House of Commons
Wednesday 12 May 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Today we are marking the 80th anniversary of the destruction of the House of Commons Chamber by the Luftwaffe during what was the biggest air raid on London of the second world war. This morning the Lord Speaker and I laid wreaths at the memorial in Westminster Hall in memory of the three members of staff who lost their lives that night. On the way into the Chamber today, my procession paused at the entrance arch to commemorate the raid. Colleagues will know that Winston Churchill ordered that the arch be retained in its bomb-damaged state as an enduring reminder of the ordeal Westminster suffered during the war. We remember those who gave their lives to defend this place and all it represents, and thank friends and allies from across the Commonwealth who helped rebuild what was lost. This renewed Chamber will always remain a symbol of the resilience of democracy in the face of adversity.
As colleagues will know, the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee is elected each Session. Nominations are open now and will close at 5 pm on Tuesday 18 May. Nomination forms are available from the Vote Office, on the intranet, or by emailing the Public Bill Office at email@example.com. Candidates need the support of no fewer than 10 Members from a party represented in government and no fewer than 10 Members from a party not represented in government or from no party. Only Members from a party not represented in government may be candidates. If a ballot is necessary I will announce the arrangements in due course.
That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County constituency of Chesham and Amersham in the room of Dame Cheryl Elise Kendall Gillan, deceased.—(Mark Spencer.)
Violence in Israel and Palestine
To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on the violence in Israel and Palestine.
The recent escalation in violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories is deeply concerning. It is the worst violence seen there for several years. As the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made clear, this cycle of violence must stop and every effort must be made to avoid the loss of life, especially that of children. The UK offers our deepest condolences to the families of those civilians killed. Civilian deaths, both in Israel and Gaza, are a tragedy.
We urge all sides to refrain from any kind of provocation so that calm is restored as quickly as possible. As we enter the final days of the holy month of Ramadan, restoration of peace and security is in everyone’s interest. The UK will continue to support that goal. The UK unequivocally condemns the firing of rockets at Jerusalem and other locations in Israel. We strongly condemn these acts of terrorism from Hamas and other terrorist groups, who must permanently end their incitement and rocket fire against Israel. There is no justification for any targeting of civilians. Israel has a legitimate right to self-defence and to defend its citizens from attack. In doing so, it is vital that all actions are proportionate, are in line with international humanitarian law, and make every effort to avoid civilian casualties. Violence against peaceful worshippers of any faith is unacceptable. The UK has been clear that the attacks on worshippers must stop. The status quo in Jerusalem is important at all times, but especially so during religious festivals such as Ramadan. Our priority now must be an immediate de-escalation on all sides and an end to civilian deaths.
As I made clear over the weekend, we are concerned about tensions in Jerusalem linked to threatened evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah. That threat is allayed for now, but we urge Israel to cease such actions, which in most cases are contrary to international humanitarian law. The UK continues to support international efforts to reduce the tension. The Foreign Secretary delivered a message of de-escalation in a call to the Israeli Foreign Minister yesterday and will speak to the Palestinian Prime Minister shortly. I have spoken to the Israeli ambassador and the Palestinian head of mission in the UK to urge them to de-escalate and to restore calm. The UK has also engaged at the UN Security Council, calling for all sides to take measures to reduce further violence and making clear our deep concern at the violence at the holy sites in Jerusalem. I am sure that the Security Council will continue to monitor the situation closely, and it is due to reconvene. UK embassies throughout the middle east are engaging with regional partners, and we remain in close contact with the US Administration and our European allies.
The situation on the ground over the last few days demonstrates the urgent need to make progress towards peace. The UK remains committed to a two-state solution as the best way to bring peace and stability to the region. I repeat: we urge all sides to show maximum restraint and refrain from taking actions that endanger civilians and make a sustainable peace more difficult.
Ibrahim al-Masri, 11; Marwan al-Masri, six; Rahaf al-Masri, 10; and Yazan al-Masri, aged just two—those are some of the names of the children killed this week, and last night an Israeli child was added to their numbers. My heart breaks for them, and my heart bleeds for Palestine, for Jerusalem, the city of my family, for the worshippers attacked by extremists at the al-Aqsa mosque on the holiest night of Ramadan and for all innocent civilians, Israeli and Palestinian.
We cannot allow this to escalate any further. The Israeli Government pursuing evictions in Sheikh Jarrah that would be illegal under international humanitarian law, including the fourth Geneva convention, and the subsequent overly aggressive reaction of the Israeli authorities, which injured hundreds, has ignited a tinderbox. Hamas then retaliated, and those strikes must be condemned too, because violence only begets more violence. The UN special envoy last night warned that the situation is
“escalating towards a full-scale war.”
The Minister will know that he does not say such words lightly, and he refers to not just Israel-Palestine but the entire region.
My questions to the Minister are these. Will the UK back Security Council resolutions condemning these attacks, regardless of what the US does? Should that fail, will the Minister work with international partners such as the European Union to issue a statement on de-escalation in the strongest possible terms today? What steps is the UK taking to stop the attempted illegal evictions in Sheikh Jarrah? Will the Government commit to supporting a new round of peace negotiations and, indeed, new elections in Palestine?
Finally, if this is not the time to recognise the state of Palestine, then when is? The United Kingdom has a historic responsibility to the people of Palestine and a fundamental obligation to uphold international law. The two-state solution promised to the likes of my family is as elusive as ever. It is time for the Government to not just say but do.
I recognise the passion with which the hon. Lady speaks and her personal connection to both Jerusalem and the region. I can assure her that the United Kingdom will work with international partners, both bilaterally and through multilateral institutions, to encourage an end to the violence and conflict, which does nobody any good.
We all mourn; we all feel the deepest sympathy and condolences for those who have lost children and loved ones, whether they be in Gaza or in Israel. It is in everybody’s interests to de-escalate, and we will work with our regional partners, as well as the leadership of the Palestinian Authority and Israel, towards de-escalation. The rocket attacks coming from Gaza cannot be justified, and we call for them to cease immediately as part of that de-escalation.
Over the past week, Hamas is alleged to have fired over 1,000 rockets at indiscriminate targets inside Israel. By the same token, Israeli aggression has also escalated. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must press in this place for both sides to return to direct peace talks and that the targeting of civilians, against international law, is abhorrent?
We have spoken with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to work with them to de-escalate and bring about peace. My hon. Friend mentions the avoidance of civilian casualties, and we press for that as a priority in all instances. We will continue to work with parties both in the region and in multilateral forums—with the United States and the European Union perhaps most closely—to push for peace so that we do not have to hear of any more fatalities in either Gaza or Israel.
Like everyone else in this House, I have been appalled by what we have seen in Jerusalem, Gaza and Israel. The loss of life has been terrible, and my heart goes out to the families who have lost loved ones. The Labour party strongly condemns the indiscriminate firing of over 1,000 rockets by Hamas, and I also strongly condemn the Israeli actions that have killed Palestinian civilians. Israel and the Palestinians generally must do everything possible to de-escalate the situation, and I would urge the Government to do all they can to prevent further conflict. The violence must stop now. Once this terrible violence has ended, we must ensure that the root causes of the violence are recognised and addressed. The eviction of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem must end. International law must be upheld, and all religious sites must be respected. At the same time, Britain and the international community must recognise the commitment to a two-state solution. Will the Government commit to doing this?
