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Commons Chamber

Volume 688: debated on Wednesday 3 February 2021

House of Commons

Wednesday 3 February 2021

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

Oral Answers to Questions


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

What discussions he has had with the Minister for Vaccine Deployment on the delivery of covid-19 vaccines to Wales. (911545)

What discussions he has had with the (a) Minister for Vaccine Deployment, (b) Secretary of State for Defence and (c) Welsh Government on the delivery of covid-19 vaccines to Wales. (911547)

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 logistical expertise of Her Majesty’s armed forces is second to none. What role are defence personnel playing in the vaccine roll-out in Wales?

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

What recent discussions he has had with (a) the Welsh Government and (b) Cabinet colleagues on the UK shared prosperity fund. (911546)

What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of Wales on the UK shared prosperity fund. (911565)

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

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on support for people in Wales whose employment has been adversely affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (911548)

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.

Fiscal Settlement

What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the adequacy of the fiscal settlement. (911549)

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

The Wales Office recognises the importance of apprenticeships and the opportunity they provide. We have funded dedicated apprenticeship roles since 2011 and continue to be fully committed to the apprenticeship scheme.

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

We have agreed a deal that provides Welsh business with exceptional access to the EU market. It is the first time ever that the EU has agreed a zero-tariff, zero-quota deal.

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.

Prime Minister

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 join the Prime Minister in his moving words about Captain Sir Tom Moore, who was an inspiration to each and every one of us in this country and beyond. The Priory Park boxing club in Dudley has produced many champions, including Ryan Aston, who became champion five times in this country. Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to Paul Gough at the club, who is working with young boys and girls who have been excluded from mainstream education? Will he also pay tribute to the council leader Patrick Harley, who has agreed to and is supporting a new school, in partnership with the club, to ensure that these young people will get academic qualifications as well as increased strength, belief and new opportunities for the future? (911905)

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.

Closing the attainment gap has always been at the heart of our education policy, yet we know that the pandemic is having a devastating effect on our children’s education. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to prioritise the opening of our schools, but would he also agree that we must put the catch-up of children’s missed education at the centre of our recovery programme? (911909)

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.

Some of my constituents had their Christmases ruined because the heavy rainfall and local inappropriate development caused foul water to enter their homes, causing them great difficulties. Will the Prime Minister appoint a statutory body with the specific and undeniable responsibility of ensuring that no development can automatically tap into existing drainage systems, and that before developments begin, a full assessment is made of the local drainage capacity and if that capacity would be inadequate, the development does not begin until the infrastructure is upgraded? (911911)

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.

The Prime Minister was not born in this country, and my parents were not born in this country; I was, but we are all British. There are, however, hundreds of thousands of children, including in my constituency, who, like us, were born or raised here and are entitled to citizenship but are being priced out by the £1,012 fee. Without citizenship, they face barriers to university, work, healthcare, renting a home or opening a bank account. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is wrong that the Government make a 60% profit on these applications, and will he take steps to reduce or even end citizenship fees for children? (911906)

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.

The police are one of our public services that has been absolutely essential during the pandemic, so will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that the Kent police and crime commissioner, Matthew Scott, has announced another 145 police officers during this year, bringing the total to 800 extra police on the streets of Kent? Most importantly, this has been accompanied by a reduction of 17,000 in the crime numbers in Kent this year. (911912)

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.

Last week, the Government responded to concerns from our care workers by stating:“We are immensely proud of all our care workers do”.That is a sentiment we all share, yet in the very same statement the Government sought to pass the buck for the way our care workers have been treated by saying:“The vast majority of care workers are employed by private sector providers”and that“the Government does not set levels of pay for care workers”.Why will this Government not commit to ensuring that our care workers are paid a wage they can live on? (911907)

This Government are proud of not only setting up the national living wage, but making sure we had record-breaking increases both last year and this year. That is the most important thing we can do for care workers and workers across the country.

I thank the Prime Minister for prioritising schools during this pandemic. Will he confirm that that remains the case? In Children’s Mental Health Week, will he work with parents and frontline children’s charities to minimise the disruption to children and their mental health caused by this pandemic? (911915)

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.

May I, too, express condolences to the family of Captain Sir Tom Moore, an inspirational and wonderful gentleman?Prime Minister, you say that your commitment to Northern Ireland is “unshakeable”. I speak for all of my constituents today when I tell you that the protocol has betrayed us and has made us feel like foreigners in our own country. Tea and sympathy will not cut the mustard, so, Prime Minister, what are you actually going to do when you realise that the EU will do nothing to help Northern Ireland? Will you use all of the instruments at your disposal? Will you use, if necessary, your parliamentary majority? Will you legislate, if necessary, to remove the impediments to trade in Northern Ireland? Will you be a man of your word and allow businessmen in my constituency to bin the unnecessary documentation that you told us we could bin? Prime Minister, be the Unionist we need you to be. (911908)

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.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his calm handling of the European Commission’s misbehaviour over vaccines and Northern Ireland? Nevertheless, we can learn something from our European friends. Andalucia, a Spanish province of 8 million people, had a covid death rate of about 190 deaths per million in November—higher than ours at the time. After giving activated vitamin D—calcifediol—to care home residents and some GP patients, that death rate almost halved, whilst ours was doubling. Will he ask his advisers to look urgently again at the very latest Spanish research about that cheap, safe and apparently effective treatment? (911917)

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.

Skelmersdale residents believe that they are an island of forgotten people. It is a ’60s new town, with very poor public transport and one of the lowest levels of car and vehicle ownership. For many, the only means of getting to doctors, schools or shops or visiting loved ones is through some of the 87 underpasses, many of which flood every time there is rain. Will the right hon. Gentleman ask his officials to work with Lancashire County Council to find and fund a permanent—and I do mean permanent—solution, which does not involve providing canoes? (911910)

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.

