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Business of the House

Volume 688: debated on Thursday 4 February 2021

The business for the week commencing 8 February will include:

Monday 8 February—Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill, followed by a motion to approve the draft Armed Forces Act (Continuation) Order 2021.

Tuesday 9 February—A motion to approve the draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2021, followed by a motion to approve the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2021, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Trade Bill, followed by a general debate relating to the publication of the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy. The subject for this debate was recommended by the Backbench Business Committee.

Wednesday 10 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.

Thursday 11 February—Consideration of a Business of the House motion, followed by all stages of the Ministerial and Other Maternity Allowances Bill.

Friday 12 February—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 22 February will include:

Monday 22 February—A general debate on covid-19.

Tuesday 23 February—Opposition day (17th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 24 February—Consideration of Lords amendments.

Thursday 25 February—A general debate on the proposal for a national education route map for schools and colleges in response to the covid-19 outbreak, followed by general debate on Welsh affairs. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 26 February—The House will not be sitting.

May I start by thanking the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) for all his work? We now know that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) will be taking over for him, and I thank the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) for standing in for him today.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business. Of course, we say thank you for the Opposition day, but the Government have abstained on the past six Opposition motions in a row. Even though they have been passed by the House, the Leader of the House and the Government seem to be ignoring the will of Parliament and indeed the sovereignty of Parliament; he will know that the Executive derive their authority from Parliament.

I do not know whether the Leader of the House has read Lord McFall’s account of reforming the Select Committee in the other place in The House magazine, but I can tell him that the Lords is to have a European affairs Committee and a sub-Committee on the Northern Ireland protocol. The Northern Ireland Secretary told the House of Commons Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs on 20 January that

“we are not at the moment in a position where we want to be looking at extending the grace period.”

However, on Tuesday, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster called for an extension of the grace period, which is due to expire in March. The Prime Minister has previously said that he has concerns about the protocol and that there were teething problems, but the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said he would “not describe” them in that way. It sounds as though the Government are in disarray. Let us recall the Prime Minister’s election promise to businesses in Northern Ireland:

“No forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind. You will have unfettered access.”

Will the Leader of the House look at restoring our Select Committee along the same lines as what they have in the other place—unless the Leader of the House thinks that there is more accountability there than we have in this place?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that the Health Secretary will update the House on the Government’s failure of a policy on comprehensive quarantine. When are we likely to expect that—or did the Prime Minister misspeak again? The Leader of the House will know that the Road Haulage Association has said that 40% to 50% of trucks are going back to the EU empty. The Federation of Small Businesses has called for transition payments. They are saying the problems have not emerged because of stockpiling, but the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is now having weekly meetings of the Brexit taskforce. How about a weekly update to the House? Our businesses in our constituencies are part of the supply chain, and they want to know what is going on.

More broken promises, Mr Speaker, and more hypocrisy. The 2019 Tory manifesto pledged to “safeguard our green spaces”, but we have allotments being built on and sold off in Walsall. Two hundred and fifty residents are on the waiting list. The Tory-led council has agreed permission for 15 new townhouses on one of the two green public spaces in Walsall town centre, with no consultation with residents on a house in multiple occupation in a built-up area in Redhouse Street, and no consultation on using up a green space—again, in a built-up area—for a Traveller site. The current mayor is looking to Sandwell about green spaces, yet he is not looking to Tory-led Walsall Council and how it is using up every single green space. Could we have a debate on local councils and the lack of scrutiny?

The Leader of the House did not announce Foreign Office questions, but he will know the major incidents that are taking place around the world. He will also know that this House has supported Burma in setting up its democracy by building a library and training its MPs. The leader of Burma is in jail—the Proud Boys seem to be the same as the generals. Kameel Ahmady has escaped from Iran. Again, I raise Nazanin and Anoosheh: it is not public speculation, but parliamentary scrutiny. The Foreign Secretary’s American counterpart, Secretary of State Blinken, has spoken to all the families of those hostages. Will the Leader of the House undertake that the Foreign Secretary will do the same? My constituents are distraught at the sight of farmers—their extended families—being tear-gassed in their peaceful demonstration, so could we have a debate on foreign policy?

Today is World Cancer Day, and I am sure there is not a single person who does not know of someone who has suffered. We send our condolences to the family of Captain Tom Moore. He wanted us to remember how lucky we were to have an NHS, because he remembered when it was not there. Clapping is not enough: the Prime Minister can do something, which is make a payment to all our frontline services and NHS workers now that the Budget is coming up. We also pay tribute to Maureen Colquhoun. It is absolutely amazing that, in her five years, she managed to do so much. Perhaps the intranet and digital services can pay tribute to the work she has done, given that it is LGBT+ History Month.

I wish our hard-working shadow vaccine Minister, who is coming in later, a very happy birthday. Finally, welcome to the world, Henry George Elmore-Sedgebeer, who was born on 28 January.

Indeed: welcome to the world, Henry. There is a great joy in new life, and we must also celebrate the life of Captain Sir Tom Moore, who was an inspiration to so many people in this country. I am glad that the right hon. Lady mentioned World Cancer Day. Macmillan Cancer Support provides hotline services for those who need help and support, and I encourage people to use them if they need support. People should go to the doctor if they have any symptoms they are concerned about.

I also thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) for his participation in these exchanges, and for the exceptionally courteous dealings that I always had with him privately. Our public dealings may have been occasionally rambunctious, but privately, the dealings were extremely civilised. I welcome back the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), and express my gratitude to the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) for standing in for him at short notice today. He is a very distinguished member of the Select Committee on Procedure, and asks me difficult questions there; I hope he will ask me easier questions in a moment’s time. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) says not—oh, dear. We shall wait and see.

