientists in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies said two weeks ago that
“only a complete pre-emptive closure of borders or the mandatory quarantine of all visitors upon arrival can get close to fully preventing new cases or new variants.”
That is pretty clear, so why did the Prime Minister choose not to do the one thing that SAGE said could prevent new variants coming to the United Kingdom?
Actually, SAGE did not recommend a complete ban and says that a travel ban should not be relied upon to stop the importation of new variants, but we do have one of the toughest regimes in the world. Anybody coming from South Africa not only has to do a test before they come here, but anybody now coming from South Africa—a British citizen coming from South Africa now—will find themselves obliged to go into quarantine for 10 days, and will have an isolation assurance agency checking up on them. It is illegal now to go on holiday in this country; it is illegal to travel from South Africa or all the countries on the current red list, and we will be going forward with a plan to ensure that people coming into this country from those red list countries immediately have to go into Government-mandated quarantine hospitality.
I am intrigued by the Prime Minister’s answer. I do not think he disputes what SAGE’s view was—that only a complete closure or comprehensive quarantine of all arrivals will work. He does not seem to dispute that; he says it simply was not a recommendation. I ask the Prime Minister to publish the full SAGE minutes so we can see what was said in full; or, if there is some other advice, perhaps he can publish that.
The situation is this: we know that the South African variant is spreading across England, and measures are in place to try to deal with that. We also know that other variants are out there in other parts of the world. Just as a matter of common sense, is the Prime Minister really saying that quarantining all arrivals would make no difference to fighting new variants of the virus, or is he saying that quarantining all arrivals at the border would make a difference but it is too difficult?
This is the right hon. and learned Gentleman who only recently said that quarantine measures are “a blunt instrument” and whose shadow Transport Secretary said that quarantine should be “lessened”. We have one of the toughest regimes in the world. When the right hon. and learned Gentleman calls for a complete closure of borders, or suggests that that might be an option, he should be aware that 75% of our medicines come into this country from the European continent, as does 45% of our food, and 250,000 businesses in this country rely on imports. It is not practical completely to close off this country as he seems to be suggesting. What is practical is to have one of the toughest regimes in the world and to get on with vaccinating the people of this country, which is what we are doing.
What the Prime Minister says about the Labour position is complete nonsense; he knows it. It is 3 February 2021; with new variants in the country, our schools are shut and our borders are open. Everybody knows there are exceptions whatever the quarantine regime. Everybody knows that. That is not what this question is about.
The position is this: 21,000 people are coming into this country every day. The Prime Minister’s new border arrangements are still weeks away from being implemented and will only affect direct flights from some countries. We know from the first wave of the pandemic that only 0.1% of virus cases came from China, where we had restrictions, whereas 62% came indirectly from France and Spain, where there were no restrictions. Why does the Prime Minister think that the variants of the virus will behave differently and arrive in the UK only by direct flights?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He simultaneously says that he wants the borders to be kept open for freight reasons or to allow businesses to carry on as now—I think that was what he was saying—while calling for tougher quarantine measures, which is exactly what this Government imposed as soon as we became aware of the new variant.
I repeat what someone has to do if they want to come into this country from abroad. Seventy-two hours before they fly, they have to get a test. They have to have a passenger locator form; they are kicked off the plane if they do not have it. They then have to spend 10 days in quarantine. If they come from one of the red list countries, they have to go straight into quarantine. All that, of course, is to allow us to get on with the vaccination programme. If we had listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, we would still be at the starting blocks, because he wanted to stay in the European Medicines Agency and said so four times from that Dispatch Box.
Complete nonsense. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a pre-prepared gag: the Prime Minister knows that I have never said that, from this Dispatch Box or anywhere else, but the truth escapes him. He describes the current arrangements. If they were working, the variant—the single biggest threat to the vaccine system—would not be in the country.
Let me turn to another area where the Government have been slow to act: the cladding crisis. This is affecting millions of people, and I cannot tell the Prime Minister how anxious and angry people feel about it. It is now three and a half years since the Grenfell tragedy, which took 72 lives. Can the Prime Minister tell the House and the country why, three and a half years on, there are still hundreds of thousands of people living in homes with unsafe cladding, and why millions of leaseholders are in homes that they cannot sell and are facing extortionate costs?
