Skip to main content


Volume 689: debated on Wednesday 10 February 2021

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.

Over the past week, thousands of people across Frankley Great Park and south Northfield have done what has been asked of them and gone and got a test, because of a small number of South African variant cases in the constituency. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking Dr Justin Varney, Councillor Simon Morrall and Birmingham City Council for everything they have done to scale up mass testing across Frankley Great Park? Will he encourage anyone who has not had a test so far to get one at one of the designated sites?

Yes, indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue and, indeed, join him in thanking the NHS staff who are scaling up the surge testing in the way that he describes. I encourage everybody in the area and, indeed, throughout the country to get a vaccine when they are asked to do so.

May I begin by thanking everybody involved in the vaccine roll-out? We have now vaccinated 12.6 million people and are on course to vaccinate the first four priority groups by the end of this week. That is a truly amazing achievement.

Can the Prime Minister confirm today that the Government will extend business rates relief beyond 31 March?

I am glad to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman join in the praise of the vaccine roll-out, which is indeed a tribute to NHS staff, the Army, the volunteers and many, many others.

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point about the extension of business rates relief, he knows that this Government are committed to supporting businesses, people and livelihoods throughout the pandemic. That is what we will continue to do, but he should wait until the Budget for the Chancellor to explain exactly what we are going to do.

I think that answer was that the Prime Minister cannot give an answer yet, but hundreds of thousands of businesses are affected by this. The trouble is that businesses do not work as slowly as the Prime Minister—they need an answer now. As the British Chambers of Commerce says, businesses

“simply can’t wait until the March Budget.”

Let me try another vitally important question for businesses and for millions of working people. Can the Prime Minister confirm today that the furlough scheme will be extended beyond April?

I think most people in this country are aware that we are going through a very serious pandemic in which rates of infection have been steadily brought down thanks to the efforts of the British people. I also think that Members of this House are familiar with the notion that in just a few days we will be setting out a road map for the way out of this pandemic—a road map that I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his colleagues will support, although their support, as we know, tends to be a transitory thing: one week we have it, the next week we do not. He will not have to contain himself for very long.

Let me let the Prime Minister into a secret: he can take decisions for himself and he does not need to leave everything to the 11th minute. If I were Prime Minister, I would say to businesses, “We will support you now. We will protect jobs now.” The CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors and the British Chambers of Commerce have all said the same thing: they all say that they cannot wait until the Budget. The Prime Minister may disagree with me, but he is actually disagreeing with businesses. Why does the Prime Minister think he knows better than British business?

Most businesspeople that I have talked to—I have talked to a great many in the past 12 months—would agree that no Government around the world have done more to support business, wrapping our arms around it. I am delighted to hear this enthusiasm for business from the Labour party, which stood on a manifesto to destroy capitalism at the last election and, indeed, to dismantle the very pharmaceutical industry that has provided the vaccines on which we now rely. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman now repudiate that policy?

We all know what the Prime Minister once said that he wanted to do to business. We on these Benches would rather listen to businesses.

We have no decision on business rates, no decision on furlough. Let us try another crucial issue. This time there is no excuse for delaying, because this has to be decided before the March Budget and the Prime Minister does not need to check with the Chancellor—will he now commit to extending the evictions ban on residential properties beyond 21 February?

I have said repeatedly that what we will do in this Government and throughout this pandemic is put our arms around the British people, support them throughout the pandemic and make sure that they are not unfairly evicted during the pandemic. That is what we will do. What I very much hope that we hear from the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that he has had not only a Damascene conversion to the importance of business, but a Damascene conversion to supporting all the Government’s policies that support business, rather than sniping from the sidelines. Why does he not get behind us and back the Government, back us in our efforts to back business and back the British people?

I am not going to take lectures from a man who not only wrote two versions of every column he ever wrote as a journalist, but proposed Donald Trump for a Nobel peace prize and gave Dominic Cummings a pay rise.

Let us go back to the question. Another area where the Prime Minister has repeatedly delayed and now changes his policy pretty well every day is securing our borders against variants of covid. Every week, the Prime Minister comes here and says, “We have one of the toughest regimes in the world”. We know that his Home Secretary disagrees with him. We know that the Health Secretary disagrees with him. Luckily, Oxford University keeps track of how tough border restrictions are in every country. It says that there are at least 33 countries around the world that currently have tougher restrictions than the United Kingdom—33, Prime Minister—including Canada, Denmark, Japan, Israel and many others. In fact, Oxford University says that we are not even in the top bracket of countries for border restrictions. It is 50 days after we first discovered the South African variant —50 days. How does the Prime Minister explain that?