Let me come to the right hon. Lady’s key points. First, the Government have made Opposition days available in the proper course of events, in accordance with Standing Orders, and the Opposition have brought forward important matters to debate. They have been debated, and the Government have set out their view during these debates. However, she knows that there are different functions within this House and different motions that have different effects, and motions that are passed by the House on Opposition days are not the law. They are different from the legislative processes that we have and are therefore treated in a different way. The reason that the Government, under Standing Order No. 14, have the right to order business in this House is because they command a majority. It is always open to the Opposition to ask for a vote of no confidence or to use an Opposition day for that, but I do not think that it would get them very far, so I think the House is being treated courteously, in accordance with the constitutional norms.

As regards various Select Committees, there are Select Committees that can look into all the matters relating to our departure from the European Union. It is the general position of this Government and predecessor Governments that, by and large, Select Committees should reflect the Departments that they cover. Anything relating to Northern Ireland can be looked at by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which is so wonderfully chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare)—one of my oldest friends in the House—who does it with great distinction and can carry out any inquiries that that Committee sees fit. There are plenty of opportunities for scrutiny, as there are of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, who has been the most assiduous appearer at this Dispatch Box to set out what the Government have been doing. There will be a statement later on the vaccine, but he has been second to none in his courtesy to the House and his frequency of appearances, so I think criticising him is, dare I say it, a bit unreasonable.

I think the right hon. Lady showed her characteristic courage in suggesting that the Prime Minister may have misspoken the day after the Leader of the Opposition had to make a rather embarrassing public admission of having misspoken in this Chamber, when he forgot what he had said previously. I was not going to raise this private embarrassment for the socialists until she said that the Prime Minister had done this, which he has not. He has been completely accurate in what he said, but the Leader of the Opposition—oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. It was rather awkward yesterday, and who knows what was going on behind the Speaker’s Chair later on? [Interruption.] Oh, it was the other end, was it? They kept safely away from Mr Speaker. If you were to read the MailOnline, it was a very interesting state of affairs to have going on in this House of Commons.

The right hon. Lady raises her wonderful local council, Walsall Council, brilliantly run by the Conservatives, whom I had the pleasure of visiting last year. They are doing amazing work in developing brownfield sites, which is of fundamental importance. It is a great local authority and I hope that, when it has the local elections, everybody in Walsall will vote Conservative, because that is how they get good local government.

The right hon. Lady is right to raise foreign affairs. As she will have noticed, we are having a Back-Bench debate on 9 February—the general debate relating to the publication of the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy—but we must encourage countries around the world to respect democracy. What has been going on in Burma is deeply shocking, and the Government are working with other countries to try to pressurise those who have done wrong to do right. That is what this Government must continue to do. They have been doing the same in relation to other countries where there are these abuses.

Once again, the right hon. Lady raises the dual nationals who are held improperly by Iran, and I will, as always, take this up with the Foreign Secretary on her behalf. It is a matter of the greatest importance, and a primary duty of the British state is to defend the interests of its nationals abroad.

I start by echoing the comments from both Front Benchers in regards to Captain Sir Tom Moore. This week is Children’s Mental Health Week. With the closure of schools and the impact of the pandemic on all children, it is more important than ever that we consider this particular issue. I commend the work that the Government have been doing, in particular, with the Department for Education on the catch-up programme to help to tackle the attainment gap. However, mental health issues are becoming more prevalent across the country. Can I ask my right hon. Friend for a debate or a statement on the effects of the pandemic on children’s mental health and what we can do to tackle this issue?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who raises an issue that has I think been raised with all of us in our constituencies. Children’s Mental Health Week is an opportunity to keep raising awareness about the importance of looking after our mental health. The Prime Minister announced a new youth mental health ambassador, Dr Alex George, who will be working with the Government to promote the importance of mental health education and support in our schools to help young people to build resilience. We are making sure that support is available for any children who may be struggling with their mental health currently. Schools have the flexibility to offer a place in the school to vulnerable children, which might include those for whom being in school helps them to manage their mental health. Schools will continue to offer pastoral support to pupils working remotely, supported by £8 billion of taxpayers’ money that the Government are providing for wellbeing, training and advice. There is also the increase in public expenditure on mental health to help to support many hundreds of thousands more children and adults who have mental health problems. I can also tell my hon. Friend that there will be an opportunity to debate this issue relating to covid on 22 February.

I thank the shadow Leader and the Leader of the House for their kind comments about my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). I know he certainly enjoyed his exchanges in these sessions, and I am sure the Leader of the House will be looking forward to the return of my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). I am hoping that this transition period is slightly smoother than the Brexit one.

The Oxford Internet Institute recently published a report on industrialised disinformation. Given the importance that I know the Leader of the House places on confidence in democracy, he will I am sure be worried at the report’s finding that

“industrialized disinformation has become more professionalized, and produced on a large scale by major governments, political parties, and public relations firms”,

and that the UK is listed among the 81 countries in which this is a permanent situation. Can we have a debate in Government time on how we can tackle and regulate this issue, as a number of firms are springing up—65, in fact—offering this service to clients?