We were delighted to hear that Maryport, in my constituency of Workington, was successful in our bid for the future high streets fund, one of my right hon. Friend’s 50 additional towns announced last August—a bid that I led when I was deputy leader of Allerdale Borough Council. We are hoping, too, for a positive outcome to our towns fund bid for Workington. May I take the opportunity to thank my right hon. Friend for all he is doing for my constituents and in levelling up across the United Kingdom, and invite him, as soon as he is able, to visit my constituency to see for himself its potential? (911918)

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.

The delivery of important letters, packets and parcels in the Caernarfon area has been delayed for days and weeks by a covid outbreak amongst local postal workers. The Prime Minister will, I am sure, join me in wishing my constituents a speedy recovery, but what are his Government doing, during this health crisis, to ensure that the once world-beating but now privatised Royal Mail is sufficiently robust to fulfil its duty to the public, particularly in rural areas? (911913)

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.

Yesterday, the Scottish Government announced that they would go further than the Prime Minister and introduce a comprehensive system of supervised quarantine for those entering the country. It is evidently clear that countries that have employed effective international quarantine measures are now reaping the rewards of reopening their economies and reducing the unnecessary loss of life. Faced with the overwhelming evidence that importing new cases of variants could undermine our efforts again, why is the Prime Minister watching, waiting and hoping for the best, when we know that his dithering on crucial decisions has already had catastrophic consequences? (911914)

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.

It has been estimated that 40,000 people were scammed out of their pensions in the five years after the pension freedoms took effect in 2015; attractive deals on Google or Facebook turn out all too often to be a fraud. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the planned online harms Bill tackles online financial harms, to address this very serious problem? (911916)

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.

Don’t forget that the Prime Minister is asking the country to get together and clap at six o’clock.

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.]

Order. We are not continuing the debate. That correction will be on the record, but I am not reopening the debate.

I am suspending the House for a few minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.

Support for University Students: Covid-19

(Urgent Question) To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on support for university students as a result of the pandemic.

The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) is an assiduous campaigner for students and has spoken to me many times on the topic. I agree with him on how incredibly difficult this time has been for students, given the unprecedented disruption caused by the global pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic, I have been working with the universities to prevent students from getting into hardship. We have worked with the Office for Students to allow flexibility in the spending of £256 million of student premium money, enabling it to be spent in relation to hardship, mental health and digital poverty. In December we announced an initial £20 million of additional student hardship funding, and yesterday I announced £50 million, taking the total funding available to £70 million for the remainder of this financial year. My focus as Universities Minister has always been to work with the sector to make sure that the right support gets to the students who need it the most, and the new student hardship funding will really benefit those students by putting money into their pockets.

Providers will have flexibility in how they distribute the funding to their students in a way that is best prioritised to meet the greatest needs. Given that we have asked the majority of students not to return to their university term-time accommodation in this lockdown, support might include help for students facing additional costs arising from having to maintain accommodation in more than one location, or assistance for students to access teaching remotely. The funding can be distributed to a wide population of students, including postgraduates and international students. The House can be assured that we will continue to monitor the impact this funding is having on students.

Also, because of the changing position on face-to-face teaching and the occupation of accommodation, student maintenance loan entitlement for the current term will not be reassessed if students are still incurring accommodation costs away from home. This means that students in receipt of the away-from-home loan rate will retain the maintenance loan paid at the start of the spring term.

The Government recognise that many students are facing additional mental health challenges due to the pandemic, and at every stage I have reinforced to providers the importance of prioritising mental health. I have established the higher education mental health and wellbeing working group, and I have worked with the Office for Students to provide Student Space, which has funding of up to £3 million.

I agree that the pandemic has been tough on young people, particularly students. The £70 million that we have allocated to student hardship for the remainder of this financial year will help those students who are most in need because of the pandemic.

We agree that students are being hit by the pandemic. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for students, I spent January with Members from both sides of the House, including two of the Minister’s Conservative predecessors, taking evidence from students, universities and landlords. We reported to Government saying that they should substantially increase hardship support; at least double the student premium funding of £256 million, which was intended for other purposes; enable full rent refunds for unused accommodation; and address lost education. The Government have recognised the problems, but they have failed on the solutions.

The Minister will know that, for many students, the maintenance loan does not even cover rent. They fund their studies from part-time work in hospitality and retail jobs, which have disappeared through the pandemic. The new hardship fund equates to around £26 per student in England, or the wages for half a shift in a bar job, but Wales and Scotland have provided hardship funding of around £300 and £80 per student. Does the Minister not accept that students across the country deserve the same level of support?

Many students have contracted for accommodation that they have been told not to use. The Minister has congratulated universities and providers that have offered rent rebates, but the amounts vary, and many students have received nothing. Does she accept the inequity, particularly between students in university accommodation and students in the private rented sector? What will she do beyond simply encouraging providers to do better?

The Minister’s statement is silent on learning loss. Universities and their staff have worked hard to offer the very best education, but it cannot match normal learning. For some students, progression or professional qualification will be damaged. We were told of lost teaching, lost access to labs and specialist facilities, lost field trips and more, so will she commit to discussing a learning remediation fund with the Chancellor? If not, what steps will she take to ensure that today’s students are not held back? Finally, will she join us in asking UK Research and Innovation to extend research studentships where needed? Will she also provide support for postgraduate research students, who are funded differently?

Students have had their education disrupted, they will enter a challenging jobs market, and they will be paying the cost of the pandemic for longer than the rest of us. They deserve better.

As I said in my statement, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this has been a really difficult and challenging time for students. I commend them for the resilience they have shown, and I welcome the APPG’s report.

