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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 689: debated on Wednesday 10 February 2021

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Policy Evidence

We must have an equality agenda that is driven by the evidence. That is why we have launched an equality data programme, looking at the life paths of individuals across the country and ensuring that we have hard data about the barriers that people face, whether in education, employment or accessing capital for business.

I thank the Minister for her answer. Like her, I welcome the importance of data in all this. I also welcome the fact that last year the Government Equalities Office commissioned the Behavioural Insights Team to produce a summary of the evidence on unconscious bias training. As she will know, the report highlighted that there was no evidence that this training changed behaviour in the long term, nor did it improve workplace equality. It also stated that there is emerging evidence of unintended negative consequences. So I am glad that the Government are phasing it out in the civil service and that this House is doing the same, but can she assure me and the House that any suggested replacement for this training must be supported by the evidence of what works?

My hon. Friend is right that unconscious bias training has been shown not to work and in fact can be counterproductive. The best way to improve equality is to make the system fairer by increasing choice and openness. For example, making systems around pay and promotion more transparent and open has been shown by the evidence to improve equality for everybody.

I was very pleased to hear my right hon. Friend’s commitment to robust evidence. Does she agree that there is hard data that, when there is enforcement of reporting, more companies publish their gender pay gap? With no enforcement in place, so far this year, just one third of last year’s total has reported. Is that robust enough evidence for her that without enforcement there is a danger that equal pay will slide backwards?

I am pleased to say that we saw the gender pay gap fall to a record low last year, but we need to continue making progress on that issue, including making sure that we are tackling the cause of the gender pay gap, and 35% of the cause is the fact that women and men are in different occupations. So we need to make it easier for women to get into high-paid jobs in areas such as technology, science, and engineering.

Covid-19: Support for Women

What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of Government support for women during the covid-19 outbreak. (912135)

We have rolled out unprecedented levels of economic support to those who need it most, regardless of gender. That includes sectors that employ large numbers of women, such as retail and hospitality. The Government are continually reviewing the effectiveness of their support and Departments carefully consider the impact of their decisions on those sharing protected characteristics. That is in line with both their legal obligations, and the Government’s strong commitment to promoting fairness. Of course, men are impacted too. Indeed, latest figures show a higher redundancy rate for men. That is why we are committed to ensuring a fair recovery for all.

A recent High Court ruling found the universal credit childcare payment system to be unlawful and discriminatory against women, after a single mother was forced to pay childcare costs upfront and then claim back, forcing her into debt and causing psychological harm. Does the Minister agree that the universal credit childcare offer is inadequate for parents who rely on it, 80% of whom are women? Will she urge the Department of Work and Pensions to improve it?

I will speak to my colleagues in the DWP, but I know that the Government have been offering unprecedented levels of support to provide for all those people who require support in childcare. That includes the recent £20 uplift, which the Chancellor agreed to last year.

A recent TUC survey found that 71% of mothers asking to be furloughed as they could not juggle work with childcare have been refused by their employers. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that affordable childcare is available for all parents who need it, so that they are not forced out of work by this pandemic?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The Government have provided significant support for those people who have been furloughed, and there is a childcare provision within universal credit. We recognise that parents across the country are having difficulties during the pandemic, and we have put several measures in place to ensure they have the support required.

The pandemic has made flexible working a necessity for many women, who have a disproportionate share of caring responsibilities, but under the Flexible Working Regulations 2014 an employee is eligible to request flexible working arrangements only after 26 consecutive weeks of work for their employer. What consideration has the Minister given to the recommendation in the new Women and Equalities Committee report to remove that 26-week threshold?

We have a manifesto commitment to further encourage flexible working, and we are going to be consulting on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to. We know that the Women and Equalities Committee has released a report, and we are carefully considering it and will provide our conclusions in due course. We appreciate the work of the Committee on these important issues and the contributions of those who gave evidence.

Children: Equality of Opportunity

What steps she is taking to ensure that children throughout the UK have equality of opportunity. (912137)

What steps she is taking to ensure that children throughout the UK have equality of opportunity. (912141)

What steps she is taking to ensure that children throughout the UK have equality of opportunity. (912142)

Spreading opportunity is a top priority across Government. That is why we are levelling up school standards and investing over £7.1 billion more in schools by 2022-23 than in 2019-20. We are committed to providing extra support for the education of disadvantaged children during the pandemic, including through our £350 million national tutoring programme.