Yesterday, I tried to seek an assurance from the Secretary of State for Wales on the financial powers for devolved nations in tackling the pandemic and, looking forward, tackling climate change. As part of that, I was looking to see why the Treasury continues to impose unfair and unreasonable limits on the devolved nations’ borrowing powers. I would be very grateful if we could have a debate in Government time to further consider what steps we could take to consider those implications and their impact on the devolved nations, and to untie the hands of the devolved nations so that we can tackle all the challenges that face us.

With sitting Fridays currently suspended, I am sure the Leader of the House will be keen to look at the number of private Members’ Bills there currently are and to consider which could be brought forward, perhaps in Government time, or adopted by the Government. I might even take this opportunity to make a plug for my Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill, which I am sure the Leader of the House would be keen to see adopted, as it would further ensure confidence among Members.

Finally, as well as being World Cancer Day, today is Time to Talk Day. To support the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), I ask the Leader of the House whether he will join MYPAS—the Midlothian Young Peoples Advice Service—in my Midlothian constituency, which, among others, is having conversations about mental health with so many. This is such a challenging time that these conversations are so important.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for telling the House that today is Time to Talk Day. This is a really important thing to do; we should all try to do more of it. I commend him for what he is doing in his constituency. If he wanted me to talk to his constituents, although I am not sure they want to hear from me, I would be honoured to do so. This is a very important initiative.

On the question of industrialised disinformation, I think that people are wise enough to know which sources of information are reliable and that people—our voters—understand that much of the information on the internet cannot be accepted at face value. However, sometimes it goes further than that, and it is right that the Government will bring forward proposals in the online harms Bill in due course to try to ensure that the internet is properly regulated. The question of whether the internet companies are in fact publishers is a very important one to bear in mind. They seem to have many of the aspects of publishers, though they are keen to avoid any of the responsibilities of publishers.

I am extremely keen to find a way of bringing private Members’ Bills back before the end of this Session, whenever that may come. They are an important way in which Back Benchers raise issues of concern to their constituents and have them debated. I gave the commitment to bring them back as soon as is possible and practicable. That remains the case, and I am working with people throughout the House to try to find suitable time to do that, but I cannot give a date at the moment.

On the most contentious matter that the hon. Gentleman mentions—the fiscal arrangements—it is worth reminding him that £8.6 billion of UK taxpayers’ money has gone to help Scotland during the pandemic. It is the strength of the United Kingdom that, throughout this pandemic, has provided the support needed. He may chunter behind his elegant mask, but that means 779,500 jobs in the furlough scheme. It means £1.13 billion in the self-employed scheme. It is a really important Unionist level of support. We know now that the Unionist Government are helping the devolved Scottish Government to roll out their vaccine programme, and more people will be going from the British Army to help set up more vaccine centres. This is our UK Government bailing out a devolved Government. That is what we do, and we should be really proud of the United Kingdom, which has such strength as one country.

In 2018, a terrorist plot would have meant that Members of Parliament from a UK cross-party delegation and from around the world who were attending the free Iran rally were murdered. Fortunately, the French and Belgian police co-operated, and the plot was foiled. This morning, the Belgian court announced its verdict, and the Iranian diplomat Assadolah Assadi was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison, together with his accomplices. That has severe implications for our relations with Iran and for Iranian diplomatic services across the world. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Foreign Secretary to come to the House and make a statement on the implications of this verdict for diplomatic relations with Iran and its embassies not only in the UK but across Europe?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this matter. Her Majesty’s Government are deeply concerned about this incident and continue to work closely with our European partners on security and counter-terrorism issues. We are closely monitoring reporting on the trial taking place in Belgium. We expect diplomatic and consular missions in the UK to respect our laws and regulations in line with their obligations under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations, the Vienna convention on consular relations and UK law. Who in this House can forget the murder of PC Yvonne Fletcher by somebody with diplomatic immunity from Libya? Only the worst states abuse diplomatic immunity to plot acts of terror. The Iranians surely do not want to put themselves in the same category—the same class—as Mr Gaddafi’s regime.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business programme. It is obviously regrettable, from the Backbench Business Committee’s perspective, that we have lost the previously proposed time on 11 February, but I thank him for the time now proposed on Tuesday 9 February. Could we have three hours’ protected time for that general debate on 9 February relating to the publication of the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, to make sure that it gets a good airing?

On 25 February, we propose debates on a national route map out of the pandemic for schools and colleges, and a Welsh affairs debate to coincide with a date as close as possible to St David’s day on 1 March, which is the following Monday. We propose those debates on 25 February as we are highly unlikely to get any time the following week, due to the probability that the Budget and the Budget debate will take place during that week. Both the debates we have proposed for 25 February are very well subscribed, so can we have as little additional business as possible from the Government and from yourself, Mr Speaker, to give as much time as possible for those debates to be aired properly?

I had a feeling that the hon. Gentleman would ask for protected time on 9 February, and I will certainly consider it. However, he has asked me on previous occasions whether the Government would be willing to schedule Backbench Business time when Government business may fall short. If we then made that protected time, that of course would extend the day, which is a different request from the Backbench Business Committee. I am saying as gently as I can that the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways, but I will think about it next week, because the Government changed business from the Thursday to the Wednesday due to the important Bill on the Thursday.

As regards 25 February, Mr Speaker, you and I did what we could to protect time for the Holocaust memorial debate. That has to be exceptional. There are important statements and urgent questions on Thursdays as there are on other days. Although there is a gentlemen’s agreement on Opposition days—[Interruption.] A gentlemen’s agreement is an inclusive term!

Yes, it is. Although there is such an agreement on Opposition days, that cannot be extended to all days, otherwise we would lose time for important statements and urgent questions.