The hon. Gentleman highlights a number of areas where the UK’s policy is long-standing, particularly with regard to settlements and evictions, and I have discussed those issues a number of times from this Dispatch Box. The UK Government will continue to work towards peace—in the immediate instance to bring about the end to this particular violence, but in the longer term to secure meaningful, peaceful and prosperous two states. That remains the UK’s policy, and we will continue to work to bring that about.
The Minister will know how deeply shocked many of my constituents in Gloucester and across the land are by the extraordinary images this week, during Ramadan, of the Israeli defence force effectively attacking the al-Aqsa mosque, the centre of Islamic worship in Jerusalem for hundreds of years. Although the rocket attacks by Hamas from Gaza are completely indefensible, it is clear that a major cause of the increased discontent is the number of illegal evictions from Sheikh Jarrah. Will my right hon. Friend confirm today that the Government will ask Israel to cease immediately any further illegal evictions from East Jerusalem and to respect the sanctity of mosques, for without both of these steps surely an already fragile situation can only deteriorate further?
On the holy sites in Jerusalem, which is the home of some of the holiest sites for all three Abrahamic religions, our position is that the status quo must be maintained and those religious sites must be respected. Obviously, many people have been very distressed by the images we have seen from the region. We will continue to speak directly with our contacts in the Israeli Government about evictions and settlements. As I say, our position on that has been long-standing, and I have spoken about that issue from the Dispatch Box. We call upon Hamas to immediately cease its indiscriminate rocket attacks into Israel, and we call upon all actors in this to bring about peace so that we do not see any more fatalities and casualties.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on bringing this very urgent issue to the House. The SNP condemns all violence whoever perpetrates it and whoever it is perpetrated against. We send our deepest condolences to the innocents who have been caught up in this dreadful conflict. We are a friend of Palestine, we are a friend of Israel also, but above all else we stand four-square behind international law, and it is through that prism that we need to look at this latest flashover of a long-simmering injustice.
I have two points for the Minister. I agree with much of the tone and sentiment of his statement—it is worth stressing the House’s unity in this—but surely now is the time to recognise Palestine. That would give an impetus to the two-state solution. Secondly, settler goods by their very definition are illegal. The UK should not be trading in them, and if we will not ban them from our presence, can we not at least label them as such so that consumers can make a choice?
We do have influence within the state of Israel, which is a deeply complex place. The Israeli Government are not entirely in charge of events, and we do have influence. Warm words, however sincere, will not cut it. Now is the time for action.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about the tone of this debate and I agree with him on that. I understand his point on the timing of recognition and the long-standing conversations about goods coming from Israel. While those issues are well worthy of debate, our priority at the moment is to bring about peace. We are focused relentlessly on that. That will be the UK Government’s priority, working with international partners to bring about a resolution to the current conflict. I am sure we will have the opportunity to debate wider issues in this place and others in future.
Many in Dudley South are shocked at the scenes from the al-Aqsa mosque and a police response that does not appear to be proportionate. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a lasting two-state solution requires both sides to feel secure, and that means a stop to the stream of rocket attacks from Hamas, restraint from Israeli forces and the wider population, and a reconsideration of the evictions and settlements policy by the Israeli Government and courts?
The policing of Jerusalem and the holy sites within Jerusalem is always a sensitive issue, particularly during religious festivals such as Ramadan, and we have called and will continue to call for restraint in the policing of those areas. As I have said, our position on settlements and evictions is of long standing, but ultimately I agree with my hon. Friend that a two-state solution offers the best chance for sustainable peace in the region, and we will continue to work towards that.
My constituents have watched with growing anxiety, anger and, frankly, horror the spiralling events in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The threat of forcible evictions and demolitions, restrictions on Palestinians entering the city of Jerusalem, and violence against worshippers at the al-Aqsa mosque have all inflamed tensions, and we now see a terrifying escalation, with Hamas rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes killing and injuring innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians. Both are unacceptable and both must end, but does the Minister agree that, if proper accountability and the rule of law had been followed in the past, we might not be where we are today, and what steps will he take now to ensure that the Israeli Government adhere to international law, end the evictions, end the discriminatory planning laws and end the construction of illegal settlements?
As I have said, the UK’s position on settlements and evictions is of long standing. We have communicated that both from the Dispatch Box and directly with our interlocutors in the Israeli Government, but ultimately our priority at the moment is to do everything we can, both bilaterally and through multilateral institutions, to bring about an end to this conflict so that the terrible and distressing images that the hon. Member and others in this Chamber have spoken about come to an end, and then we can work on a long-term, sustainable, peaceful solution for the region.
If my right hon. Friend examines his statements today and compares them with those made by the Foreign Office 25 years ago in respect of illegal settlements at Har Homa, he will find a remarkable similarity. What has changed is the end of any hope for the Oslo peace process, built out of existence by illegal settlements, and the dominance of factions in both communities of those least committed to justice, security and reconciliation between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. When will the United Kingdom work to achieve real accountability for those breaching international and humanitarian law, including those indiscriminately mortaring the innocent, the disproportionate response by the occupiers to violence by the occupied, and decades of the violation of the fourth Geneva convention that has made a practical mockery of the British policy commitment to a two-state solution?
As I have said, the UK’s position on settlements is of long standing, it is clear and has been communicated here and elsewhere. There is no justification for the violence that we are seeing coming out of Gaza and the targeting of civilians. As I have said, Israel absolutely has the right to defend itself. We call on it to act with caution and care in discharging that defence, but ultimately, we are seeking to bring about a speedy conclusion to the current violence that we are seeing, and then we will continue to work—I appreciate that my hon. Friend said that this has been a long-standing aim, and it has been a long-standing aim of this and other Governments—to bring about a peaceful two-state solution so that we have a sustainable, peaceful resolution in this region.
On behalf of the many constituents of Newport East who have been in touch with me over the last couple of days expressing their horror at events and calling for an end to the violence, may I join others here in asking the Minister to use the considerable diplomacy of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to try to bring an end to this humanitarian crisis? The murder and maiming of children and civilians cannot be the solution to the ongoing tragedy of this conflict.
I can assure the hon. Lady that we will use our considerable diplomatic might to work both with the Government in Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories through the Palestinian Authority, and with regional partners and through multilateral forums, to bring about a speedy resolution to this terrible conflict, which does no good for anyone.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said:
“Our commitment to Israeli security is unwavering”.—[Official Report, 16 March 2021; Vol. 691, c. 172.]
Of the thousand rockets that have been fired towards Israel, many have fallen short and caused damage and death in Gaza. Will the Minister confirm that we are doing everything possible to support our close ally against what amount to nothing more than terrorist groups out to seek Israel’s destruction?
My hon. Friend makes a good point; the rocket attacks by Hamas from Gaza do harm, not only indirectly but directly, to the Palestinian people. We call on them to cease immediately. As I have said, Israel does have the right to defend itself. We urge it, in doing so, to act with caution and to do everything in its power to minimise civilian casualties.