There are some countries in Europe that do not even have a hotel quarantine scheme such as the one that we are putting in on Monday. We have among the toughest border regimes anywhere in the world. People should understand that, on a normal day at this time of year, we could expect about 250,000 people to be arriving in this country. We have got it down to about 20,000, 5,000 of whom are involved in bringing vital things into this country, such as medicines and food, as we discussed last week and which the right hon. and learned Gentleman agreed was a good idea. Unless he actually wants to cut this country off from the rest of the world, which, last week, I think he said that he did not want to do—unless of course he has changed his mind again—I think that this policy is measured, it is proportionate, and it is getting tougher from Monday. I hope that he supports it.

The truth is this: the Prime Minister is failing to give security to British businesses and he is failing to secure our borders. The Prime Minister often complains that we never put forward constructive proposals, so here are two for him: support businesses and protect jobs now by extending furlough, business rates relief and VAT cuts for hospitality; and, secondly, secure our borders with a comprehensive hotel quarantine on arrival. No more delays: will he do it?

We have just announced the quarantine policy, which, as I have said to the House, is among the toughest in the world and certainly tougher than most other European countries. I am delighted that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is now supporting business—not a policy for which he was famous before—in his latest stunt of bandwagoneering. He has moved from one side of the debate to the other throughout this crisis. Some people have said that this is a “good crisis”. Some people have said that this crisis is

“a gift that keeps on giving”.

Those people sit on the Labour Front Bench. It is disgraceful that they should say those things. This is one of the biggest challenges that this country has faced since the second world war and, thanks to one of the fastest vaccine roll-outs anywhere in the world, it is a challenge that this country can meet and is meeting. I believe that this vaccine roll-out programme is something that this House and this country should be very proud of.

I thank the Prime Minister for the decisions he took last year that have meant that the vaccine programme is in such a good position this week. Despite that success, it is vital that the programme keeps pace with the changing variants. Will he update the House on where the UK stands on ensuring that the UK supply chain is in place and that we do not get behind as the virus mutates? (912100)

My right hon. Friend asks an extremely important question. We recently announced an agreement for 50 million doses with the manufacturer CureVac because we believe that that may help us to develop vaccines that can respond at scale to new variants of the virus. As the House will have heard from the chief medical officer, the deputy chief medical officer and others, I think we are going to have to get used to the idea of vaccinating and then revaccinating in the autumn as we come to face these new variants.

Let us head up to Ross, Skye and Lochaber with the Scottish National party’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford.

New research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the baby bank charity Little Village has revealed that 1.3 million children under five in the United Kingdom are living in poverty. That is a truly shocking figure that should make this Tory Government utterly ashamed. The Scottish National party has repeatedly called for a financial package to boost household incomes and reverse this Tory child poverty crisis. The Prime Minister has the power to tackle child poverty right now by making the £20 uplift to universal credit permanent and extending it to legacy benefits. The Tory Government have been stalling on this for months. Will the Prime Minister finally act, or will he leave millions of children out in the cold?

The whole House and this country should be proud of the way in which we have tried to look after people—the poorest and neediest families throughout the country—not just with universal credit, which the Opposition would actually abolish, but by helping vulnerable people with their food and heating bills through the £170 million winter grant scheme, and looking after people with the free school meal vouchers. As I have said before, we will put our arms around the people of the entire country throughout the pandemic.

I have to say that that was pathetic—that was no answer. We are talking about 1.3 million children under five in poverty. Let me quote:

“She cried on her doorstep because I gave her nappies, wipes and winter clothes for her child. I went away with a lump in my throat.”

Those are the words of Emilie, a baby bank worker who is supporting families that the Tories have pushed into poverty through a decade of cuts. They do not need more empty words from a Prime Minister who simply does not care enough to act.

This morning, a new report from Citizens Advice Scotland warned that Tory cuts could reduce the value of universal credit by as much as a quarter, just when people need that money the most. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet me and other Opposition parties ahead of the Budget for an urgent summit on tackling child poverty, or will he be yet another Tory Prime Minister who leaves a generation of children languishing in poverty?