Once again, homes and businesses in the northern part of my constituency, particularly the area around Barrow Haven, are threatened with flooding. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a statement to update the House and my constituents on the Environment Agency’s plans to alleviate flooding in that part of northern Lincolnshire?

My hon. Friend, as always, is a champion for his constituents to ensure that they are properly protected and looked after. The sympathies of the whole House go to those affected by flooding, and the Government are determined to tackle the risks. Flood defences will have £5.2 billion of taxpayers’ money devoted to them over the next six years to protect 336,000 properties better than they are currently protected.

In Lincolnshire, there has been expenditure of £296.8 million on flood defences since 2010—which coincides with my hon. Friend becoming a Member of this House—providing better protection for around 77,500 homes. There is planned further expenditure of £57.8 million of taxpayers’ money on flood defences for the period 2020-21, protecting around 22,800 homes. A great deal is being done, but none the less for those whose homes have been recently flooded there is no better compensation than one’s sympathy and the hope that things can be done to stop it happening in future, because the pain and distress that they bear is considerable.

A constituent contacted my office in tears this week about the uncertainty of their immigration status. They have worked for years as a community carer for the elderly in Westminster, which has obviously become incredibly difficult over the past year. She waited two years before her initial application was refused, and she is distraught at the prospect of another lengthy wait. Please can we have an urgent debate on prioritising visa applications for healthcare and medical workers?

The hon. Lady will know that the immigration system is being updated to ensure that we have a fair points-based system to help people. If there are individual constituency questions, they are best taken up directly with the Home Office, although if the hon. Lady is not getting answers as swiftly as she would like, I will certainly use my office to help her.

Now that Putin the poisoner has jailed Alexei Navalny for the “crime” of missing probation appointments while in a coma, may we have a statement about British policy towards Russia, so that the House can express its view on such issues as that outrage and the increasing reliance of our European friends and allies on Russian gas supplies through such follies as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project?

My right hon. Friend is so right to raise this important and disgraceful issue. The Government have called for the immediate and unconditional release of Mr Navalny. It is a completely perverse ruling. To say that somebody who has been the victim of an attempted murder, with a poison that is usually only available to state actors, has missed an appointment and therefore must go to prison is peculiar and unjust. It shows Russia is failing to meet the most basic commitments expected of any responsible member of the international community. Russia should fulfil its obligations under international law to investigate this despicable crime and explain how a chemical weapon came to be used on Russian soil.

I know we are all grateful, across this House and of course across the whole country, to the staff, teachers and everybody involved in keeping schools open over the pandemic for the children who need them most. Headteachers in Ousedale School and St Paul’s Catholic School in Milton Keynes have received particularly glowing praise in my inbox recently, and I am sure everybody here will join me in congratulating them on the hard work they have done. Could my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate or a statement to inform the House on the efforts that are being made to recognise school staff, and the steps that are being taken to fully reopen schools as soon as it is safe to do so?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for paying tribute to the Ousedale sixth form and St Paul’s Catholic School in his constituency. That is one way, and an important way, of recognising the contribution that people are making during the current pandemic in the education system.

We will return to face-to-face learning as soon as we possibly can, which the Government hope will start from Monday 8 March. However, before we increase attendance, we need to be confident that doing so will not increase the pressure on the NHS—not because schools and colleges are no longer safe, but because that may increase the level of contact all of us have with other households. While we are seeing signs of things starting to move in the right direction, case rates remain high across the country and the NHS is still under immense pressure, so it is too early to set out a precise timetable, but I think everybody wishes to see schools reopen as soon as it is safe to do so.

The climate and ecological emergency has the potential of becoming an even bigger crisis than the global pandemic. Countries across the world, including the UK, were woefully under- prepared for the global pandemic, despite many warnings. Here in the UK, we do not even have a Department dedicated to working towards the enormous challenges of getting to net zero. In the year that the UK is hosting COP26, can we have not just one but several debates on how this Government are planning for and working towards getting to net zero by 2050?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, my constituency neighbour, for her important question. The Government are committed to leaving the environment in a better state for the next generation. We cannot forget, after all, that it was Margaret Thatcher who led the world, with her foresight, in early efforts to tackle climate change in the late 1980s, and the Prime Minister aims to follow in her distinguished footsteps. This Government want to lead a green industrial revolution in the United Kingdom, levelling up the country, creating thousands of high-skilled green jobs and building back a greener economy, while helping to get to net zero by 2050.

The 10-point plan is the blueprint for a green industrial revolution. It combines ambitious policies with significant new public spending to deliver a vision for the United Kingdom as greener, more prosperous and at the forefront of the industries for the future. Spanning clean energy, buildings, transport, nature and innovative technologies, the plan will mobilise £12 billion of taxpayers’ spending and will support up to a quarter of a million green jobs. This year, with COP26, as the hon. Lady says, and our chairmanship of the G7, we are going to be leading international efforts in this regard.

The Perth Road Pub Company in my constituency has been using the furlough scheme since it was introduced last March. Despite Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs approving its claim in December, this was never received. HMRC claimed that it would take 15 days to resolve, but there has been no progress since. The company has been unable to make further claims and employees have lost out on income, with over 30 jobs now at risk. I have written to HMRC and will be writing to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury today. May we therefore have an urgent debate on HMRC’s delays in investigating and resolving unpaid furlough claims?