The covid-19 pandemic has hit Palestinian communities disproportionately hard, but despite Israel’s having the world’s highest covid-19 vaccination rate, it remains the case that fewer than 150,000 Palestinians have been vaccinated in the occupied west bank and Gaza. What are FCDO Ministers and their representatives there doing to rectify that injustice?
As I have said, our main priority at the moment is the cessation of the violence that we have all seen. The hon. Lady will know that the UK has been one of the most generous donors to the COVAX vaccination programme, which has helped communities across the globe have a route out of this pandemic through the vaccination process. We are incredibly proud of the £548 million that we have contributed to that as well as our technical expertise, and that will be to the benefit of the Palestinian people and others around the world.
Like all Members of Parliament, I condemn all acts of violence and the loss of innocent lives. The focus of my question is freedom of religion or belief for all. Does the Minister agree that the force used against the worshippers at the al-Aqsa mosque on the 27th of Ramadan, the night of Laylat al-Qadr, one of the most important nights in the Islamic calendar, was completely and utterly unacceptable? In the light of the United Kingdom’s commitment to human rights and freedom of religion or belief for all, I know that the Minister has raised these matters with the Israeli authorities, but can he assure the House that he will continue to do so, to ensure that all individuals can practise their faith freely and openly in the holy city of Jerusalem? With that, will he ensure that freedom of religion or belief and human rights are put on the G7 presidency agenda later this year?
I thank my hon. Friend and I pay tribute to the work he has done on freedom of religion or belief. He is right that violence against worshippers of whatever faith is unacceptable. As I have said, it is important that policing is particularly sensitive around religious holy sites in Jerusalem, and particularly so during religious festivals like the holy month of Ramadan. We have made that position clear with the Israeli authorities, and we will continue to make that argument in our bilateral conversations with them.
After years of persecution and oppression, indiscriminate attacks, a brutal siege of Gaza, the expansion of illegal settlements and the demolition of Palestinian homes, unfair trials, arbitrary detention and restrictions on the freedom of movement, and now the attack on worshippers at the al-Aqsa mosque, tensions in the region are the highest they have ever been. I join others in condemning the escalation of violence and the loss of life, yet the silence of the international community is deafening, even as the Palestinians scream out for help. I have to ask the Minister: how many times will we come back to this House to debate the persecution of the Palestinians, and when will the international community finally wake up?
I do not recognise at all the scenario the hon. Gentleman paints. This is an issue that I have spoken about from the Dispatch Box. The Prime Minister has made a statement on this issue. The Foreign Secretary has made a statement on this issue. We are speaking with the United Nations Security Council. The United Nations regularly makes statements on this issue. This is a terrible situation, no doubt. We are working to bring it to a conclusion and we will continue to work to bring about a peaceful two-state solution, so the Israelis and the Palestinians can live and work side by side in peace. That should be, I am sure, the goal of everyone in this House and in the wider international community.
It is clear from voices across the House and internationally that everyone is incredibly disappointed to see that violence has broken out in the region once again after the Palestinian Authority recently resumed co-operation with Israel. Does my right hon. Friend agree that continuing down the path of normalisation, rather than that of violence and escalation as we have seen recently, is the only way to secure long-term peace for the region? Will the UK Government continue to support that end?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The UK Government, at both ministerial and official level, encourage greater co-operation between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government. I spoke to representatives of both yesterday. I am sure I will have further such conversations in the future. We will always support closer working between the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel as part of their route towards a sustainable two-state solution.
If the Foreign Secretary will take action on ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang, why not in Sheikh Jarrah? If the UK Government will impose sanctions for the occupation of Crimea, why do they allow trade with illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories? The Minister rightly condemns the killing of children in Gaza and Israel. Does he recognise that these war crimes spring from an unlawful occupation, and will he now give his full support to the investigation of the International Criminal Court?
I do not think it is at all helpful to try to imply there is a commonality between the examples he gave and the situation we see in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The hon. Gentleman will know that where we have criticism of the Israeli Government, we have a strong enough relationship that we are able to air those criticisms, whether from the Dispatch Box here or in our bilateral conversations. We will continue to work towards a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution. That remains the UK Government’s goal and that will be our focus once we have helped to bring this current conflict to a conclusion.
In the last few days, I have been contacted by hundreds of constituents who are concerned by the proposed evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, the activities outside the al-Aqsa mosque and the events that we have seen in the last 36 hours. Will the Minister reassure them, me and the whole House that the Government will use the full power of their diplomatic network to de-escalate the immediate issue and then bring both sides back to peace talks, because that is the only way that we can prevent events like this happening again?
The al-Aqsa mosque is one of the most holy sites in Islam, and Jerusalem has the privilege of being the home of a number of the holiest sites in the Abrahamic religions. Therefore, the policing of Jerusalem needs at all times to be sensitive, as I say, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan. I assure my hon. Friend and others that the UK Government will work tirelessly to bring about a conclusion to this, so that we no longer have to see the distressing images that we have seen in Jerusalem and other parts of Israel, and that we no longer have to hear about fatalities.
Like other, I condemn the violence, wherever it comes from, and feel very strongly that those responsible for that violence should be held to account. The Minister spoke about bringing an end to hostilities. There have been four wars in Gaza since 2000 and no one has been held to account from any side, so bringing an end to the current hostilities is not enough. The underlying problem of nobody being held to account, the demolition orders in Sheikh Jarrah—these are only the tip of the iceberg. The status quo is not really the status quo. According to the UN, a third of Palestinian homes are probably under threat of demolition orders in the Jerusalem area. These issues need addressing before we can move to a two-state solution. Does the Minister agree that those engaged in violence from any side should know that there will be a day of reckoning and consequences for their actions? What will the British Government do, in line with the international community, to ensure that this happens?
The hon. Lady is right that we should focus on bringing about a speedy resolution to the conflict. As I said, the rocket attacks from Gaza are unacceptable, unjustified and completely illegitimate. Israel does have a right to defend itself and we have made it clear that, in doing so, it must abide by international humanitarian law and make every effort to minimise civilian casualties. Ultimately, the two-state solution is, in our assessment, the best way of bringing about lasting peace for the people of the region, and that will continue to be a priority area for UK foreign policy in the region.
It is deeply upsetting that we are again witnessing such violence and division, especially when the Abraham accords signed between Israel and gulf partners last year showed that peace is achievable. What discussions have my right hon. Friend and the Foreign Secretary had with Israeli and Gulf counterparts on how the current tensions can be de-escalated?
As I say, the Foreign Secretary has spoken with his Israeli counterpart and will shortly be speaking with the Palestinian Prime Minister, among other calls that Ministers and senior officials have been making and will continue to make. We will use our significant diplomatic strength to be a passionate and powerful voice for de-escalation and peace, and I am sure that many others in the international community will join us in doing so.
The human misery on display in East Jerusalem, Gaza and Israeli cities is on show for the entire international community to bear witness to as the violence escalates. I join hon. Members on both sides of the House in condemning the violence on both sides. Sometimes the most difficult conversations are required with our allies, so what is the British Government’s position on forced evictions and displacement of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, and has the position been relayed to the Israeli Government? Does the Minister believe that Mr Netanyahu’s Government are sincerely committed to a viable, two-state solution, given the plan previously cooked up with President Biden’s predecessor?