In Wales, there has been a reduction in real-terms education spending in the last 10 years of 8.4%. I appreciate that education is devolved, but the children of Delyn are also children of the United Kingdom. As my hon. Friend’s brief effectively spans all Government Departments from an equalities standpoint, what can she do to ensure that children in Wales are not forgotten by the UK Government?

My hon. Friend is correct that education is a devolved matter in Wales. However, it is important that we work closely together to ensure that every child receives the best education, wherever they live in the UK, and to give them the best start in life. For example, our UK-wide safeguarding policy is essential to allow children to concentrate on their learning without fear of negative influence. Our equality data programme will seek to use data from across the UK to help inform future policy, making equality of opportunity a reality for all.

I thank the Minister for her reply and the initiatives contained within it. We know school closures have had a very unequal impact on children. Does she agree that the best way to address that is to safely reopen schools as quickly as possible?

We are committed to getting all pupils and students back into schools and colleges as soon as the public health picture allows. In doing so, the Government will be guided by the scientific and medical experts. When Parliament returns from recess in the week commencing 22 February, we intend to publish our plan for taking the country out of lockdown, including plans for reopening education. We hope we will be able to commence the full reopening of schools from Monday 8 March. We have committed to providing schools, parents and young people with a minimum of two weeks’ notice for that return to on-site provision.

What support for children with learning disabilities are the Government pursuing to ensure equality of opportunity?

The pandemic has been extremely challenging for many families with children and young people with special educational needs. Supporting them is a priority for this Government, and their wellbeing remains central to our response. My hon. Friend will be glad to know that we are providing £40.8 million this year for the Family Fund to help more than 80,000 low-income families who have children with disabilities or serious illnesses. That includes £13.5 million specifically in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which may include assistive technology to aid remote learning.

Social Mobility

Our focus is on levelling up and ensuring that no one is left behind. During the pandemic, we are ensuring that all children get the chance to succeed through a further £300 million to schools for tutoring, new summer school initiatives and the covid premium.

Last month, it was reported that the civil service fast stream is no longer publishing data on the social backgrounds of the people it hires, which came with information obtained by a freedom of information request showing that the success of those from private schools entering the fast stream is double that of those from comprehensive schools. Can I therefore ask my right hon. Friend to push the civil service fast stream to publish that data regularly, so that it leads by example and demonstrates its commitment to social mobility?

My hon. Friend is correct to say that the civil service should be recruiting the best people, regardless of their background, and that it should be open to all. We will be publishing the data that he asks for by April of this year, and the Government will have more to say shortly on widening opportunity in the civil service.

Geographic Inequality of Opportunity

We need to tackle the scourge of geographic inequality—average hourly wages are nearly 30% higher in London than they are in the north-west—and that is why I have asked the Equalities Hub to look beyond protected characteristics and identify additional barriers that people face up and down the country.

Coastal communities such as Lytham St Annes are home to substantial tourism and hospitality sectors. Those sectors have traditionally employed large numbers of women, but they have been particularly hit by the pandemic. Given that inequality in coastal resorts is a long-recognised issue, what plans does my right hon. Friend have to ensure that coastal towns—in Lancashire, especially—can build back better?

We are directing vital support to seaside towns through the £230 million coastal communities fund. We recognise the unique challenges faced by towns such as St Annes, and that will be very much in our thoughts as we look to the £4 billion levelling-up fund and the UK shared prosperity fund. I am pleased to say that we will be publishing prospectives for those shortly, and no doubt my hon. Friend will be interested in applying.

BAME People in Criminal Justice System

What recent discussions she has had with the Justice Secretary on the disproportionate number of BAME people in the criminal justice system. (912143)

Tackling race disparity in the criminal justice system remains a priority for all Ministers in my Department. We have a broad programme of work to address the issue, including work on the collection of data and the implementation of policies that tackle disproportionality, together with scrutiny and oversight. The criminal justice system race and ethnicity board reviews the progress of this work.

A lack of diversity in the judiciary is something that should concern the Government. It is deeply troubling, as it is one of the major reasons that all communities, including black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, lack confidence in the criminal justice system. There are currently zero Supreme Court judges who are from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds. Steps need to be taken to fix the justice system so that it is fair and equal for everyone. Will the Government introduce a clear target for a representative judiciary, as called for in the Lammy review?