The hon. Gentleman raises a really important point for his constituents. I would remind him that 779,500 jobs in Scotland have benefited from the furlough scheme. It has been a really important way of keeping people in employment, rather than having unemployment figures spiralling out of control. It has been a very effective scheme. However, as with any scheme, there are inevitably occasions when things do not work. I will undertake immediately after these exchanges to take up his point with ministerial people and ensure that the question about the pub in his constituency is resolved as swiftly as it may be. If he would like to send me a copy of his letter to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, I will ensure that my offices are used to pursue an answer for him.

Today is Time to Talk Day, which encourages everyone to be more open about their mental health. On that note, just a fortnight ago I met a number of leaseholders in Luton South who told me how the anxiety of living in an unsafe building, and the threat of having to pay for fire safety remediation that they simply cannot afford, is having a negative impact on their mental health. With the Prime Minister stating at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday that no leaseholder should have to pay these costs, will the Leader of the House outline when the Fire Safety Bill will return to this place so that the Prime Minister can back up his words with action by supporting the amendments in the name of the Leader of the Opposition?

The Prime Minister indeed said that leaseholders ought to be protected from large costs, but the correct Bill for that will be the building safety Bill that the Government are bringing forward. The Fire Safety Bill is in its amending stages and will return to the Floor of the House in the normal way.

Last week I joined my local antisocial behaviour team for a street patrol around central Blackpool, which has one of the highest drug-related death rates and crime rates in the entire nation. I am delighted that the Government are taking direct action in Blackpool through Project ADDER, which is an innovative approach, supported by millions of pounds of additional funding, to help dismantle organised criminal gangs and tackle the supply of drugs coming into Blackpool. Will my right hon. Friend therefore consider having a debate in Government time to further assess how we can relentlessly pursue criminal gangs and tackle the devastating impact that drug-related crime has upon many communities, including mine?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely serious issue. I am glad that his constituency is benefiting from the direct action that the Government are taking to help authorities tackle serious crime, and I commend him for joining the local street patrol to see at first hand the difficulties that his constituents face as a result of criminal and antisocial behaviour. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary set out in her statement on 20 January, the Government are providing £148 million of taxpayers’ money to dismantle criminal gangs, tackle drug supply and support drug treatment services. As my hon. Friend mentioned, Project ADDER—it stands for addiction, diversion, disruption, enforcement and recovery —will trial a new approach to drug misuse, combining a targeted police approach with enhanced treatment services. It will run for three financial years in five areas—Blackpool, Hastings, Norwich, Middlesbrough and Swansea Bay. I encourage my hon. Friend to raise this further at Home Office questions on 8 February.

It was World Wetlands Day this week and also the 50th anniversary of the Ramsar convention on wetlands of international importance. We have lost a third of the world’s wetlands since 1970, but they are critical blue infrastructure. We have 175 internationally important Ramsar sites in the UK and they provide the ability to store carbon, reduce flooding, support wellbeing and restore biodiversity. I am working with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust Slimbridge to promote wetlands and a blue recovery. Will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on the issue in Government time, because of the UK’s clear focus on climate change and biodiversity?

That question was definitely worth waiting for, so I am glad that we persevered with the technology.

I commend my hon. Friend for her work with Slimbridge, which is such a wonderful place. As she said, World Wetlands Day took place this week and was an opportunity to remind everyone of the crucial ecosystem services that wetlands offer to people and nature. Wetlands ecosystems deliver vital services in the UK, including by providing habitats to protected species, improving our air and water quality and providing defences against flooding, as my hon. Friend rightly noted.

The United Kingdom recognises that wetlands, especially peatlands and coastal blue-carbon ecosystems, are an important and effective nature-based solution to tackle biodiversity loss and climate change. Since 1976, this country has worked alongside our international partners, under the Ramsar convention on wetlands, to promote the conservation and wise use of wetlands. With 175 designated wetlands throughout the UK and our overseas territories, the UK is proud to host the largest number of Ramsar sites in the world. We are doing our bit, but my hon. Friend encourages us to do more and is right to do so.

Yesterday, Dido Harding, the head of Test and Trace and a Conservative peer, defended there being 2,500 consultants working on test and trace who are paid an average of £1,100 a day. That is more than £2.5 million per day on private consultants. Surely the private sector should not be siphoning off public funds in this way, so will the Leader of the House make time for an urgent debate on how we can get rid of these rip-off companies from our test and trace system and instead invest the funds in our NHS?

I am afraid to say that was a completely absurd question. The pressure on the NHS is being reduced because of the work of Test and Trace. We have the capacity to process more than 800,000 tests a day, and so far more than 20 million people in this country have been tested at least once. This is an essential part of how we are tackling the pandemic and the hon. Gentleman, as always, pooh-poohs it. Typical socialist: he pooh-poohs the private sector. Without the private sector, we would not be rolling out the vaccines as fast as we are—that is another key part of our defence and action against the pandemic. Yes, the NHS is a fundamental part of our healthcare—of course it is—but the vaccines were produced by and are being produced and manufactured by private companies. We should recognise the enormous contribution that free markets have made in helping us and not pooh-pooh them.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on planning issues? In Amber Valley we have an application for a solar farm covering more than 300 acres, and although there is support for renewable energy there is not support for losing quite such a large area of countryside. It would be helpful to discuss the balance between the need for energy and the preservation of the open countryside in our constituencies.

Every Member of the House knows that we could spend every day of every week debating planning issues. They are fundamental to the representation that we provide to our constituents and are often the most contentious issues that arise. The Government set out a new White Paper on planning last year; the matter is being debated and very much thought about and will be an essential part of the Government’s programme.

Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) raised concerns on behalf of students affected by the pandemic, who include post- graduate researchers like my constituent Elliot Howley, who is studying for his PhD here in Nottingham. I regret that the Minister for Universities did not address the failure of UK Research and Innovation to provide funded extensions to those doctoral students who need them, despite its own survey last June in which 77% of non-final year students indicated that they would need an extension averaging 5.1 months. May we have a debate on the recommendation of the report by the all-party parliamentary group for students that studentships should be extended to allow research to be finished to the usual high standards in circumstances where lockdown has affected access to facilities and resources?

Universities have a great deal of autonomy over how they run their affairs and their courses, and that is quite right. The difficulty with extensions is the obvious one: the next year is coming and, if the choice is for an extension, where is the capacity? The hon. Lady may wish to raise the subject in an Adjournment debate.

I was pleased to read in the Financial Times that the Government are rightly planning to relocate several of their Departments to the north of England, and yet I was disappointed not to see Doncaster on the list of places that are being considered. As my right hon. Friend will be aware, Doncaster and my constituency of Don Valley have some of the best transport links in the country, excellent housing stock and a town that could easily accommodate many civil servants. Does he not agree that the Government should therefore consider relocating at least one of their Departments to my fantastic town?

My hon. Friend is the greatest salesman for Don Valley and Doncaster that one could imagine. His constituents should be so reassured to have him as their representative and champion. There is still somebody called the Queen’s Champion—an hereditary post—who used to appear at coronations. My hon. Friend holds a similar role in being a champion for his constituency.

The Government are considering new locations for the civil service, and it is obviously important to find the sorts of locations that have excellent transport links and housing. The Cabinet Office, through the Places for Growth programme, is finalising relocation plans and beginning their implementation following the spending review. We want to ensure that our geography of locations covers as large and representative an area of the UK as possible, with the aim of having decision makers based in locations to create and distribute opportunity, jobs and investment across the country, including Yorkshire.

By any objective assessment, the promises made to the people of Northern Ireland—that, as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol, their citizenship of the UK would not be diminished and their access to the GB market would not be disrupted—have been totally discredited. Tens of thousands of people cannot buy online from GB; horticultural supplies to gardeners and garden centres have almost stopped; businesses have found that they cannot get supplies, which has put in jeopardy their production; and petty EU rules have seen goods turned away at ports because they were not loaded on pallets acceptable to the EU, or machinery had soil residue on their tyres. All that is before full implementation of the protocol. The grace period ends in April, and what will happen after that—we have not yet even seen the impact of EU legislation being imposed undemocratically on Northern Ireland—is unthinkable. Will the Leader of the House consider a half-day Opposition day debate on those issues, which are of fundamental importance to the people of Northern Ireland, to the Union and to the integrity of the UK market, given that the Democratic Unionist party has not had an Opposition day debate in this Session?

Obviously, I listen very carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s request for an Opposition day debate. The DUP does not automatically have one, but I note that in the past it often has, so that will certainly be discussed in the normal manner.

As to the mainstay of his question, this is a matter of the greatest concern. Northern Ireland is a fundamental part of the United Kingdom. The agreement with the European Union was intended to respect that, and to respect the Belfast agreement—the Good Friday agreement —that sets out clearly that no change can be made to the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of both communities. Both my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster have been taking up these issues with urgency. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been in touch with his opposite numbers in the European Union to see how things can be improved, and my right hon Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that there is no question but that we will ensure that steps are taken to safeguard the position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. I note that the actions of the European Union recently show that the threshold for article 16’s use was perhaps not as high as we may previously have thought.

Captain Sir Tom Moore taught us that tomorrow is a good day. May I ask my right hon. Friend, as Lord President of the Privy Council, to use his influence to bring about a commemorative coin for this remarkable national treasure and a debate in this House?

My right hon. Friend has the most brilliantly obscure knowledge, because the approval of all coins does indeed come before the Privy Council on the suggestion of the Royal Mint. I hope that, as Lord President, I do see a proposal from the Royal Mint in due course. Captain Sir Tom Moore dedicated his life to serving his country and others, and he showed the value of all life when he, in his 100th and 101st years, showed that somebody of great age can make as important a contribution as anybody else in the country did over that past year, and it is a reminder to all of us of the value of life, and why it has been right to protect life as far as we possibly can during this incredibly difficult period.

“Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine:

et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Requiescat in pacem. Amen.”

On World Cancer Day, I am sure the Leader of the House will be aware that terminally ill people can only access fast-track benefits if they can prove that they have six months or less to live. In Scotland, a change in the law on benefits for terminally ill people is due to take place later this year, and in early 2022 will provide fast-track access to disability benefits. Will the Leader of the House make a statement, setting out his views as to whether he believes that this change should also apply to universal credit to avoid a two-tier system for those who struggle with a terminal illness, so that they can access the support they need from a more compassionate welfare system?

It is always difficult dealing with benefits at the end of life because it is not a precise science as to when that will be. It is an estimate of the end of life, but it is important that all benefits should be handled sensitively with people who are coming to the end of their life. If a devolved authority has a better way of doing things, I am sure that the Government will study that. On the other hand, devolved authorities should be careful about changing things that lead to differences that may be confusing for people at the end of their life.