The package we announced yesterday will help thousands of students, with money going directly into the pockets of those who most need it because of the impact of the pandemic. This is £70 million for three months alone, on top of the £256 million and the additional support that universities have been giving. Yes, we do continue to urge all accommodation providers to give refunds to students, and more are doing so every day.

On catching up, my main priority is to ensure that all graduates can graduate on time with a world-class degree that can unlock their future. Of course, we will continue to monitor the situation and ensure that students are not left in hardship as a result of the pandemic. This Government’s priority remains education, and we made it so that higher education students do not have to put their academic journey or their life on hold.

I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for his urgent question, and I look forward to meeting him. I welcome what the Minister has said and her action to protect students. Will she wipe away bureaucracy so that students who are not getting proper quality blended learning can make representations to their university and to the Office for Students, and can be compensated if it is found that their £9,000-plus loan is not providing value for money? Will she ensure that she supports part-time distance learners with maintenance support? Will she also take the opportunity to rocket-boost degree apprenticeships to provide a ladder of opportunity for the disadvantaged, meet our skills needs and help employability at this tough time in the jobs market?

As always, my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Education Committee remains committed to social mobility and to ensuring that no student slips down the ladder of opportunity—a passion that I share with him. I can reassure him that the Government are committed to reducing bureaucracy in our higher education sector, as well as to making our further and higher education systems much more flexible and boosting the number of degree apprenticeships.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for raising this important issue. The Minister mentioned the £50 million that she announced yesterday but can she guarantee that it is entirely new money and not recycled from a previous cut to student support? Will she confirm that it amounts to around £26 for each student studying in England, and that in Wales the Labour Government have provided an additional £300 per student? Why does she think that students in England need less support than those elsewhere in the UK?

Students face challenges that the Government’s response has simply not begun to address. Many universities have done the right thing to support students with their accommodation costs, but can the Minister tell us what discussions she has had with private landlords about providing more support for students? Will she also give details of the support in place for postgraduate students?

With the majority of students learning remotely, digital access is more important than ever, but we know that many students lack such access. Can the Minister tell us how many students cannot access remote learning and what her Department is doing about that? What is she doing to make sure that all universities are making reasonable adjustments to ensure that disabled students can continue their studies?

Finally, is the Minister confident that students who are struggling with their mental health can fully access all the support and services that they need? Yesterday, I met students who feel simply forgotten by the Government. Ministers’ incompetent response to the pandemic has robbed them of their university experience. They are isolated at home without support, while paying for accommodation that they are forbidden to use, and seeing their future placements, jobs and opportunities disappear. It is utterly devastating and utterly unjust, and the Minister must make it her priority to put that right.

I can indeed confirm that this is new money. It is not right to break it down per student, because it is dedicated to those students who are most in need. The difference from the funding in Wales and Scotland is that this funding is for until the end of the financial year—in effect, just for the next three months.

This Government are concerned about digital poverty, and the Secretary of State for Education commissioned a review by the Office for Students, which is shortly to report—this month, I believe. Mental health is a priority of mine, and it is why we worked with the OfS to set up Student Space. It is why at every single stage I have reiterated the importance of mental health and wellbeing provision, and communication with university students, because this is a difficult and challenging time. Unlike the hon. Lady, who told her party activists to use the crisis a political opportunity, our priority is to ensure that the opportunities of our young people are safeguarded and that students are not left in hardship because of the pandemic.

I welcome the opportunity to take part in the urgent question. Many of my constituents went off to university last year eager and in anticipation of being able to learn at world-class universities. It is welcome to hear that they have been awarded rent rebates where possible, but many of them now feel short-changed. Does the Minister agree that more pressure must be put on those universities that are failing to meet the standards of educational requirement for those students, so that value for money for all students can be delivered?

I agree with my hon. Friend. We have made it very clear to universities that the quality, quantity and accessibility of tuition need to be maintained. I commend the work that has been done by lecturers and university support staff to achieve that goal. The Office for Students is monitoring this and I recently wrote to it to make sure that it continues to do so.

An NUS survey has found that two thirds of students are worried about rent payments. To be clear, the £50 million that the Government have announced will not even cover a month of rent for those currently in arrears. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government have set aside six times more per student, a far more substantial £30 million for rent and hardship support. Despite that, Tories at Holyrood have continued to demand rent rebates for students. Does the Minister agree with her colleagues at Holyrood and, if so, what additional funding will she make available for those rent rebates? Students in Scotland can also give early notice on fixed-term tenancies. Will the Government introduce similar measures for students in England?

Scottish Tories have now adopted a policy of free tuition. Having seen the financial stress suffered by students throughout this pandemic, does the Minister agree that it is time for this Tory Government to adopt the policy of their Scotland branch and scrap fees for university tuition?

The hon. Member’s suggestion of scrapping fees would not put money into the pockets of students today. It would not help them with the hardship that they are facing as a result of the pandemic. Instead, that is exactly what we have done, with £70 million spread over just three months. We are also urging all accommodation providers to refund students for this period of time, so, no, we will not be adhering to her request.

Does my hon. Friend agree that in these difficult times it is the responsibility of every university to do its best for its students? Does she also agree that, by providing campus access where appropriate, 500 new laptops, hot food deliveries to many residential students, 1,000 free bicycles for students so that they can avoid public transport and keep fit, and by operating a no-academic detriment policy and free post-graduation practicals for missed classes, the University of Bolton is setting the standard?

I thank my hon. Friend for again highlighting to me the fantastic work that the University of Bolton is doing. Like many of our world-class universities, it has a reputation for supporting students not just with their education, but with their wellbeing. I thank all the staff at the University of Bolton for the work that they continue to do.

The Minister announced support of £50 million, but the National Union of Students estimates that a month of rent arrears alone could account for £60 million. That does not allow for loss of employment, the cost of accessing remote education, or even just buying food. So what consultation did the Government carry out with students and representative bodies to ensure that the size and scope of this support will actually meet their needs?