In respect of the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s last answer, may I advise him to consult YouTube, where he will find an answer?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman raises a very important point about cladding and the predicament of some leaseholders—many leaseholders—and he is absolutely right that this is a problem that needs to be fixed. This Government are getting on with it. On 95% of the high-rise buildings with unsafe ACM cladding, work is either complete or under way to remove that cladding. I very much appreciate and sympathise with the predicament of leaseholders who are in that situation, but we are working to clear the backlog, and I can tell him that my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Communities Secretary will be coming forward with a full package to address the issue.
Whatever the Prime Minister claims is being done is not working, because this is the situation. Through no fault of their own, huge numbers of people, especially leaseholders, are stuck in the middle. They are living in unsafe homes. They cannot sell and they are being asked to foot the bill. That is the situation they are in. Take, for example, Will Martin. He is a doctor who has a flat in Sheffield. He has been spending his days on the frontline fighting covid in the NHS. He spends his nights worrying about the £52,000 bill that he now has to pay for fire safety repairs. He does not want future promises, Prime Minister. He does not want to hear that it has all been sorted when he knows that it has not. He wants to know, here and now: will he or will he not have to pay that £52,000 bill?
We are determined that no leaseholder should have to pay for the unaffordable costs of fixing safety defects that they did not cause and are no fault of their own. That is why, in addition to the £1.6 billion we are putting in to remove the HPL—high-pressure laminate—cladding, we have also set up a £1 billion building safety fund that has already processed over almost 3,000 claims. I sympathise very much with Dr Martin, the gentleman the right hon. and learned Gentleman mentions, and I hope very much that his particular case can be addressed in the course of the forthcoming package that will be produced by my right hon. Friends.
There are thousands and thousands of people in exactly the same position. I spoke to leaseholders caught in the middle of this on Monday. One of them was Hayley. She has already gone bankrupt, Prime Minister. She is 27. She bought a flat, she has lost it and she is now bankrupt. It is too late for her. Those leaseholders I spoke to had three very simple asks. This is what they want: immediate up-front funding for unsafe blocks; a deadline of next year to make buildings safe; and protection for leaseholders. We put those forward for a vote on Monday. The Prime Minister says he is determined to do something about it. What did he do? He ordered his MPs to abstain. If the Prime Minister is serious about moving this forward and ending this injustice, will he commit today to those simple asks from leaseholders?
We are getting on with the job of helping leaseholders across the country by remediating their buildings. In addition to the funds I have already mentioned, I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we are also introducing a £30 million fund to install alarms and other interim measures. We are making it very clear to the mortgage industry that they should support people living in such accommodation, and making it clear to all sectors in the industry that people living in such homes should not be tied up in the whole EWS1 process. That will benefit about 450,000 homeowners. I think he is right to raise the problem, but we are getting on with addressing it.
We are getting on with addressing the fundamental problem that afflicts this country and that is the covid pandemic. That is why I am pleased we have now done 10 million first vaccinations across the country. I repeat, Mr Speaker, that had we listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman we would be stuck at go. He is shaking his head, but he can check the record. Several times he said that this country should remain in the European Medicines Agency. If he wishes he can, on a point of order, correct me. He said it was wrong just now. I think he should study the record and he will find that that is exactly what he did.
We want to get this country safe again. We want schools to come back. The right hon. and learned Gentleman continues to refuse to say that schools are not safe. On the contrary, he spends his time looking at Labour focus groups, who tell him that he should stop sitting on the fence—
Order. In fairness, Prime Minister, we have to be somewhere near the question that was asked. I do not want you to go around answering every problem and issue. There are a lot more questions that will allow you to do that and the first one is from Marco Longhi.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this excellent club. I am happy to join him in paying tribute to the work of Paul Gough and Patrick Harley, and everybody at Priory Park boxing club. I know from personal experience what a huge difference it can make, not just to young people’s fitness, but to their educational success, to attend boxing clubs.
May I associate myself with your remarks, Mr Speaker, about the remarkable gentleman Captain Sir Tom Moore and everything that he has done? He has been an inspiration to each and every one of us and I send my condolences to his family and friends.