I must say that I reject entirely what the right hon. Gentleman has just said. I do not believe that any Government could have done more to help the people of this country throughout this pandemic, and we will continue to do so. Yes, of course we bitterly lament and reject the poverty that some families unquestionably suffer. It is tragic that too many families have had a very tough time during the pandemic, but we will continue to support them in all the ways that we have set out. I may say to the right hon. Gentleman that there is a profound philosophical difference between him and me; the Scottish nationalist party is morphing into an ever more left-wing party that believes—

There you go, Mr Speaker. They believe fundamentally that it is the duty of the taxpayer to pay for more and more and more. We want to get people into jobs, and it is in that respect that the Scottish nationalist party is, I am afraid, failing—

Order. Prime Minister, we both know that you are only teasing and trying to wind up the leader of the SNP; please, let’s drop it. Let us move on, because Lee Anderson is waiting for you.

A new freeport for the east midlands will create over 60,000 new jobs and provide a massive boost for employers such as Caunton Engineering and Abacus in Ashfield. After decades of neglect from Labour MPs, we now feel an sense of hope in the red wall seats. My mum and dad voted Conservative for the first time at the last general election and were touched when the Prime Minister acknowledged that their votes were lent. Could my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister please reassure my mum and dad, my friends, my family and all my constituents that our area will never be let down again? (912101)

Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for everything he is doing for Ashfield. He and I have had enjoyable times campaigning for the people of Ashfield and will continue to do so. I can tell Paul and Jenny that our commitment to levelling up is absolutely rock solid throughout this country.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llefarydd.

As we just heard, the Government claim to have a levelling-up agenda underpinned by a research and development road map. The trouble is that the Tories’ track record on this is not good: in fact, it is abysmal. Wales receives the lowest R&D spend per person of the four nations, at around 40% of spend per head in England, and Westminster’s obsession with the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London shows no sign of abating. Will the Prime Minister now commit to a further devolved R&D funding settlement to the Senedd, or is he content for Westminster’s road map to be Wales’s road to nowhere?

I am afraid that I think that the right hon. Lady is doing Wales down, the people of Wales down and the ingenuity of Wales down, because I think about a quarter of the airline passengers in the world are borne aloft on wings made by the Welsh aerospace sector. Bridgend is going to be one of the great centres of battery manufacturing in this country, if not the world. Wales is at the cutting edge of technology under this Government’s plans for record spending on R&D—£22 billion by the end of this Parliament—and Wales, along with the whole of the rest of the UK, will benefit massively.

The UK has fallen behind Europe in tapping the potential of geothermal heat and energy in places like Crewe. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss how we can ensure that geothermal helps us to build back better with a revitalised package of incentives for industry? (912106)

I thank my hon. Friend for the excellent point he makes about Crewe and the way it is now in the forefront of deep geothermal energy exploration. I am very happy to meet him to discuss what we can to further geothermal energy in Crewe, diary permitting.

This Government said that no council would be suffering as a result of the pandemic, and the Chancellor said that he would do everything—“whatever it takes”—to help them. Yet Tory-controlled Bolton Council has just announced £35 million of cuts in towns and an increase in the council tax budget of 3.8%. Can the Prime Minister assure my constituents and my town that that money will be given to them, or will this join a long list of Tory failed promises? (912102)

I want to congratulate the great Conservative-controlled council of Bolton on everything that it is doing and continuing to do throughout this pandemic to look after the people of Bolton. I know what incredible work the local officials do, and I thank them very much for it. Since we believe so strongly in local government, as a creature of local government myself, I am proud that we have invested £4.6 billion in supporting local government just so far in this pandemic.

From rainforests to coral reefs, the world’s ecosystems are at risk of catastrophic decline. That was the conclusion last week of the Dasgupta review, which my right hon. Friend rightly welcomed. This threat to our biodiversity is not just a moral failure; it is economically short-sighted too. When I asked Professor Dasgupta to carry out this work, he told me that it would not be complete until after the UK had hosted the COP26 summit. But now, given that the summit has been delayed until later this year and that it will take place alongside our presidency of the G7, does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK has been presented with a unique opportunity to show global leadership on how we can better protect our most precious asset—nature? (912108)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I thank him for what he is doing in this area. I want the House to know that we want the UN COP26 summit to be a landmark event, not just for tackling climate change but for biodiversity. I think it is high time that the leaders of the world took a step to reverse the loss of habitats and species that we have seen over the last century.

It is estimated that up to 400,000 people are living with the debilitating effects of long covid, and some of them are NHS heroes, who caught covid in that first wave. Nearly a year later, I have heard from a doctor who says she wonders whether she will ever be able to walk unaided again, let alone manage a full day of work. Does the Prime Minister recognise that, for this group, long covid is an occupational disease, and will he set up a compensation scheme similar to what we offer our armed forces, so that we ensure that those who have lost their livelihoods by saving lives are fully supported? (912103)

I thank the hon. Lady, because she is right to highlight the incredible sacrifice and effort of NHS staff, many of whom, sadly, have contracted covid in the course of their duties, and a great many of them have sadly continued to be affected by that disease. We must study the long-term effects of covid and ensure that we continue to look after our wonderful NHS staff throughout their careers.