This hardship fund is on top of the £256 million that we unlocked for universities and higher education providers to utilise for this academic year, and it will help those most in need. It does not provide a blanket rent rebate. But I regularly meet students across England and from different bodies to ensure that we are giving them the support that they need.

Many of the halls of residence of Southampton University fall within my constituency. The students there deserve and expect a quantity and quality of education that is commensurate with what they would be receiving if they had online classes. Can my hon. Friend confirm what pressure she is bringing to bear on all universities to make sure that our students are receiving the education for which they are paying?

I agree with my right hon. Friend because online does not have to mean inferior, which is exactly why universities have invested a great deal of time and money to produce innovative and dynamic tuition. We are clear that every student deserves to receive quality, quantity and accessibility in terms of their tuition and this is being actively monitored by the Office for Students.

What is the Minister doing to support the many thousands of students who rely on part-time work to help them through their university life, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds? According to the NUS survey, 9% of young people are relying on foodbanks. Although the £50 million is welcome, it is not enough. Will the Minister today commit to substantially increasing that amount so that our students can survive and thrive during this pandemic?

I agree that we want every student to thrive throughout this pandemic, and past it. As I have said, this amount is on top of the £256 million for this academic year. We are actively monitoring the impact of this money, which only goes up to April, so that we can ensure that the best support is there for all students.

I welcome the funding package that the Minister unveiled yesterday. Will she confirm that she remains confident that teaching and learning environments are covid-secure for those students who do return to university? Also, in this time of heightened risk of transmission, surely it is right to reduce the numbers of people who travel to and from campus.

My right hon. Friend touches on a really important point. We have only asked a small cohort of students to go back to university, not because face-to-face teaching is unsafe—in fact, public health information tells us that that is not the case at all—but because we are concerned about mass movement and community transmission in general. In addition, we are testing students and staff on a weekly basis, and in most universities twice a week.

I declare for the record that there are three people living in my house at the moment who should be away at university right now; one of them is in private accommodation, paying £150 a week for a property that they have not lived in for two months, and they have no idea when they may be able to return to it. What would the Minister tell them about why they should continue to pay rent for a property that they have no opportunity to use at the moment?

Obviously it is a really difficult time for the hon. Member’s child; I feel exceptionally sorry for them. It is one of the awful ramifications of the pandemic that they are not able to access face-to-face teaching. This Government are committed to prioritising education and getting them back as quickly as possible, in line with the road map that the Prime Minister announced last week. We have this hardship funding available for those who are most in need and those who need help. I also urge the hon. Member’s loved one to contact their accommodation provider to see what flexibility it could provide.

Many students in my North Devon constituency are facing additional costs for alternative accommodation, loss of employment or to access their university teaching online. Does my hon. Friend agree that the extra £70 million of funding that has been made available will deliver real, tangible help for students who are struggling financially as a result of the pandemic?

Absolutely; I completely agree. That is exactly why we unlocked £256 million for this academic year, why we gave £20 million in December and why we have announced £50 million now. This will put money into the pockets of the students who are most in need as a result of the pandemic.

My constituents who are students have faced significant challenges with private landlords, digital access and learning generally. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) is absolutely right to ask this urgent question—thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting it—and why my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) is right to say that students feel utterly forgotten. Will the Minister tell us what steps she is taking to actually listen to the experiences of students through this pandemic?

It is vital that we listen to the experiences of students. That is why I regularly meet the NUS, and student unions in universities up and down the country. I also regularly meet the Office for Students student panel, and engage with students on a range of student media and chat forums. I will continue to do so because students need to be at the heart of our policy making and decision making, and it is their futures that we need to safeguard.

I thank my hon. Friend for her statement  and I welcome the £70 million to alleviate student hardship. I have been contacted by several students in Hertford and Stortford about the financial struggles they face. Can my hon. Friend reaffirm what she has previously said—that universities should treat students with the care and consideration they deserve during this difficult time? What does she advise students to do if that should not seem to be the case?

My hon. Friend is spot on: universities do have a duty of care, and it is important that they are communicating with and looking after the wellbeing of students during this challenging time. Useful information and best practice have been circulated by Universities UK and the Office for Students. If a student really does have a concern, they should raise it directly with their university, go through the complaints process and then potentially escalate it to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

Here in South Yorkshire, our two world-leading universities are doing everything they can to support students through the crisis. But writing in The Yorkshire Post today, the vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University rightly calls for a “massive increase” in the hardship payment to up to £200 million to help those students who are struggling. What guarantees can the Minister give that further help for these disadvantaged students is on the way?

As I have said many times today, this support is available until April. We are actively monitoring the impact on students, to ensure that every student who needs the help can get it and that they have that money in their pockets, so that they do not face challenges as the pandemic progresses.

The Government set the maximum amount that universities can charge for tuition fees during normal times. Is it not therefore the responsibility of Government to set the maximum amount that universities can charge during this covid-19 period, when students are not getting the education or the experience they have paid for because of Government restrictions?

We will continue to monitor the situation. However, it is important to note that reducing tuition fees would not put money into students’ pockets here and now, and 50% of students do not pay back their loaned amount. What is important is ensuring that students get the quantity, the quality and the accessibility of tuition in these really difficult and challenging times.[Official Report, 2 March 2021, Vol. 690, c. 2MC.]

A lot of students in Selly Oak live in private houses in multiple occupation, as well as purpose-built accommodation. The Guild of Students is calling for full rent rebates until the Government deem it safe to return to university and a no-penalty release from existing tenancy contracts. Does the Minister agree?

The Prime Minister announced a road map for unlocking society and our education the other week, including getting students back from 8 March if the health information allows it; that is our priority. We urge those students who are suffering financially because they are in private accommodation and unable to access refunds to contact their university, so that they can apply for the hardship funding that we have given.