The hon. Member raises an important issue in relation to diversity in the judiciary, and it is important to ensure that women and black and ethnic minorities come through the system as lawyers. Indeed, there are a lot of women coming through the system, but we need to improve that as well. From 2014 to 2019, there have been some small improvements in judicial diversity. The proportion of women judges increased from 24% to 32% in the courts and from 43% to 46% in tribunals, and the proportion of BAME judges increased from 6% to 7% in the courts and from 9% to 11% in tribunals, but we need to do more work. The judiciary is independent, and I know that it is very concerned about this issue.

Discrimination Against LGBTQ+ Community

Any discrimination against LGBT people is unacceptable, and the Government are committed to supporting LGBT people and improving the lives of all citizens. We are working across agencies to ensure that they are safe from violence and discrimination. Internationally, we have awarded £3.2 million of new funding to help Commonwealth Governments and civil society to repeal outdated discriminatory laws.

Recent findings show an alarming rise in homophobic hate crimes across the United Kingdom, from 6,655 in 2014-15 to an astonishing 18,000 last year. These figures show that, despite our best efforts, many people are continuing to suffer discrimination and abuse, so does my hon. Friend agree that much more must be done? What more will her Department do to ensure that the United Kingdom can really become a country where facing discrimination on the basis of who you love really is a thing of the past?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I encourage those who may have been the victim of hate crime to speak out and contact the police. This Government are proud to have supported Galop, the country’s leading LGBT anti-violence charity, and we welcome its new specialist hate crime helpline, which launched last week. To further ensure the safety of LGBT people in this country and around the world, the Government are committed to ending conversion therapy and delivering an international conference.

Taxation: People with Disabilities

What recent discussions she has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on ensuring that the taxation system does not discriminate against people with disabilities. (912145)

The Government recognise it is important that the tax system treats people fairly and consistently, while also raising revenue for public services. We provide tax-free welfare benefits for those who have extra costs associated with their disability, including disability living allowance, personal independence payment and attendance allowance. We have also made available several VAT zero rates for the purchase of certain equipment and appliances designed solely for use by a disabled person, such as the VAT zero rate for the leasing of vehicles through the Motability scheme.

I am grateful for the Minister’s reply. I have been contacted by a constituent who is visually impaired and needs expensive corrective glasses annually, on which she has to pay VAT. Does the Minister agree that it is not fair that the greater a person’s sight disability, the greater the tax they pay? Will she agree to discuss with the Treasury that, as glasses are an essential item for my constituent, they should not be taxed as a luxury?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Government ensure that the supply of health and welfare services, including opticians and eye tests, are exempt from VAT, which ensures that VAT is not a barrier to accessing medical treatment. Moreover, in addition to NHS complex lens vouchers, the Government already offer support for individuals to help with the cost of glasses through NHS optical vouchers. Those eligible for help include children and those on certain income-related benefits, and the value varies from £39 to £215 depending on the level of the patient’s prescription. However, I will write to my hon. Friend with full details so that she can assist her constituent.

Reducing Poverty

What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on reducing poverty. (912146)

What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on reducing poverty. (912160)

My colleagues and I at the DWP have frequent discussions with GEO Ministers on a wide range of issues. Throughout this pandemic the Government have sought to protect jobs and incomes, spending billions on strengthening welfare support for those most in need. Our long-term ambition is to level up across the United Kingdom, helping people back into work as quickly as possible, based on clear evidence of the importance of work in tackling poverty.

Child poverty is a stain on our nation, and hon. Members on both sides of the House should commit to working together to eradicate it. The Minister will know that, before the pandemic, child poverty was projected to increase to 5.2 million by 2022, a disastrous thing for those children and something that will significantly damage life opportunities. What steps is he taking now to do everything possible to ensure this prediction does not come true?

As far as I am concerned, one child in poverty is one child too many. All evidence suggests that work is the best route out of poverty for families, and that is why we are supporting parents into work with our £30 billion plan for jobs and childcare offer. We recognise that times are tough for so many at the moment, which is why we have boosted our welfare system by over £7 billion this year to support those facing the most financial disruption.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to research by the Welsh gender equality charity Chwarae Teg that shows that women are twice as likely to be key workers in Wales, and that the effects of sector shut- downs, business closures and unemployment are falling disproportionately on women, who are more likely to lose their job in the pandemic? Will the Minister study the report and tell the House what practical steps the Government are taking to help them?