The UK Government’s position on settlements and evictions is long-standing and has been communicated a number of times at the Dispatch Box, both today and on previous occasions. We do, of course, outline directly to the Israeli Government our position on such matters, and also do so from the Dispatch Box. We will work with the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and their regional friends and neighbours, to work towards a sustainable two-state solution, which remains a priority UK foreign policy.
Many of my constituents have contacted me about the recent reports from Jerusalem, and I share their concerns about the ongoing violence and unrest. I therefore welcome the Government’s strong call for calm and de-escalation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this violence is completely unacceptable and that all sides must now come together to de-escalate tensions and achieve a peaceful resolution?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Ultimately, peace has to be something that is delivered by both sides, and we call upon everybody to step back from the situation and not allow it to escalate further, and indeed to de-escalate so that we can see an end to this conflict. We will work tirelessly to achieve that, both bilaterally and through multilateral forums.
The Government’s response to this and every other episode in Palestine is completely inadequate. The Palestinians have lived under brutal oppression and apartheid from Israel with the tacit consent of the west for too long, and we have heard the “plague on both your houses” song too many times. Of course we must condemn all violence on both sides, so in that spirit can the Minister tell me whether he thinks it appropriate that the UK grants arms licences that see UK weapons being used in these indiscriminate Israeli attacks on civilians, including children?
The Government take their arms export responsibilities very seriously, and we aim to operate one of the most robust arms export licences in the world. We consider all our export applications against a strict risk assessment framework and keep all licences under careful and continual review as standard.
While there is never any excuse for firing rockets on civilians, would not the Israelis sleep more soundly at night if access to all the holy sites was maintained as agreed in 1967, if free Palestinian elections were allowed in East Jerusalem, and if Palestinians were not being evicted from their homes in Jerusalem?
As I have said, the UK’s position on evictions is well known. It is incredibly important that worshippers have access to those very holy sites in Jerusalem. We have been supportive of Palestinian Authority elections and we pushed for them to go ahead, including in East Jerusalem.
What we are seeing in the news is absolutely horrific. Many constituents have contacted me in the last few days about the violence against worshippers during Ramadan, as well as about the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah. Airstrikes on both sides must absolutely end, and I condemn this violence. As the occupying power, the Israeli Government have legal obligations that they are not meeting. What are the UK Government doing to ensure that Israel adheres to international law?
The hon. Lady is right to say that violence against peaceful worshippers of any faith is unacceptable, and as I have said, we condemn the rocket attacks from Gaza. We will continue to be a voice for calm and peace in the region and to work with international partners. At times, that includes having difficult conversations with some of our friends in the region, but we are unafraid of doing so when necessary.
The violence and the loss of life is tragic, and it needs to stop, but is it not the case that, right under the noses of the international community, Hamas has been allowed to build a terrorist city state in Gaza? It has diverted humanitarian resources into stockpiling missiles behind civilian buildings. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is wrong to draw some kind of phoney equivalence between the actions and the aggression of terrorists and the sovereign right of a legitimate democratic Government to defend their citizens? I would not expect the Minister at the Dispatch Box, or anybody else in our Government, to do anything other than what the Israeli Government are doing to defend their citizens.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The military wing of Hamas is a proscribed terrorist organisation, and we have a policy of no contact with Hamas in its entirety. We completely condemn the rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel, and they are the actions of a terrorist organisation. As I said, Israel has the right to defend itself, but we have said—I have said this at the Dispatch Box and directly to representatives of the Israeli Government—that, in doing so, it must abide by international humanitarian law and must do everything it can to minimise civilian casualties.
The extent of the expansion of illegal settlements in East Jerusalem, the forced eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, the brutality against worshippers at the third most holy site in Islam and during Ramadan—this is not a clash between two equal sides. Until we discuss the root issue, we will miss the entire context and fail to recognise that one side is an occupier and the other side is occupied.
Will the Minister demand that the Israelis end all the discriminatory and illegal practices that have actually provoked these current tensions? What specifically will he do to ensure accountability for violations of international law, which have been going on for the past 50 years?
As I say, the UK’s position on the settlements and evictions is clear. I have spoken about it from this Dispatch Box today and in the past, and we have also had that conversation directly with the Israeli Government. However, there is no legitimacy and no justification for indiscriminate rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel.
Members of the Muslim community in Aylesbury are extremely distressed by recent events in East Jerusalem, describing this as a moment of deep anguish and sorrow. They want an immediate end to the eviction of Palestinians from their homes, as well as immediate and concrete progress towards a two-state solution. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is, in fact, the only way to deliver Palestinian self-determination, to permanently end the Arab-Israeli conflict and to preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity and, therefore, that his Department remains committed to achieving a solution based on 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps?
I think that Members in every part of this House, and our constituents, will have been deeply distressed by the images we have seen from some of the most holy sites not only in Islam but in Christianity and Judaism. It is in everybody’s interest to de-escalate, to bring this current period of violence to a conclusion and, as my hon. Friend says, to work towards the long-standing UK Government position of a peaceful, two-state solution based on the lines, with agreed land swaps, through a political process.
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point about the importance, during this holy month of Ramadan, of worshippers having access to one of the most holy sites in Islam, which is something we have communicated to the Israeli Government. We will continue to work towards de-escalation, particularly at this most sensitive and religious time, and it is a conversation we have had recently, and we will continue to have, both at ministerial level and at senior official level.
In 2018, I stood in Mefalsim, in the Southern District of Israel, just on the edge of the Gaza strip, and held in my hands the remains of a Hamas-engineered rocket that had been fired into a playground of schoolchildren with one intention only: to murder mothers and children who were doing what we have the freedom in this nation to do, which is raise our kids in peace.
No right-thinking person could not be heartbroken by the horror in the holy land they see on our television screens. However, is it not the case that Hamas will not negotiate with Israel because it wants to murder Israelis and to obliterate the state of Israel off the map of the world? That is Hamas’s stated objective and position. The Palestinian people need to free themselves from being used as human shields by a terrorist and political organisation that wishes to continue to launch rocket attacks into Israel. I urge the Minister to do everything in his power to persuade the Palestinian people to free themselves from the grip of Hamas.
The rocket attacks by Hamas, whose military wing has, as I say, been proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the UK Government, are completely counterproductive to the effort for peace and do harm to the Palestinian people. On behalf of moves towards peace, we urge Hamas to cease these actions, because they are completely counterproductive to peace and completely against the interests of the Palestinian people, in Gaza and elsewhere.
I am deeply concerned by the escalating tension between Israel and Palestine, and we all here condemn the violence against civilians, on both sides, be that the murderous missile attacks or the misguided attempted eviction of Palestinian residents in Sheikh Jarrah.
Given that the missile technology employed in attacking Israeli heartlands could have come only from Iran, does my right hon. Friend agree that now is not the time to do a deal with Iran that rewards it for instigating further instability in the region, as well as violating the JCPOA—joint comprehensive plan of action—nuclear commitments and its obligations under the non-proliferation treaty? Is this not another reminder, were one needed, that we must not appease this dangerous regime?