I welcome the Government’s commitment of £70 million to support students impacted by this lockdown. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as the vaccine is rolled out and we are able to ease restrictions, nothing is more important than getting our undergraduates back to their universities?

We made education a priority, which includes higher education, so that students do not have to put their academic journeys or their lives on hold, and we kept a proportion of face-to-face learning going for as long as we could. I agree with my hon. Friend: I want university students back as soon as it is safe to do so, and we have a road map laid out by the Prime Minister last week to enable us to do that.

I declare an interest, as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary university group. Students have had a dreadful time throughout this pandemic, and they have had it from all sides. On accommodation in particular, I commend the work of the Stirling students’ union and Stirling University. Stirling University has taken the financial hit from students for empty university accommodation. What discussions has the Minister had with universities and the devolved Administrations to provide additional funding to universities to recognise the financial hit that they have taken so that students do not need to?

Education is of course devolved, but I meet on a weekly basis with my counterpart in Scotland, Minister Lochhead. We discuss the issue of accommodation almost every week, and the other pressures that students are facing, in order to have a joined-up and co-ordinated approach that is really getting to the heart of the problems that universities and students are facing.

The £70 million support fund for students facing financial difficulties is very welcome, and I congratulate Ministers on once again stepping in to protect those most in need. However, a number of my Orpington constituents have told me how their studies have been drastically impacted by the pandemic. Will my hon. Friend update the House on what discussions have been held with universities about full or partial refunds for tuition and accommodation fees in this academic year?

I agree with my hon. Friend: this is a really difficult and challenging time for students, and my heart goes out to all of them. We as a Government set the maximum tuition fee level, not the minimum, and it is up to universities to decide what to charge. Every single one of them has continued to charge the maximum during this pandemic, and in return we have said that we expect the quantity, quality and accessibility of provision to be there. If a student feels that it is not, there is a process whereby they can make a formal complaint to their university, and if the issue is still not resolved, they can take it to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, which can potentially lead to a full or partial refund.

I echo the excellent point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green): it is absolutely vital that no student is disadvantaged if they choose to study outside of their home country. Yet the UK Government’s recent £50 million extension designed to support students will actually leave Welsh students studying in England significantly worse off than English students studying in Wales. As a Member representing an area in Wales, I have concerns both for students at the local University of South Wales campus here in Pontypridd and constituents who are now studying across the UK. Will the Minister confirm exactly what discussions she has had with the Welsh Government about supporting Welsh students who are studying in England?

Just to clarify, the hardship funding, at every stage, is applicable to international students, students from Wales who study here in England, and indeed Scottish students studying in England. I am happy to clarify that for all the hon. Lady’s constituents who may be studying at an English university.

I have been seeking to support a number of students in my constituency who are doing as they have been asked and staying at home but find themselves locked into tenancy agreements and paying rent on accommodation they cannot use. While it is welcome that some universities and accommodation providers are providing partial rebates to students, too many still are not. Will the Minister join me in urging all those accommodation providers to show some flexibility and provide a partial rent rebate wherever possible?

Absolutely; I totally agree with my hon. Friend. This is a difficult time for students, and we do urge all providers of university accommodation to give a partial refund for this period in which students cannot all access their accommodation. A few that have done this so far include Warwick, Nottingham, Sheffield, LSE and Exeter—the list goes on—but we want others to contribute too.

I was delighted to hear that the Minister has regular discussions with the devolved Education Ministers, because although it is devolved, higher education is an area where there is an interchange of students from different parts of the UK. Can she assure me that in these discussions they will look at every aspect of student life that has been detrimentally impacted by the pandemic, including mental health, finances, and the disruption to their academic results?

In every conversation that I have with my counterparts in the DAs, we certainly do look at all the issues affecting students, and also universities, at this difficult time.

I welcome the extra £50 million of funding announced yesterday for universities, which will help thousands of students facing financial difficulties because of coronavirus. Can the Minister confirm that this funding will be focused on support for the most disadvantaged students, including many from High Peak, who have been badly hit by the pandemic?

I can, indeed. I urge all students, including those who originate from High Peak, who have been disadvantaged by the pandemic and find themselves in hardship, to approach their university and apply for this fund, which is exactly designed to target those who have found themselves in hardship and to put money in their pockets and assist them at this difficult time.

The Minister will know of the magnificent efforts of student doctors, nurses and many other healthcare students who are working in NHS covid wards as part of their studies. I am incredibly proud of the students from the University of Hull who have stepped up in this pandemic, often moving to the frontline early and putting themselves at risk. Along with the president of Hull University Students’ Union, Phoebe Bastiani, I have written to the Government asking for a reduction in healthcare students’ debt to recognise their contribution to the national effort against covid-19. Will the Minister look again at this proposal?

I could not agree more regarding the fantastic contribution that our nursing and medical students have made throughout this pandemic. We owe them so much. I work closely with the Department of Health and Social Care on this very topic. These students are eligible for payment during their placement and access to the NHS pension, and the placement also contributes towards their degree. There are no current plans by the Government to reimburse the fees for these students.

Can I ask the Minister to say a few more words about the quality of teaching that is being provided? She said in her earlier answers that the Office for Students was monitoring the quality of that education carefully. I have looked at its website, but what it does not seem to do is publish any information on what it is finding about the quality of that education. Can she update the House, based on her conversations with the Office for Students, about her assessment of the extent to which universities are maintaining the quality of the education they are delivering?

University lecturers and university support staff have worked really hard to maintain the quality of provision, but I am under no illusions about the fact that some students feel they are not getting that quality or that quantity, and that is exactly why we have a process in place. That includes monitoring by the Office for Students, and the fact that students or parents—or teachers, in fact—can report concerns that they have to the Office for Students to review them. I will speak to the Office for Students about the transparency and approach of its findings.