I have received emails from several constituents telling me of the increasing number of thefts of catalytic converters. Thieves simply cut the units from the exhaust pipe of a parked car and sell them on to scrap metal dealers. In December 2017, the Home Office published its review of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 and said that it would give further consideration to the case for strengthening the legislation in the future—in consultation with the industry, the police and interested parties. Can a Minister from the Department make a statement on this issue and update the legislation to make the second-hand sale of catalytic converters unlawful unless purchased from an accredited dealer?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. May I remind him that Home Office questions are coming up on Monday 8 February when it will be an opportunity to raise this further. The National Police Chiefs’ Council hosted a problem-solving workshop in November to bring together representatives from the motor industry, police and the Government to discuss what can be done to tackle the theft of catalytic converters, and the Government welcome that work. The Government are committed to providing funding to set up the national infrastructure crime reduction partnership to ensure national co-ordination of policing and law enforcement partners to tackle metal theft. It is an important question that my hon. Friend raises and one that the Government are looking at and I am sure that more proposals will be brought forward.

Can I ask the Leader of the House for some advice and help, as he has good experience in financial services? I hear this morning that LV= Liverpool Victoria, one of the oldest mutual societies in the country with 1.3 million members, is to be sold off for £530 million by an unscrupulous bunch of managers who have insinuated themselves into the mutual. The membership has not been properly consulted, and nobody can find out who will benefit from the £530 million sell-off. Can he advise me on how to get the Business Secretary and other Ministers into the House of Commons as early as possible, so that we can protect this wonderful 200-year-old mutual that employs 6,000 members of staff, some of whom are in my constituency? Can he help me with this?

I was worried for a moment that the hon. Gentleman would ask me for financial advice, which I would not be regulated to give. I was never regulated to give advice to private individuals, but I am able to give advice on how to raise things in the House of Commons, though I slightly feel it is like teaching one’s grandmother to suck eggs when giving advice to such a distinguished and long-serving Member who knows perfectly well how to raise matters in the House. There are BEIS questions on 9 February, but the important issue he raises is one he may also want to take up with the Financial Conduct Authority, which is likely to be the relevant regulator.

Reports this week show a concerning rise in alcohol harm during the pandemic, including in death rates due to increased alcohol consumption. To help the many families sadly affected by this, can we have a debate on the need for sufficient addiction recovery programmes across the country to be available, on the benefits of reforming the alcohol duty system, and on the need for a revised Government alcohol strategy?

The Government share the concerns about reports of increases in alcohol-related deaths and we are monitoring the situation closely. It is worth bearing in mind that for the vast majority of the country, drinking alcohol is convivial, has been central to our social lives for centuries and enjoyable in moderation. As Winston Churchill said:

“I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”

But for some families, a small minority, abuse of alcohol has been hugely damaging. This is a cross-cutting issue affecting several Government Departments, and there is a strong programme of work under way to address alcohol-related health harms and impacts on life chances, including an ambitious programme establishing specialist alcohol care teams in hospitals, and to support the children of alcohol-dependent parents. The Government have committed to publish a new UK-wide cross-Government addiction strategy. This strategy will be informed by Dame Carol Black’s continuing review of drugs, part 2 of which focuses on prevention, treatment and recovery. Taxpayers are providing £23 million funding this year for substance misuse treatment and recovery services for rough sleepers. This is a really difficult issue, because most people use alcohol well and enjoy it, but it is important to help and protect those who go to excess.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), could the Leader of the House give some indication as to when the Fire Safety Bill will be coming back from the other place to this Chamber, in view of the fact that the Queen’s Speech is not that far away and the Bill has to be back here in time to debate the relevant amendments, which were mentioned earlier?

The hon. Gentleman knows more about the date of the Queen’s Speech than I think I do. I am not sure that any announcement has been made on that or any date confirmed, but he is clearly well informed. The Fire Safety Bill will come back in the normal course of events. Bills come through and back at a different pattern, depending on the nature of business and the urgency of the business that we have to deal with.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a further debate on implementing the Government’s strategy on obesity? Having this week chaired a forum on that very subject, it really was brought home to me that as much as we talk about this growing crisis, it would appear that there is still not enough joined-up action from the Departments that are involved in delivering the strategy.

I have been waiting for some months now for my hon. Friend to ask again about Southend becoming a city and whether there will be general celebration when that happens, but he keeps on delaying. We are expecting the seagulls in Southend to be taking over from the pigeons to bring us messages about city status for Southend. However, he raises a very important point. The coronavirus pandemic has thrown into light how urgent it is for us to reduce obesity, and it is one of the Prime Minister’s personal priorities. We launched our strategy, “Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives”, in July 2020. It sets out an overarching campaign to reduce obesity, taking forward actions from previous chapters of the childhood obesity plan, including the Government’s ambition to halve the number of children living with obesity by 2030, and includes measures to get the nation fit and healthy to protect against covid-19 and help the NHS. Government Departments do work closely together on reducing obesity and share responsibility for delivering the measures set out in the obesity strategy. They are also working with councils to reduce child obesity locally through groundbreaking schemes. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) about alcohol, there is the similar difficulty that the Government, in being prescriptive, may stop people doing things that do not do them any harm while also protecting people from harm. It is a matter of great deliberation to try to get this balance right.

Across our society, and particularly in universities and the third sector, women, and some men, are losing their jobs, and having their positions undermined and their personal safety put in jeopardy, simply for questioning the ideology that any man can self-identify as a woman, and for speaking up for women’s sex-based rights under the Equality Act 2010. Does the Leader of the House agree that all democrats should condemn such attacks on free speech, and can we have a debate about free speech and the importance of sex as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act?