I am not able to speak on the point my hon. Friend has made about the potential relationship between Iran and Hamas at this point. As I have said, we are working to de-escalate the situation and bring about peace. More broadly, we are seeking to bring greater stability to the region and to dissuade Iran from its destabilising actions within the region. That will continue to be a priority piece of work for Her Majesty’s Government.
The events in Jerusalem have triggered emotive responses here in the UK, and we need only look at the protests last night to see that. My constituents and others have seen in the past that, when conflict erupts in the middle east, the UK Jewish community is targeted by those wishing to import this complex situation on to our streets and university campuses, and online. What does my right hon. Friend say to those who seek divisions between communities here in the UK? Will he join me in thanking the Community Security Trust for all the work it is doing to keep the Jewish community safe?
Antisemitic acts and violence against the Jewish community, wherever they may be, are unacceptable. I pay tribute to the CST and others who seek to keep communities safe. In the UK we enjoy, for the most part, very good community relations. We should be proud of that and seek to reinforce it. It is important for us to demonstrate that we are good friends with Israel and with the Palestinian people, and that we are seeking a peaceful two-state solution that can see people of all faiths enjoying the peace and security they deserve.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on our response to covid.
The patience and hard work of the British people have combined with the success of the vaccination programme to reduce deaths and hospitalisations to their lowest levels since last July and, from Monday, England will ease lockdown restrictions in line with step 3 of our road map. This will amount to the single biggest step of our journey back towards normality. But after everything we have endured, we must be vigilant, because the threat of this virus remains real and new variants—including the one first identified in India, which is of increasing concern here in the UK—pose a potentially lethal danger. Caution has to be our watchword.
Our country, like every country, has found itself in the teeth of the gravest pandemic for a century, which has imposed heartbreaking sorrow on families around the world, with more than 127,000 lives lost in the United Kingdom alone. Our grief would have been still greater without the daily heroism of the men and women of our national health service, the protection of our vaccines—already in the arms of more than two thirds of adults across the UK—and the dedication of everyone who has followed the rules and sacrificed so much that we cherish.
Amid such tragedy, the state has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and as candidly as possible and to learn every lesson for the future, which is why I have always said that, when the time is right, there should be a full and independent inquiry. I can confirm today that the Government will establish an independent public inquiry on a statutory basis, with full powers under the Inquiries Act 2005, including the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials and take oral evidence in public under oath.
In establishing the inquiry, we will work closely with the devolved Administrations, as we have done throughout our pandemic response. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has this morning spoken to the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, and the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland, to begin those conversations.
Every part of our United Kingdom has suffered the ravages of this virus, and every part of the state has pulled together to do battle against it. If we are to recover as one Team UK, as we must, then we should also learn lessons together in the same spirit. We will consult the devolved Administrations before finalising the scope and detailed arrangements, so that this inquiry can consider all key aspects of the UK response.
This process will place the state’s actions under the microscope, and we should be mindful of the scale of that undertaking and the resources required to do it properly. The exercise of identifying and disclosing all relevant information, the months of preparation and retrospective analysis, and the time that people will have to spend testifying in public—in some cases for days—will place a significant burden on our NHS, on the whole of Government, on our scientific advisers, and on many others. We must not inadvertently divert or distract the very people on whom we all depend in the heat of our struggle against this disease. The end of the lockdown is not the end of the pandemic. The World Health Organisation has said that the pandemic has now reached its global peak and will last throughout this year. Our own scientific advisers judge that, although more positive data is coming in and the outlook is improving, there could still be another resurgence in hospitalisations and deaths.
We also face the persistent threat of new variants, and should those prove highly transmissible and elude the protection of our vaccines they would have the potential to cause even greater suffering than we endured in January. In any case, there is a high likelihood of a surge this winter when the weather assists the transmission of all respiratory diseases and the pressure on our NHS is most acute.
I expect that the right moment for the inquiry to begin is at the end of this period, in spring 2022. I know that some in this Chamber and many bereaved families will be anxious for this inquiry to begin sooner, so let me reassure the House that we are fully committed to learning lessons at every stage of this crisis. We have already subjected our response to independent scrutiny, including 17 reports by the independent National Audit Office and 50 parliamentary inquiries, and we will continue to do so—we will continue to learn lessons, as we have done throughout the pandemic. None the less, no public inquiry could take place fast enough to assist in the very difficult judgments that will remain necessary throughout the rest of this year and the remainder of the pandemic. We must not weigh down the efforts of those engaged in protecting us every day and thereby risk endangering further lives.
Instead this inquiry must be able to look at the events of the past year in the cold light of day and identify the key issues that will make a difference for the future. It will be free to scrutinise every document, to hear from all the key players, and to analyse and learn from the breadth of our response. That is the right way, I think, to get the answers that the people of this country deserve, and to ensure that our United Kingdom is better prepared for any future pandemic.
Entirely separately from the inquiry, there is a solemn duty on our whole United Kingdom to come together and cherish the memories of those who have been lost. Like many across the Chamber, I was deeply moved when I visited the covid memorial wall opposite Parliament, and I wholeheartedly support the plan for a memorial in St Paul’s cathedral, which will provide a fitting place of reflection in the heart of our capital.
I also know that communities across the whole country will want to find ways of commemorating what we have all been through, so the Government will support their efforts by establishing a UK commission on covid commemoration. This national endeavour, above party politics, will remember the loved ones we have lost, honour the heroism of those who have saved lives and the courage of frontline workers who have kept our country going, celebrate the genius of those who created the vaccines, and commemorate the small acts of kindness and the daily sacrifice of millions who stayed at home, buying time for our scientists to come to our rescue. We will set out the commission membership and terms of reference in due course.
In telling the whole story of this era in our history, we will work, again, across our United Kingdom, together with the devolved Administrations, to preserve the spirit that has sustained us in the gravest crisis since the second world war, resolving to go forwards together and to build back better. I commend this statement to the House.
May I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement? I clearly welcome the independent inquiry into the pandemic and the establishing of a UK commission on covid commemoration. Both are necessary; both will play an important part in learning the lessons and commemorating those we have lost.
Let me speak first for the families grieving the loss of a loved one. I, too, attended the covid memorial wall that the Prime Minister spoke of, opposite Parliament. It is moving. Everybody who has been there knows it is moving—thousands of hearts on the wall, stretching from one bridge to the next, and rightly facing this place. But I have also taken time to meet the grieving and bereaved families on a number of occasions, and to talk to them and with them about their experience. Those meetings have been among the most difficult I have ever had in my life, and the same goes for the staff who came with me and the other members of my team who were in those meetings, because what those families described was not just the loved one they have lost—the dad, the mum, the sister, the brother—and something about those individuals, nor was it just the fact that they had passed away. The hardest bit was the details. They told me about not being able to say goodbye in the way they wanted, whether that was in a hospital or elsewhere, and not being able to have a funeral in the way they wanted.
It was very hard to hear some of those stories, and lots of those families have searing questions about what happened—the decisions; what went wrong; why what happened happened to their families. So it is good that the Government are consulting the devolved authorities, of course it is, but the Government must also consult the families, because this inquiry will only work if it has the support and confidence of the families. I urge the Prime Minister and the Government to consult the families at the earliest possible moment.