Students feel abandoned by this Government. They have had a terrible experience during the pandemic not only with disrupted studies, but with many facing serious hardship. The new hardship funds are welcome, but they are nowhere near enough, particularly if the Minister expects them to be used if students have trouble paying rents in the private sector too. I hope she is hearing that loudly and clearly from all parts of this House. The hardship funds need to be increased by far more. Applying the Welsh model would suggest a figure of about £700 million for England. Can she explain why students in England are getting a deal that is so much worse than that of their colleagues in Wales?

The funding we have announced is for three months only—that is, £70 million spread over three months. It is my understanding that it is not the same case in Wales. That is in addition to the £256 million that we unlocked, and also on top of that is the money that universities themselves have allocated.

I also welcome the additional funds that were announced yesterday, which will undoubtedly go a long way to helping those in the greatest financial need. But I have heard from many of my constituents who are students at institutions across the country about their continuing to be burdened with the high cost of accommodation, while it is the state that demands they stay at their parental home. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that this is fundamentally a question of fairness? What more can she do to fix that imbalance both for students and for institutions and landlords, as this is not their fault either?

We continue to monitor the situation to see how long this will last and the impact the money we have allocated is having on students. Our priority was to put money into the pockets of those most in need and those who have been impacted the most by this pandemic, but I am more than happy to continue talking to my hon. Friend and any other colleague on this very subject.

I think we should start with a word of congratulations to all the students for putting up with what has been a very challenging situation and encourage them by reminding them that they will get through this, and that they will be tomorrow’s generation of leaders in our nation. With students paying rent and rates for digs not being used, being charged full fees for courses that are taught online, and having unpaid loans, mounting debt, and fear for their futures, does the Minister agree that they must not be economically punished as a result of this awful pandemic? We must give them hope, give them help and make sure that this debt is cancelled.

We continue to monitor the situation, but removing the debt would not help students here and now, who we know are facing challenges as a result of this pandemic. That needs to be our priority, so that they can continue to study. They can then qualify in those subjects and go on to the rest of their lives. As I have said to other colleagues, I am more than happy to talk to the hon. Member about this subject.

I very much welcome this important support package to help our students in these difficult times. As someone who has worked in higher education for many years, both teaching and supporting students, I know first-hand the stresses and strains our students face, and not least the mental health issues many experience. That has been brought into sharp relief in the pandemic. Can my hon. Friend reassure students and their families that institutions are providing suitable mental health and pastoral support to students both onsite and remotely, and that the Government are working to help institutions to do that?

This is something I am particularly passionate about. At every stage, I have reiterated to institutions the importance of mental health and wellbeing provision, and moving that online. Equally, I know that higher education institutions are passionate about providing that level of support. We have worked with the Office for Students to launch Student Space, which is a £3 million project designed specifically to fill in some of the gaps that may have been exposed during the pandemic. I have established a higher education working group to ensure that students are aware of the support available and to boost it.

The Government’s support package is welcome, but the Minister will be aware that many stakeholders do not think it goes far enough. There is a particular issue about students being required to pay full fees for courses that are nowhere near the quality and content of the course experience they would get if they were actually attending university. The Minister has said that individual students can take their concerns to the Office for Students, but this is a systemic problem. Rather than relying on individual students taking up their concerns, why do the Government not take responsibility themselves for ascertaining whether students are being offered full value in particular courses and universities, and take steps to make sure that students get a rebate?

I have seen many examples of innovative and dynamic tuition throughout this period, but we have been clear that we expect quality, quantity and accessibility. I know that some will feel they have not got that, and that is why the process is designed to look at individual student cases on a case-by-case basis.

I welcome the additional money that the Government are providing today, but given that nearly all our universities charge the maximum fee every year, they all should be able to provide at least some support to ease the burden on students at this time. Part of the reason that they are not all doing so is that some of them went into the pandemic with finances that were not quite working, whether because their administration costs were too high or they were overly reliant on international student fees. Does my hon. Friend agree that when we get to the other side of the pandemic, some universities need to look at how they can be more financially resilient, so that they can all provide the support that students deserve?

Our information shows that the sector has been working hard and taking strong action to control costs, protect its cashflow and put in place contingency loan facilities to deal with the pandemic. A recent report in December by the Office for Students showed that the sector in aggregate was in fact healthy.

Newham Community Project in my constituency is supporting 1,700 destitute overseas students with weekly food parcels. Those students have paid us a great compliment by choosing Britain to provide them with education and many of them have paid £12,000 a year or more in fees; they should not now be left now without food. Who has the duty of care for those overseas students?

We know that the pandemic has had an impact on student finances, including those of international students. Let me be clear: no students, no matter their origin, should be left in hardship. That is why the £256 million, the £20 million in December and the £50 million that we announced yesterday can be used for international students. I urge any students who find themselves in hardship to go to their university and seek help.

I welcome the extra £50 million to help those most in need and the Minister’s call for accommodation providers to give rent rebates. However, when a service is not delivered as expected, the customer is entitled to a refund or credit, so is it not time that universities did the right thing and gave students a fair deal, with rebates on fees where students are not getting the quality of teaching they are paying for, and did so without students having to navigate an appeals process that was not designed for this situation?

I have been clear throughout the pandemic that consumer law has not changed, and Competition and Markets Authority statements confirm that fact and the law’s applicability to students. I have been clear that providers should review whether students have received the teaching and assessment they were promised and have regard to the guidance on their consumer protection obligations. The guidance from the CMA for students is available.

It is completely unfair that teenagers just starting out in adult life are being expected to cover the cost of rental accommodation that they cannot even use in this pandemic. Will the Minister come up with an arrangement with landlords to allow students to leave or renegotiate contracts, and introduce means-tested maintenance grants to give the covid cohort some relief from the hardships they are bearing?