Last week, we told the Prime Minister that it was wrong for him to visit Scotland in the middle of a pandemic. We told him that it was a non-essential visit. This morning, the Daily Record newspaper revealed that the Prime Minister knew that the Livingston plant that he was visiting had an outbreak of 14 covid cases just 24 hours earlier. There are serious questions to answer. Did the Prime Minister and his advisers know about the covid outbreak? When did they know, and when did the Prime Minister make the irresponsible decision to go ahead with what was a PR stunt?
I can think of few things more important than to see the roll-out of the vaccination programme across this country, to encourage the wonderful companies who are doing great work across the whole of Scotland and to see the commitment of those Scottish scientists to helping us all to defeat the pandemic. It was fantastic to talk to them. I would just repeat that the Government remain, as I said yesterday, very willing to help Scotland with the roll-out of vaccines across the whole of the UK.
There is the wow factor once again with the Prime Minister. What an absolute shambles that he has gone to a plant where there was a covid outbreak. The Prime Minister cannot just explain away this absolutely shocking error of judgment. Anyone can see that his campaign trip to Scotland was utterly reckless. The Daily Record story is very clear. The Prime Minister and his advisers knew there was a serious covid outbreak at this plant. They knew the visit posed a risk, but they made a deliberate choice. They made the irresponsible choice. The Prime Minister put politics before public health. Prime Minister, why be so reckless? Is it any wonder that people in Scotland have no faith in this Prime Minister? Is not he the worst possible leader at the worst possible time?
I think what the people of Scotland want to see is the whole country pulling together and working to develop the vaccine, as that fantastic plant in Scotland is doing. One of the advantages of the Valneva vaccine is that it may be able to combat all sorts of variants in a very comprehensive way. It is amazing and wonderful to see Scottish scientists working to do that. I had a fantastic time. Nobody, by the way, raised that issue with me before or since, and it is my job to visit every part of this country. Nothing and no one is going to stop me, and I am very, very proud of the Government’s record in rolling out the vaccine. As I say, the offer remains open to the Scottish nationalist party. We are there—[Interruption.] Scottish National party—if they insist, though they are also nationalists, Mr Speaker. We are there to help the roll-out of the vaccine and do more, were they to decide that is necessary.
Yes, indeed. Of all the challenges now facing the country, the single most important is remedying the damage to children’s education. Yes, of course, we have to clear up the backlog in the NHS and we have problems in the courts, but it is education that is going to be the focus of this Government, and repairing the differential learning that has taken place during the crisis.
We need to be open and honest on the reasons why the Northern Ireland protocol exists, but also do all we can to make its implementation as easy as possible. So in that spirit, in the talks with the EU that will take place over the coming days, will the Prime Minister make it a priority to seek a UK-EU veterinary agreement? That would help in respect of the Northern Ireland protocol and also help all UK food exporters.
We think it is very important that the protocol should not place unnecessary barriers—or barriers of any kind—down the Irish sea. As I said to a colleague earlier, I think it was most unfortunate that the EU seemed to want to impose a barrier across the island of Ireland. We seek to make sure there are no such barriers down the Irish sea.
I will study the very interesting proposals that my hon. Friend makes, but in the meantime I will raise them particularly with the Environment Agency, which does a fantastic job in managing local areas that are prone to flooding and putting in the necessary defences. I know that colleagues across the House will have seen the work of the Environment Agency across the country, and we are making another £5.2 billion investment in traditional flood defences, which I know will benefit my hon. Friend’s constituents in Gloucestershire and across the country.
British citizenship is a wonderful thing, and it is fantastic that so many EU nationals have taken up the opportunity to become British in the course of the last few years. I am interested in the point that the hon. Lady makes and I will study it, but clearly there are costs that must be borne by the taxpayer. I think she will appreciate that citizenship at any time of life is a very considerable prize and worth investing in.