The female employment rate is at 72% and the female unemployment rate is at 4.7%. This is an issue we take incredibly seriously, not least the Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), who leads on this important work. I will, of course, study the report carefully, as will the Minister for Employment.

Topical Questions

Tomorrow is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science and, as we build back better, we want to see a new generation of female tech and science entrepreneurs. Promoting science, technology, engineering and maths among girls is vital to this. Since 2010, 31% more girls and 34% more women are studying these subjects at A-level and university respectively. We are building on that programme with STEM ambassadors to encourage even more girls and women to come forward.

Many disabled people, and their carers too, are still in receipt of legacy benefits, which means they are not getting the £20 uplift that universal credit claimants have been getting. Does the Minister agree that that is discriminatory and needs to be addressed?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I appreciate that many people are facing financial disruption due to the pandemic, which is why the Government have put an unprecedented package of support in place. Legacy benefits were increased by 1.7% last year and will increase by 0.5% from April, in line with prices.

I thank the safeguarding Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), for all her hard work to combat violence against women and girls. Will she join me in encouraging everybody who has experienced violence or supported those who have to submit their views to the Government’s consultation on the next violence against women and girls strategy, which closes next week, on 19 February? (912115)

I thank my hon. Friend for promoting the Government’s call for evidence on tackling violence against women and girls. We are asking the public, victims, charities, employers, health professionals, universities, colleges, the armed forces, the NHS and many more for their views, so that we can develop a national strategy that is fit for the 2020s. This is the largest ever call for evidence on crimes that disproportionately affect women and girls, because we want to hear from all parts of society. I ask all hon. Members to play their part and encourage their constituents to contribute to this vital call for evidence before it closes on 19 February.

South Asians, particularly Bangladeshi and Pakistani people, are still experiencing three times the risk from coronavirus in this second wave, so take-up of the vaccine is vital. We know that historical issues of mistrust and culturally inappropriate public health information have contributed to the legitimate vaccine hesitancy. The Government have had time to plan to mitigate all this, but they have still not produced a clear strategy to engage with our black, Asian and ethnic minority communities. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that the vaccine roll-out reaches all our communities, particularly those who are unequally impacted?

I will be providing a second covid disparities report at the end of this month, which will provide more comprehensive detail of steps we have taken. However, this is an issue that we recognise is very serious. The disparities are changing for different groups; we have seen some progress, for instance, among black groups. However, we do emphasise that vaccines are the best way to protect people from coronavirus. The Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS are working closely with black, Asian and minority ethnic communities to support those receiving a vaccine and to help anyone who may have questions about the process. As part of that, we are working with faith and community leaders to give them advice and information about the universal benefits of vaccination and how their communities can get a vaccine.

The Government have failed to consider the impact on equalities resulting from their responses to the pandemic. Covid mortality rates are twice as high in deprived areas, and the lowest-paid are more than twice as likely to have lost their jobs. That is why the Government have a legal duty, as set out in the Equality Act 2010, to consider the effects of policies on inequality, whether Ministers agree or not. As the Minister for Women and Equalities has yet to reply to my letter dated 14 January, can she now say that she will work to ensure that all Departments undertake and publish equality impact assessments on all their responses to this pandemic?

I completely reject the hon. Lady’s assertions. We do have a strategy, one part of which is to ensure that ethnic minorities are not stigmatised. The issues around coronavirus are complex. We have released information in various reports showing what the risk factors are and we have also outlined a plan to address them.

There is growing concern that an increasing number of women are becoming victims of online gambling addiction, with the resulting financial and mental health issues. What steps are the Government taking to truly understand the scale of the problem and safeguard women from predatory recruitment tactics? (912118)

Rates of problem gambling among women remain very low, but we know how devastating its impacts can be. The Gambling Commission is looking at how it collects data on gambling participation and problem gambling to make sure that we have access to even more robust and regular data on the issue. The Government are also reviewing the Gambling Act 2005 to make sure that we have the right protections in place to make gambling safer for all.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.