We urge all accommodation providers, especially the large providers, to be as flexible as they possibly can and to have students’ best interests at heart, and we have seen the likes of Unite come forward and do that. The hardship funding we have allocated will help those who find themselves in hardship and not able to access any flexibility from their accommodation provider.

Many of the students from Blackpool who are attending university will come from some of the poorest households in the entire country and will now face various additional costs relating to accommodation, access to learning materials and the loss of earnings. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that the additional support, which is to be welcomed, is focused on those who really need it?

The money that we have allocated will go to the Office for Students and then be allocated to universities, which we believe are best placed to make those decisions. Students should go to their university to raise concerns regarding hardship. The money provided is designed to put funds into the pockets of those who most need it now, as a direct result of the pandemic.

Students are understandably incredibly anxious about how the courses they are taking will be taught and assessed and how the pandemic will have a detrimental impact not just on their academic results but, if —[Inaudible.] have taught us anything, potentially for decades to come. Will the Government establish a covid student learning remediation fund to allow lost learning to be addressed through the provision of educational opportunities not currently available during the pandemic?

I am actively working with the higher education sector, and at a weekly taskforce meeting we discuss these very topics—how we can catch up and ensure that all students are able to graduate on time, at a world-class level, and go on to the next stage in their lives.

My hon. Friend will no doubt be aware that Milton Keynes is home to the trailblazing Open University, which has helped over 2.2 million learners achieve their learning goals through remote and virtual education since it was set up in 1969. Now that the rest of the sector is catching up with Milton Keynes, perhaps she might give me some assurances that the expectation is the same as with the Open University—that the number of teaching hours, the quality of the courses and the learning outcomes must be the same for virtual provision.

I, too, am a massive fan of the Open University and the way that it has allowed higher education in this country to be much more flexible and accessible for all. I completely agree with my hon. Friend that all universities need to adhere to our expectation of quality, quantity and accessibility, but it is important to state that university staff have been working tirelessly to deliver that through very challenging times.

Around 78% of students from Wales are worried about the financial impact of covid-19, which is sadly unsurprising given that so many have lost work, are unable to return to universities because of Government restrictions, and yet are still required to pay for private accommodation. Does the Minister anticipate that further support will be forthcoming in the Budget, and will she work closely with the Welsh Government in any discussions with the Treasury to ensure that any additional funding also benefits students in Wales?

I certainly am not responsible for the Budget, so I could not comment on that, but I do work very closely with my Welsh counterpart on issues pertaining not only to students but to the sector at large, in ensuring that we are co-ordinated on our approach.

Point of Order

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Last month, the House approved the amended High Speed Rail (West Midlands – Crewe) Bill, which includes Labour’s clause requiring the Government to launch a consultation with the residents of Shropshire, Staffordshire and Cheshire, and to take steps to implement its findings. I welcome the fact that the Government have now begun the consultation, but in a letter sent to residents they warned that at the outset they do not

“intend to make changes to the Phase 2a scheme or to its planned construction programme in light of this consultation.”

That suggests that the Government will not listen to what the residents of the three counties tell them or take steps to implement the findings, as instructed by Parliament.

Mr Deputy Speaker, could you please advise me what opportunities exist to ensure that the Government deliver a proper consultation with the residents of Shropshire, Staffordshire and Cheshire, as they are obliged to do under the Bill and in accordance with the will of Parliament?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for giving notice of it. It is not for the Chair to determine whether the Government’s consultation is adequate, as he has illustrated, although I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench will have heard exactly what he had to say and will pass that on to Ministers, and that there will be other opportunities for him to raise this issue in the House.

Bill Presented

Gaming Hardware (Automated Purchase and Resale) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Douglas Chapman, supported by Martyn Day, Ronnie Cowan and Margaret Ferrier, presented a Bill to prohibit the automated purchase and resale of games consoles and computer components; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 253).

Air Quality

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for improving air quality.

A key part of my plan to improve life for my constituents in Chipping Barnet is cleaning up the air we breathe. Poor air quality is the greatest environmental threat to public health. Every year, thousands of people have their health damaged or their lives shortened by air pollution. This problem is especially serious in London, with many of the country’s worst pollution hotspots here in our capital city.

Our air is now cleaner than at any point since the industrial revolution, and the Government are meeting all but one of their current air quality targets, but there is so much more work to be done. Progress has slowed in recent years and we need a concerted national effort to tackle this problem from Government, from councils, from mayors, from business, from individuals.

The Government’s 2017 clean air strategy was praised by the World Health Organisation as

“an example for the rest of the world to follow”,

but we need to go further and faster. Ella Kissi-Debrah’s case should be a wake-up call for all of us. Ella was just nine years old when she suffered a fatal asthma attack in 2013. She lived just yards from the busy and congested South Circular Road, and the coroner in her case concluded that air pollution made a material contribution to her tragic death. Ella is the very first person in the United Kingdom for whom air pollution has been officially recognised as a cause of death.

In my former role as Environment Secretary I introduced the Environment Bill to this House. This landmark new law will set a framework for a rigorous system of target-setting, monitoring and accountability, and one of the most important and ambitious elements of the Bill is the requirement to set a legally binding target to reduce PM2.5 fine particulate matter. This type of pollution does the greatest damage to human health, and I hope and expect the new target to be among the most demanding in the world. There is clear support across this House for us to be the first major developed economy to commit to getting PM2.5 particulate limits down to the 10 micrograms per cubic metre maximum recommended by the World Health Organisation. The only question is what date we set, and I appeal today to Ministers to accelerate the vital detailed research and consultation needed to make that decision and set that date as soon as possible.

A crucial part of the action to deliver on the target when it is set is protection and enhancement of nature, and I applaud my local council, Barnet, for planting around 3,000 trees in the last two years, including 700 targeted at air quality and urban heat island purposes.