Can the Prime Minister confirm today that all students will be back in school no later than 8 March, and will he commit to starting any phased return straight after half term, so that the damaging effects of being away from school are not drawn out for any longer than is absolutely necessary? (912109)

I can certainly confirm that we will do everything we can, and I know that the settled will of most people in this House is to get our schoolchildren back on 8 March, if we possibly can. I will be setting out for my hon. Friend as much as we can say on Monday, and then in the week of 22 February, we will be setting out a road map and the way forward for schools. We have to make sure that we keep this virus under control. It is coming down, but we cannot take our foot off its throat.

Having sat on the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill Committee for 15 months, I was a sceptic as to the economic benefits of the project for the north-east, but HS2 is going ahead, at least in the south. It is therefore crucial that the eastern leg of HS2 goes ahead, not just for Yorkshire and the east midlands, but for the north- east. The Prime Minister has made repeated promises to the people of the north-east of his intention to level up and to connect and create opportunities for people here, in places like Gateshead. As we strive to recover from the damage done to so many families and businesses by the pandemic, will the Prime Minister commit to beginning the work on the eastern leg of HS2, starting in the north-east and to run simultaneously with the construction in the south, so that our region is not forced to wait another couple of decades for 21st-century rail connectivity? (912104)

I can certainly confirm that we are going to develop the eastern leg as well as the whole of the HS2. The hon. Gentleman will be hearing a lot more about what we are going to do with our national infrastructure revolution and about what we will do to improve not just rail transport, but road transport in the north-east.

Q19. There is no shortage of commitment or compassion in my town of Eastbourne for homeless people, who are vulnerable and need complex support. However, neighbouring Brighton continues to send its homeless to our town, and we do not have the resources to meet this need. Three homeless people have died, and I believe that there will be inquests. Brighton is not engaging with Eastbourne Borough Council in any meaningful way, and a further 51 placements have been made in recent weeks. Will my right hon. Friend join me in urging Brighton and Hove City Council leaders to engage on this as a matter of urgency? (912111)

Yes, indeed. I thank Brighton and Hove City Council for co-operating with Eastbourne Borough Council in getting this done. There must be co-operation. No one in this country should be sleeping rough or homeless as a result of this pandemic or, indeed, through any other cause. We have invested £700 million this year to help people off the streets, and it continues to be a national priority. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government for what he is doing and the various taskforces that are currently at work to prevent people from coming out on the streets again as we lift the restrictions.

At the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea, there have been 526 cases of coronavirus since last September. The Prime Minister told us at Prime Minister’s Question Time:“All staff who can work from home are doing so”—[Official Report, 28 January 2021; Vol. 688, c. 374.]But in March last year, 250 people were working on site, and now the numbers are in their thousands, and they are facing a more infectious and widespread disease. Yesterday, 90 people were sent home following the latest outbreak of coronavirus just before the weekend. Given that BT is on standby to install home secure technology to allow homeworking, will the Prime Minister meet me and the Public and Commercial Services Union ahead of the strike ballot next week, so that workplace numbers can be reduced until the vaccine is rolled out, to keep people safe and avoid an unnecessary strike? (912105)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this with me again. Thanks to the working from home strategy that the DVLA has been pursuing, of a workforce of 6,000, there are currently thankfully only nine cases of covid to the best of my knowledge, and three of those individuals are working from home. We are rolling out lateral flow tests; a huge number of lateral flow tests are being distributed to the DVLA. The long-term solution—or the medium-term solution, I should say—is to vaccinate and to roll out the vaccination programme. That is what this Government are doing in Wales and across the country.

Families across West Bromwich East who have been affected by cancer, just like my own, know all too well that early diagnosis and treatment can save a life. According to research by Macmillan Cancer Support, there are over 70 people in my constituency and 50,000 across the UK with a missing cancer diagnosis. Cancer has not stopped during the pandemic, so with that in mind, will the Prime Minister commit to making the resurgence of cancer diagnosis services a top priority as restrictions begin to ease? (912112)

I thank my hon. Friend; I know that this issue is very close to her heart, and she is right to raise it. Of course there are pressures from covid, but we are also worried that some people may not be coming forward for the cancer treatments that they need. I urge everybody who needs to get their treatment: help the NHS to help you. Come forward and get your treatment as you normally would.