The Government should also consult those on the frontline, who have done so much, whether in the NHS or social care or on other frontlines that we have seen, because they, too, deserve answers to the very many questions that they have, and they have done so much in this pandemic.
The next question is timing. The principle is that the inquiry should be as soon as possible. I understand that a statutory inquiry will take time to set up—of course it will—but why can it not be later this year? Why can it not start earlier? I want to press the Prime Minister on one particular point. The Prime Minister says the inquiry will start in spring 2022. Is that the inquiry opening and beginning to take of evidence in spring 2022, or is that starting work in setting up the inquiry? They are two very different things, and if it is the latter, the inquiry will not then be for many months afterwards, so if it is to formally open and start taking evidence in spring 2022, I would be really grateful if the Prime Minister made that clear.
Then there is the question of the terms of reference. Obviously, that will take time. There will have to be consultation with the devolved Administrations and, again, with the families and those on the frontline, but crucially with this Parliament. This House needs to be involved in the question of what the terms of reference should be. There will be different views across the House and they need to be heard, because this has to have the confidence of all in this Chamber.
All relevant questions must be asked and answered. That must of course include the decisions made in the last 14 or 15 months—all the decisions made—but there are wider questions of preparedness and resilience, particularly of our public services, that need to be asked. There are reasons why the pandemic hit those in overcrowded houses and insecure work the hardest. They need to be addressed as well, and no inquiry that does not address those questions will give the answers that many deserve.
Finally, there is the question of who chairs the inquiry. Again this is too early, but the wider the engagement on that question the wider the likely support for the inquiry. We need an independent inquiry that has the full support of everybody, so that its conclusions bear real authority. That will be achieved with the widest embracing of the terms of reference and the chair of the inquiry.
Let me be clear: I welcome this inquiry and we will play whatever part we can to ensure that it works well and gets the answers to the questions. Again, we support the commemoration commission and will work on a cross-party basis to ensure that that is fully the sort of commemoration that the families, and others who have lost through this pandemic, feel is appropriate. That should, of course, be on a cross-party basis. It is above politics, and rightly so.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his support for both the measures announced today: the commemoration commission and the inquiry. He asked some entirely justifiable questions about engagement with the bereaved and those who have been on the frontline about the areas in which the inquiry will want to focus—all the background to the growth of the pandemic. I have no doubt that when it is set up the inquiry will certainly look at all of those, and we will make sure to have the widest possible consultation and engagement.
The House should understand that I feel personally very strongly that this country has been through a trauma like no other. It is vital for the sake of the bereaved, and for the sake of the whole country, that we should understand exactly what happened and learn the lessons. Obviously we have been learning lessons throughout, but we need to have a very clear understanding of what took place over the past 14 months.
We owe it to the country to have as much transparency as we can, and to produce answers within a reasonable timescale. I am sure the House will want to see that as well. Clearly that will be a matter for the chair of the inquiry and the terms of reference, when they are set up, but it is my strong view that the country wants to see a proper, full and above all independent inquiry into the pandemic of last year.
I must repeat to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I think the timing that we have set out is the right timing. I think that it would be wrong to consecrate huge amounts of official time and public health workers’ time to an inquiry when they may very well still be in the middle of the pandemic, but clearly, to clarify the point that he raises, the steps taken to set out the terms of reference and establish the chair of the inquiry will happen before the spring of next year. We will be getting it under way and taking some key decisions, but I think that the House will agree that it would not be right to devote the time of people who are looking after us and saving lives to an inquiry before we can be much more certain than we are now that the pandemic is behind us. I hope that that carries the approval of the House.
Primary care networks have done an incredible job of rolling out the vaccine, but GPs and practice nurses need to return to their surgeries and their patients. As my right hon. Friend said, we have to anticipate a difficult autumn and winter. What reassurance can he give that there will be capacity in the system for second jabs, potentially booster jabs in the autumn and the annual roll-out of the flu jab?
My right hon. Friend raises a very important point, particularly about the flu jab. As she will know, there was not much of a flu pandemic over the last winter period. We are worried about people’s levels of resistance to flu, but we have the capacity, and we will also have the capacity for the booster jabs.
I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of his statement. I was interested to hear him commit to an inquiry. He will be aware that the First Minister has already committed to that; of course, the devolved Administrations have tailored their decisions to their needs.
I think all of us can feel a sense of optimism: the feeling that, after such a difficult year, things are edging towards some normality. The simplest of things—hugging a loved one—have never felt so important, after a year of restrictions in which we have never seen people suffer so much. The vaccines have generated the hope that people are feeling, and that hope is within touching distance—but just as the hope is fragile, so is the economic recovery.
The Prime Minister spoke of lessons, answers and timing, but this morning’s Office for National Statistics figures demonstrate the depth of the plummet that has been experienced by the economy and, equally, the scale of the recovery needed. That is why the glaring omission of an employment Bill from yesterday’s Queen’s Speech was so shocking—a clear signal of a UK Government with no recovery plan.
Let me ask the Prime Minister three questions on concrete measures that would kickstart the economy and help those still in need. First, will his Government reverse their rigid plan to suddenly end the furlough scheme in September, which will result in a damaging cliff edge for millions of workers? Secondly, there is another damaging cliff edge due in September, with the planned Tory cut to the lifeline of the £20 universal credit uplift. Is he really still planning to rip that lifeline away from the most vulnerable when they most need it? Finally, as people re-enter the workplace, will the Prime Minister commit to supporting legislation, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), that would finally ban the disgraceful practice of firing and rehiring workers?
The entire programme of this Government is dedicated to ensuring that we go from jabs, jabs, jabs to jobs, jobs, jobs, as I said yesterday in the Chamber. The hon. Member talks about kickstarting an employment recovery. As she knows, for young people we have the £2 billion kickstart programme to get 18 to 24-year-olds into work, and we have the restart programme for those who are long-term unemployed.
Our campaign and our mission is to use the resources of the state, as we have done throughout the pandemic, to get people into work. Because of the unusual, extraordinary circumstances that we faced, we had to use the resources of the state to keep people out of work. We are now going through a massive programme of investment in infrastructure across the whole United Kingdom to get people into work, and I hope that she will support that.
The whole House will welcome the tone and content of what the Prime Minister has said today, and in particular his proper commitment to the transparency of the inquiry, learning everything we can from the past. There are 3,500 people across my constituency who are involved in the hospitality sector, and many businesses have invested their own money in making covid adaptations to ensure the safety of their customers when they return. Given the very sensible road map that he has outlined, will he emphasise the increasing role of personal judgment and common sense, rather than Government fiat, as greater normality returns, and with it our hugely valued and much cherished civil liberties?
As my right hon. Friend knows, the hospitality sector in Sutton Coldfield, which I know from my own experience to be wonderful, will, like the rest of the hospitality sector across the country, be able to open up in full on Monday, including indoors. As we go forward, we hope, and I cannot see any evidence to contradict this, that we will be able to open up fully from 21 June—although people will still clearly need to exercise caution and common sense in the way they go about their lives, because the virus, I am afraid, is still going to be present in our lives for a long time to come.