I thank my right hon. Friend, who is a long-standing and redoubtable campaigner for law and order and for the police. I also congratulate the PCC, Matthew Scott, on what he is doing to back the police and to recruit more police in Kent. That is why we are putting another 20,000 more officers on the streets of this country, and I think we have already recruited about 6,000.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what she does to champion this very, very important cause. It is Children’s Mental Health Week this week, and partly in recognition of the extent of the problem and the issue across the whole of the country, we have announced a new youth mental health ambassador, Dr Alex George, who will be working with the Government to underline the importance of mental health resilience and making everybody in our country better able to deal with some of the problems that life throws in our way.
I utterly share the hon. Gentleman’s frustration about the way in which the EU, particularly the EU Commission, temporarily seemed to use the protocol in such a way as to impose a border, contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday agreement—contrary to the letter of the Good Friday agreement. We will do everything we need to do, whether legislatively or indeed by invoking article 16 of the protocol, to ensure that there is no barrier down the Irish sea and that the hon. Gentleman’s business constituents, some of whom I know very well and admire very much, can continue to do business, unfettered, between Northern Ireland and the rest of this country.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. We will continue to monitor all the evidence about the efficacy of vitamin D and the treatment that he mentions. I am well aware of it; indeed, we have discussed it before personally. I will keep him updated on the review that is taking place.
I appreciate the desire of the hon. Lady to find a solution. I am aware of the problem she refers to and the flooding in the tunnels. We will certainly work with Lancashire County Council to mitigate the problem—to sort it out. To repeat: we have the funds available and will make sure that it is done.
I thank my hon. Friend, who is a fantastic advocate for the people of Workington and never fails to put their interests before me. I will do everything I can to help him and will check my diary commitments to see when I can get there. I hope it will be as soon as possible.
I pass on my sympathies to all those affected by the outbreak of covid that the hon. Gentleman describes. The most important thing we can do is continue to roll out the vaccination programme. We want to get to key workers, such as postal workers, as fast as we possibly can. We are already at 10 million across the whole country. We have got to get through JCVI groups 1 to 9, the most vulnerable groups. Postal workers over 50 will certainly be included in those. After that, we want to get down to all key workers who come into regular contact with others who may be exposed to the virus.
The Prime Minister will be aware that the second wave of coronavirus has had a significant impact on the mental wellbeing of frontline nurses and doctors, with many in critical care units facing continuous shifts with dismal survival rates, causing a level of psychological harm that may result in post-traumatic stress disorder. With that in mind, will he look at utilising the military understanding of that condition, and urgently invest in training sufficient numbers of psychology professionals to support our heroic nurses and doctors fighting on the frontline of this battle against covid-19?
My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point about PTSD in the NHS, and NHS staff, who do an amazing job treating us all. I will certainly look at the particular recommendation that she now makes; but clearly, as part of the £52 billion package of investment in the NHS that we have been making in the last year, we will be ensuring that we support the mental health of staff working on the frontline, and making sure that they have all the health and wellbeing helplines, all the advice and counselling, that they need to get through what has been, for all of them, a really difficult time.
I do not think anybody wants to take any lectures on speed of roll-out or delivery of programmes from the Scottish nationalist party, but I want the hon. Lady to know that the Government will be very happy to help with accelerating the roll-out of the vaccine programme, as we said yesterday. The offer is there. The vaccination of the people of this country is the single most important thing that we need to do now, together, to beat this pandemic.
Millions of leaseholders are living in fear because they have no idea how safe their buildings are, and they are also facing staggering bills that they cannot afford. Can the Prime Minister assure me that leaseholders will not have to pay to fix these historic fire safety defects, and rule out loans to leaseholders, which are not a solution?
As I said earlier on, we are absolutely clear that leaseholders should not have to worry about the costs of fixing historic safety defects that they did not cause. But I appreciate the sympathy and care with which my hon. Friend represents their interests.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about online fraud, which is becoming an increasing concern of the Government. People across the country must be vigilant. As he suggests, we will look at what we can do with the online harms Bill or any other measures to protect people, particularly pensioners, against fraudsters online.
Yes, Mr Speaker. If it assists the House, perhaps I could help to correct the record. On 31 January 2017, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) said to the House, as recorded in Hansard:
“Why would we want to be outside the European Medicines Agency, which ensures that all medicines in the EU market are safe and effective?”—[Official Report, 31 January 2017; Vol. 620, c. 827.]