The Prime Minister said in November that the £1.5 billion green homes grant would be extended to March 2022, yet in a written answer last week, the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth said that the money would not be carried over from this financial year to next. With just seven weeks to go, a paltry £71 million has been spent so far. Why is he cutting £1 billion from the green homes grant that he promised for businesses, homeowners and the environment? (912107)

The hon. Lady is on to something, but she is barking up the wrong tree. We are not cutting the green homes grant. The problem is that there has not been enough take-up, and we want to encourage people to take it up and make use of the opportunity to reduce the carbon emissions of their homes.

The Prime Minister has said, and he has written in his foreword to the environment White Paper, that he is pledged to protect the countryside. The countryside is more than just a bit of green belt around the home counties. In Westgate, Birchington and Herne Bay in my constituency, and indeed across much of the garden of England, there are plans to smother acres of prime agricultural land in housing that is not needed for local people but that is needed to grow the crops to reduce the amount of food we import at a cost of carbon emissions. If the Prime Minister is the friend of the countryside, will he announce an immediate moratorium on the use of all farmland for housing, while the whole policy is reviewed?

I think I have just heard my right hon. Friend say that he wants an immediate moratorium on the construction of all housing. Maybe I misunderstood; I do not think that to be realistic. What I can certainly tell him is that we will take very seriously the points he makes. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has met him, and will be glad to meet him again, to discuss the subject he raises. However, this Government’s commitment to nature and to the countryside is unmatched. We have just consecrated 30% of our land surface to nature.

I had a meeting recently with the PCS about public sector pay and heard from constituents in Shotts and Calderbank who work for UK Government Departments, both of whom are struggling to cover a real-terms pay cut over decades—one has to take partial early retirement so that the lump sum can keep him going. What will the Prime Minister say to the Chancellor to convince him of the need to properly reward all those who have been on the frontline during the covid pandemic? Will he at the very least follow the Scottish Government’s lead in fully funding a rise in public sector pay? (912110)

We have seen above-inflation increases in public sector pay, and that is quite right. We particularly support increases in investment in our NHS, and the hon. Gentleman will know of the package we have put in place for nurses. However, the single best thing we can do is support the living wage, which this Government introduced, and which we have now increased by record amounts two years in a row. [Interruption.] I see the Scottish nationalist party—forgive me, national. I do not know whether they are nationalists—perhaps they could clear it up.

Are they a national party without being nationalists? It is an interesting semantic point, Mr Speaker. However, I think they are trying to claim that they pioneered the living wage. I do not think that is right. I seem to remember that it was a certain mayoralty in London that massively increased the living wage—when they were not off the starting blocks.

In which case, let us go down to Somerset to Ian Liddell-Grainger, who is ready on the starting blocks.

Mr Speaker, thank you as always. I am delighted my right hon. Friend is defending democracy by pushing ahead with local elections, but here in the land of King Alfred the people desperately want to give their verdict on Somerset County Council, which I am afraid has been using covid money to spend on things that have nothing to do with the pandemic. It has submitted to the Government a form that says nothing, and I fear that my right hon. Friend has been misled. We need a referendum down here to test public opinion quickly, but does my right hon. Friend—a proud man of Somerset, who understands history more than most of us—not agree that the time has come to put our county back together and that the whole of Somerset should be looked after by Somerset? I know that King Alfred would approve of that, and I know that the people of Somerset will certainly support the Prime Minister if he supports us.

I thank my hon. Friend, who is a great advocate of Somerset and is committed to his constituents. I thank him for what he is doing. He has raised this issue twice with me now, and I thank him for that, but may I humbly suggest that the best way forward is for the consultation to proceed and for local people to decide what the best form of local government is that they want?

The Prime Minister is now aware of the problems that we warned about over many months before the Northern Ireland protocol was introduced. These problems are scheduled to get worse from April. Will he outline a timeline, as indicated in last week’s e-petition, whereby people in Northern Ireland, and indeed across the UK, will be able to enjoy free trade across the nation, including from GB to NI, like that enjoyed by every other independent trading nation? (912113)

Yes, indeed. I have made it absolutely clear to our EU friends and partners that we want to make our relationship work, but it is also absolutely essential that there should be untrammelled free trade and exchange of goods, people, services and capital through all parts of the UK. We will do everything we can to ensure that that is the case, including, as I have said in the Chamber before and to the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues, invoking article 16 of the protocol, if necessary.

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

Sitting suspended.