The public inquiry is very welcome and desperately needed so that the public can understand why the UK has suffered one of the highest death tolls in the world. It is critically important that this inquiry is properly independent and has the confidence of the public, including the bereaved families of the over 127,000 people who so tragically lost their lives. Consulting those families once the inquiry has started is too late. Will the Prime Minister today commit to urgently meeting representatives of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice to consult them on both the chair and the terms of reference for the inquiry?
I can certainly reassure the hon. Lady that the inquiry will be fully independent and that the bereaved and other groups will be consulted on the way it is set up. I meet representatives of the bereaved and indeed bereaved families regularly, and will continue to do so.
I welcome the announcement on the public inquiry and the timings. The Prime Minister will know that the Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee are doing their own inquiry that is hoping to report in July, so the Government will have an early chance to learn immediate lessons.
However, it would be crazy to ask Ministers and officials to spend time with lawyers going through emails, texts and WhatsApps when we want their entire focus to be on the pandemic. As we seek to support the NHS going forward, the pledges on an additional 50,000 nurses are very welcome, but does the Prime Minister know that we also have shortages in nearly every single specialty for doctors? Is now not the moment to overhaul our long-term workforce planning for the NHS so that we can give the public confidence that we really are training enough doctors for the future?
Yes, absolutely. The distinguished former Health Secretary will, I am sure, know that there are now 50,000 more people working in the NHS this year than there were at the same time last year, including about 11,000 more nurses, already, and 6,700 more doctors, but we are going to get even more.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement, particularly for those who have lost family members; I am very conscious of my wife losing her mum, and we all grieve for her especially.
The involvement of the Northern Ireland Assembly in the inquiry to look back at this is very important, and I welcome it. Will the Prime Minister outline what discussion has taken place between the devolved regions to ensure parity of travel restrictions so that every area of the UK can be accessed safely? Will he confirm that help will be made available to make travel affordable and encourage people to go to Northern Ireland over the summer so that people can make the most of the great British summer staycation throughout every area of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his excellent question. We of course regularly consult all the devolved Administrations about making sure that travel can continue to flow freely through our United Kingdom. He makes a superb point about the attractions of Northern Ireland as a holiday destination and I hope people take him up on it.
May I thank the Prime Minister for coming to visit the good residents of Stourbridge last week? Cars stopped, horns were honked and people came out in their droves to say thank you for the success of the vaccine roll-out.
Last week, voters made it clear right here in Stourbridge that they want the focus to be on their priorities, not political games, as demonstrated by the fact that I now have Conservative councils in the traditional Labour bastions of Quarry Bank, Lye and Cradley, with more voters coming out than ever before to say this. Does the Prime Minister share my hope that Labour Members will now act constructively with this Government so that they can deliver on those people’s priorities as we build back better?
I much enjoyed my trip to Stourbridge, and my hon. Friend is entirely right in what she says. To return to the point I made to the hon. Lady from the Scottish nationalist party—the Scottish National party—the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), we have the right agenda for the country: this is the right time to build back better with the colossal programme that we have and the investments we are making, but we must also learn the lessons from the pandemic and that is why we are setting up the inquiry in the way that we are.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, particularly his commitment to an inquiry at the appropriate time. On that, terminology really does count, so can the Prime Minister confirm that it will be not just independent and judge-led, but a statutory public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005, with powers to compel witnesses under oath? Most importantly, will bereaved families have a role in setting the terms of the inquiry and be given the full opportunity to give evidence at it?
I would not like to accuse the hon. Gentleman, whom I admire greatly, of having missed my opening statement, but of course it will be a full public independent inquiry under the terms of the 2005 Act, and of course it is right that the bereaved, along with many other groups, should be consulted about the terms of reference.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, and especially that the inquiry will be independent. Without wishing to prejudge the inquiry, I am anxious about institutions such as Public Health England and how they responded early on to key workers. I hope the inquiry will also congratulate the fantastic doctors, nurses and volunteers who helped roll out over 1.5 million vaccines in Sussex; I am incredibly grateful to all the staff in Uckfield, Crowborough and Hailsham.
The Prime Minister can do two things immediately for the care homes in my constituency. First, those who want to reside in a care home currently have to spend 14 days isolated in their room. Will the Prime Minister look again at that isolation period because it impacts so greatly on the physical and mental health of residents? Secondly, the care homes have taken such a big hit, so can we consider putting in place a short financial package to support them so they can support our loved ones throughout this period?
My hon. Friend is totally right to raise the work of care homes, and we have put in repeated investments; I think another £1 billion went into supporting care homes throughout the pandemic. She is also right to raise the very painful questions of visiting and the ability of care home residents to leave their care home safely, and in that we have to balance the risks to them as well. We tried to increase the number of visitors they can have, and we hope very soon that greater freedoms will be possible.
Can the Prime Minister reassure the House that the terms of reference of this inquiry will include those suffering from long covid and the diagnosis, treatment and support for those who will no doubt be suffering for the foreseeable future?
The Prime Minister has talked powerfully about the importance of economic recovery, and it is incumbent on those of us who supported the lockdown to get behind that however we can; if we get it wrong, we will pay the costs of the pandemic twice over.
Tomorrow a report will be published describing the opportunities of geothermal investment for our economy, potentially creating over 1,000 new jobs with £100 million of investment by 2025. New jobs, new technologies: that is the key to getting our economic recovery on track. Will the Prime Minister give the report his personal attention and agree to meet me and other MPs who are getting behind this important new industry?
I am very excited by and interested in my hon. Friend’s geothermal plans: they sound good to me, and we are certainly investing in that kind of technology. With £22 billion going into pure R&D, we are putting in record sums for this country, and I am sure that geothermal could be part of the mix of our green industrial revolution.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the inquiry will have to look at the original decision-making process, which failed to control borders and delayed the lockdown while talking about herd immunity, look at the appointment process for Dido Harding to head up the track and trace system and also look at the billions of pounds’ worth of PPE contracts awarded to Tory chums and friends? Will he confirm that the inquiry will have the powers to call for all electronic communications between Government Ministers and their Tory chums who got contracts?
I congratulate the Prime Minister on his statement and on his announcement that step 3 of our road map to recovery will go ahead as scheduled on 17 May. Like many across Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, I have enjoyed a pint at the Millrace in Milton and another at the Bulls Head in Burslem, as pubs were able to open outdoors under step 2 of our road map. However, not every publican has been able to open their doors yet, and both they and excellent local brewers such as Titanic Brewery in Burslem have faced a very hard time throughout this pandemic. Will my right hon. Friend create a new draught beer duty rate to provide targeted support for breweries and pubs throughout the UK, which is only possible since leaving the European Union, recognising the important role that pubs play in our local communities?
I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out another of the advantages of leaving the European Union. Although we have consulted publicans and brewers on the potential for a differential duty rate on draught beer, we are awaiting the responses from the Treasury, and the Treasury will reply in due course.
An 11-year-old girl called Mary caught covid in December 2020. Her family used to describe her as bouncing off the walls and full of energy. She loved sport and was excited about starting secondary school in September. Now she is fatigued and lethargic, she walks with a stick and she can only attend school part time. The doctors are baffled because she had no underlying health condition and she seems unable to recover. Please can the Prime Minister help me find for the family the expert advice and support that Mary needs, and provide urgent resources for children suffering with long covid in Hull and East Riding?