May I begin by saying how sorry I am that the right hon. and learned Lady has left the SNP Front Bench? That is not because I regularly agree with her, because I do not think that I do, but because she has made it clear that she is one of the most intelligent and careful scrutinisers of Government, not just on her party’s Benches but in this House. When I was on the Brexit Committee with her, her analysis and her questioning were, I must admit, second to none. As I believe that good government depends on careful scrutiny, her removal from office is a loss to our democratic system. Dare I say, perhaps ungraciously, that Mona Lott is responsible for this and it may be for reasons of internal SNP politicking?

To come to the right hon. and learned Lady’s point, free speech is fundamental, and it is disgraceful that she received threats for her views and her removal from office, to the extent where the police had to be involved. Every Member of this House should feel safe in whatever they say as long as it is within the law and is not effectively threatening violence. What is said in this House is of course completely protected. It is outrageous that she should have been placed in this position. Can I commit to supporting freedom of speech? Absolutely I can. That is what this place exists for; that is what underpins our democracy. Much as I disagree with her on so many things, may I commend her courage in standing up for freedom of speech and putting forward her views clearly in a difficult and sensitive area but one where she has a right to be heard?

The Leader of the House mentioned the Queen’s Champion. Actually, my right hon. Friend, with his style, would make a very good Queen’s Champion, but unfortunately the post is held by the lord of the manor of Scrivelsby in the county of Lincolnshire. Can I suggest to him, though, that he becomes another champion—a champion for good value for money? Since the House voted by a very narrow margin to demolish a perfectly serviceable Richmond House and erect a temporary Chamber at vast cost, everything has changed. The country is broke and we have proved, have we not, that we can run Parliament virtually if we have to? So may we have an urgent debate on this matter, get on with the work, if necessary close Parliament down except virtually between July and October, and work in double-shifts and perhaps bring in Front-Bench spokesmen to a pop-up Parliament in the atrium of Portcullis House, but above all get on with the work and pursue value for money?

My right hon. Friend is right to say that the pandemic has increased the eternal need to ensure that when it comes to all Government expenditure, but especially restoration and renewal, the taxpayer is only asked to pay for vital works, not gold-plating. I will confess to him that some of the figures I have heard bandied around for the total cost, and some I am seeing requested for budgets at the moment, are eye-watering, and it is hard to believe that that is what is required for the vital works.

The Palace of Westminster must remain the home of our democracy. It is a temple to democracy: that is what our Victorian forebears built it to be. It is one we should be immeasurably proud of and must preserve and use, because we need to carry on our work in this fantastic Palace, not somewhere else. But it has to be said that the “how” should follow the “what” in this regard, not the other way round: the “what” comes after we have worked out “how”, which is why hon. and right hon. Members like my right hon. Friend will have such an important role to play in the coming months in helping to determine the scale of the project—the “what” that is required. We are the ones accountable to constituents, so it is quite right that we will be the Members of Parliament—the Members of this current Parliament—who make the final decisions on how to proceed.

Last month, post Brexit, I asked the House of Commons Commission to give preference to British suppliers. On 14 January it replied:

“The Public Contract Regulations 2015 are UK law and in general they prohibit contracting authorities from specifying the country of manufacture or origin when purchasing goods. This has not changed now that the Brexit transition period has ended.”

But, as the explanatory memorandum at the time on this legislation made clear, this regulation was made to implement an EU directive, so may we have a debate to demand that our public sector backs British industry and British workers, or, better still, could the Leader of the House prevail on his colleagues to change this legislation ASAP?

Once again I welcome the right hon. Gentleman, who is such a staunch Brexiteer and who has seen the errors of the European ways and wishes the United Kingdom Parliament to make its own laws free of orders, requests, directives or regulations from the European Union. He is right, therefore, to campaign on this issue, because that is what this House is for: to make sure that we make our own laws. It does seem to me that the point the right hon. Gentleman makes is entirely reasonable: that the United Kingdom Parliament ought to be able to have its supplies entirely from the United Kingdom if that is what it wishes to do. I am not in favour of protectionism, but this Parliament is a symbol of the nation, and therefore I think he is on a very good wicket in what he says.

Last night, in a very rare occurrence, I took a leaf out of the book of the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and asked local residents what they wanted me to ask the Leader of the House about. After some great suggestions, an issue raised multiple times was the Toft Hill bypass, a much needed bypass to the A68 that will help to alleviate traffic issues and greatly improve road safety near Toft Hill Primary School. In Transport questions last week, the Transport Secretary told me that he came armed with information about the Toft Hill bypass, but I threw him a curveball by asking about a different local transport issue. However, knowing now how incredibly keen the Transport Secretary is on the future success of this bypass, will the Leader of the House ask him to meet me and local stakeholders to discuss how best to move the project forward?

I must confess I am surprised that my hon. Friend is modelling herself on the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), as I know something of her political views; I do not think hers and his particularly coincide. However, I congratulate her on holding her local authority to account in the Chamber and representing her constituents so vigorously.

The issue that my hon. Friend raises is one for Durham County Council to consider, as it is responsible for the road in question. As I understand it, no bid from the council has as yet been forthcoming. The Government cannot currently make guarantees, but the new £4 billion levelling-up fund may offer an opportunity to support this project if local leaders make a convincing case. Further details of that fund will be announced in due course. I view it as part of my role as Leader of the House to try to facilitate meetings between Members and Ministers, so I will of course pass on my hon. Friend’s request to the Transport Secretary.

I will briefly suspend the House in order that preparations can be made in the Chamber for the next item of business.

Sitting suspended.