I appeal to the Government to ensure that the planning Bill expected in the autumn maintains and strengthens protection for trees and open spaces, which provide crucial green lungs for our towns and cities. The environmental land management schemes, which will replace the EU’s common agricultural policy, can also play an important role in safeguarding nature and thus addressing pollution, and I urge the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ensure that these environmental schemes are used to support farming practices that emit less ammonia pollution.

Domestic burning also makes a significant contribution to particulate pollution, and more people need to be aware of the impact of their choices in how they heat their homes. The most polluting fuels used in domestic burning are due to be banned by early 2023, and the Environment Bill will make it easier for councils to introduce smoke control zones and provide more powers to enforce them. They need to use these powers.

Our efforts to combat climate change can also be harnessed to drive quality improvements. One of the reasons for recent progress on air quality is the UK’s success in shifting away from coal to cleaner ways to generate electricity, and of course the transition to ultra low emission driving is crucial both for our climate and our air quality goals. Encouraging cycling, walking and active travel of course has real benefits in terms of health, air quality and congestion, and I applaud projects that, for example, encourage parents and children to walk to school, but care does have to be taken with these schemes, such as cycle lanes and low traffic neighbourhoods, because if they are introduced in a hurry in the wrong place without appropriate consultation, they can inadvertently worsen air quality because of the consequent congestion they cause.

But the really big change we need in our transport system is to ensure that we switch to cleaner cars, vans, lorries, taxis, buses and motorbikes. Nothing else is going to deliver the air quality improvements we urgently need.

First, the Volkswagen scandal and then the collapse of the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency prosecution of the company Klarius demonstrated that we need better enforcement of standards on tailpipe emissions and tougher sanctions when rules are broken. The Environment Bill will help, because it will mean that Ministers can require manufacturers to recall vehicles if they do not comply with environmental standards and, thus, illegally polluting vehicles will be taken off the road more quickly.

The Government are taking forward a £3.8 billion plan to reduce harmful emissions from transport, including £1.5 billion to support the uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles and nearly half a billion to help local authorities implement air quality improvement measures.

Last year, the Prime Minister announced £5 billion for bus services in England, including 4,000 new ultra-low emission buses. His 10-point climate plan commits to ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. That is one of the most aggressive targets set by any country, anywhere in the world. It will require further massive investment in research and development, to make electric cars and vans a more practical, affordable option, as well as in charging infrastructure.

I welcome all the substantial funding currently going into climate and air quality-related technology projects, which are essential, including the £250 million Faraday challenge on batteries. In this country, we already manufacture a considerable proportion of the plug-in electric cars sold around Europe. We should use the 2030 target as an opportunity to create new green jobs. Nissan’s announcement on moving battery production to the UK is really encouraging news.

Lastly, I ask Ministers to give priority to tackling air quality in London, because this is where the problem is most serious. London received funding for air quality as part of the £5.7 billion Transport for London funding settlement in 2015, and has received further support for individual projects of about £150 million. That includes money to retrofit buses to reduce emissions, and all London buses were due to be Euro 6 compliant by the end of last year. However, I am concerned that the Mayor of London has not made more progress on air quality or on delivering zero-emission buses, despite the significant resources he has been given by the Government to do that. His plan for a zero-emission bus fleet will take another 17 years to complete. Shaun Bailey believes progress needs to be much faster and has set out how he would do that as a Conservative Mayor for London. I am also worried that the Mayor’s mismanagement of TfL’s budget, including through the lengthy delays to Crossrail, will make it harder to deliver the investment we need to buy cleaner, greener buses.

I have one last ask of the Government. If they are serious about air quality, they should cancel plans to build a third runway at Heathrow. Nitrogen oxides problems around the airport are already very serious, and I cannot see any way in which the promoters of the scheme can possibly find a means to comply with those limits, never mind new ones adopted under the Environment Bill, while still accommodating the huge increase in surface transport that would be generated by thousands more flights. The viability case has been severely damaged by the collapse in passenger numbers. It is time to put this misguided runway project out of its misery. It is time to clean up the air we breathe, and I commend this Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Theresa Villiers, Bob Blackman, Andrew Rosindell, Bob Seely, Felicity Buchan, Chris Loder, Steve Brine, Neil Parish, George Freeman, Dr Rupa Huq, Geraint Davies and Jim Shannon present the Bill.

Theresa Villiers accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 254).

Business of the House (Today)


That, at this day’s sitting—

(1) notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 16 (Proceedings under an Act or on European Union documents) and Standing Order No. 17 (Delegated Legislation (negative procedure)), the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on—

(a) the Motions in the name of Nigel Adams relating to Exiting the European Union (Sanctions) (SI, 2019, Nos. 1142 and 1145, and SI, 2020, Nos. 590, 597, 608, 610, 951, 1468 and 1474) not later than three hours after the commencement of proceedings on this Motion,

(b) the Motions in the name of Jesse Norman relating to Exiting the European Union (Value Added Tax) (SI, 2020, Nos. 1312 and 1544) not later than one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first such Motion,

(c) the Motion in the name of Ian Blackford relating to the Travellers’ Allowances and Miscellaneous Provisions (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 (SI, 2020, No. 1412) not later than one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on that Motion;

(d) those Motions may be proceeded with, though opposed, after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply; and

(2) the Motion in the name of Tom Hunt relating to grooming gangs may be proceeded with, though opposed, after the moment of interruption, and may continue for one hour after its commencement or until 7.00 pm, whichever is the later, and shall then lapse if not previously concluded.—(David Rutley.)

Sitting suspended.

Exiting the European Union (Sanctions)

I beg to move,

That the Bosnia and Herzegovina (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 608), dated 18 June 2020, a copy of which was laid before this House on 22 June, be approved.