I thank the hon. Member for raising the case of Mary, and I am very sorry to hear about her suffering. If the hon. Member would be kind enough to write to me about her I will see what I can do to make sure that we get the right answers from the Government and see what we can do to get her the medical help she needs.
I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s statement today. I know from speaking to Carshalton and Wallington residents that they are particularly concerned, as we emerge from the pandemic, about backlogs in elective surgery, cancer treatments and looking after the mental health of those who have struggled in lockdown. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that these will be front and centre of our plans for the NHS as we emerge from the pandemic?
My hon. Friend is quite right to raise that issue, and I can tell him that we have already invested considerably in mental health, with mental health support and the mental health youth ambassador, but we will continue to do more. As I think I said in the press conference on Monday, this is Mental Health Awareness Week, and people who have been struggling during the pandemic really should not hesitate to seek help.
To the best of my knowledge, everybody is getting the jabs when they are asked to come forward. If the hon. Member has particular cases where people are worried about the time when they are going to get a jab—whether it is AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna or another one—I would be very grateful if he would send me the details, and we will see what we can do to sort it out.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the rates of infection of the B.1.617.2 variant, as we should probably call it. At the moment the cases look as though they are about 860 or so, but there may be more. It may be more transmissible—it may be considerably more transmissible. We are looking at all the potential solutions for the surges we are seeing in Bolton and elsewhere, including the one that he describes, though that is not top of the list at the moment.
The Prime Minister said in his statement that the public inquiry, which I certainly welcome,
“will place the state’s actions under the microscope.”
The Prime Minister is, of course, First Lord of the Treasury, and he has said many times before that this Government have put their arms around people financially. Can he tell us why, therefore, people on legacy benefits did not get the £20 uplift that people on universal credit got?
This country has done everything it can to support people throughout the pandemic, with the increasing of universal credit, with a furlough scheme, and with loans, credits and grants, which I think most people around the world would consider among the most generous, if not the single most generous regime that any country put in place. I think that was the right thing to do, and we will continue to support people for as long as the pandemic endures.
Reference has already been made to the unfortunate impact that the lockdown had on treatment for other medical conditions. Has the Prime Minister seen the Stroke Association’s report, “Stroke recoveries at risk”? That demonstrates starkly how, unhappily, every aspect of stroke aftercare and rehabilitation has been impacted by the lockdown. As we emerge and build back, will he undertake not only that we will make it a top priority to ensure that stroke and related therapies are restored to pre-pandemic levels as a matter of urgency, but that we will invest to ensure that we are able consistently to meet clinical guidelines for the amount of therapy given, which we have been struggling to do up until now in any event?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the backlog that we now face in the NHS, and the stroke care and stroke services that need to be addressed. The weight of work is enormous, but we will make sure that we fund it and we get it done. It is vital that people who have conditions and need treatment—stroke patients and others—come forward now to get the treatment they need.
The Government’s own figures suggest that since March we have built up a stockpile of about 12 million vaccines. During that period, we in London were told that supplies were down and that the vaccination rate would not be as fast as it had been. Can the Prime Minister explain that? What can he do to ensure that we get those vaccines into people’s arms and that the stockpile does not continue to grow?
That is a misunderstanding, I believe. We have been vaccinating and continue to vaccinate at a steady rate and as fast as we possibly can. We are secure in our supply, but obviously we do not want to get to the stage where we run out. We are confident that we will be able to offer everybody in this country—every adult in this country—a vaccination before the end of July.
I congratulate and thank my right hon. Friend for the success of the vaccination programme and the road map, which has provided certainty and stability, especially to those planning for the easing of restrictions. My constituents often ask me what the new normal will be like beyond 21 June. Of course, much depends on the outcome of the reviews—those into social distancing and others—which will have a far-ranging impact on what our society will be like for months to come. While we eagerly await their conclusions, can my right hon. Friend assure me that we will have a chance to debate the recommendations before they are implemented?
If this inquiry is to achieve everything that we would want of it, then it must be the pre-eminent vehicle by which the voice of those who have lost loved ones in this pandemic will be heard. I am pretty certain that Ministers, officials, health professionals, business interests and others will all have good-quality legal representation in that, many paid out of the public purse. Can the Prime Minister give me some commitment today that bereaved families will also get the necessary support to ensure that they have the same quality of representation, so that their voices will be properly heard?
Yes. I believe that is vital, because the inquiry must learn from the direct experiences of the bereaved who have suffered so much. They will provide invaluable evidence for the inquiry. It is also, plainly, a matter of justice and fairness. I fully accept the point that the right hon. Gentleman raises.
I would like to start by thanking everyone across Radcliffe, Prestwich and Whitefield for their work on the vaccine roll-out, which is allowing us to go through the road map and reopen the economy. There are those who are still asking a few questions, in particular those who are about to get married. That should be the best day of their lives, but they are still worried about what the guidance will say, when they can get married from next week. Will my right hon. Friend commit to publishing it, so that we know what social distancing guidance will look like moving forward and they can fully enjoy that best day of their lives?
I am sure the Prime Minister will want to warmly welcome the newly elected metro Mayors Nik Johnson, Dan Norris and, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin). As the Prime Minister well knows, serving as a Mayor is an immense privilege, but as covid has proved it is not without its frustrations. May I urge the Prime Minister to use this moment to reset the relationship with the English Mayors, and work more collaboratively and closely with us as we emerge from the pandemic?
Yes, I certainly can. I believe the Mayors and the mayoral authorities should also have their say. In my experience there are two types of Mayor. I think the mayoral project is a great one, but it tends to produce either Mayors who champion their area, get on and take responsibility for their area, or people who whinge and blame central Government for things. I much prefer type A to type B.
While across the country people have retreated to the safety of their own homes, our retail workers have had to roll up their sleeves and get on with it, ensuring we had what we needed and that our shopping spaces were safe. Disgustingly and shockingly, the number of assaults on our retail workers is through the roof. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking our retail workers for their exceptional service to our communities, and ensure we are doing everything we can to protect them and tackle those who would do them harm?
I totally share my hon. Friend’s disgust at attacks on retail workers and anybody doing their job. It is very important that we work with the retail sector to drive down this type of crime, show zero tolerance for it, and, in the case of serious violence and assault, have appropriate penalties.
My father-in-law died at the beginning of the pandemic. Our children were not able to go to their grandfather’s funeral. Our grief remains raw. Let me welcome the commitment to the families and a memorial.
May I draw the Prime Minister’s attention to the scope of the inquiry? We know, do we not, that the fracturing of social care, running the NHS at 90% capacity, and the lessons from the 2014 flu pandemic strategy and from Exercise Cygnus all forewarned of much of what has happened? Those of us who have worked in emergency planning were shocked by the initial responses. Can the Prime Minister assure us that the scope of the inquiry will go beyond the 14 months that I think he alluded to in one of his previous statements?
I am so sorry to hear about the hon. Member’s own loss. I assure her that, of course, I cannot imagine that there will be any chair of the inquiry or any terms of reference that we could devise that would not include looking back at the state of preparedness before covid struck this country.
Cleethorpes, like other resorts, is heavily reliant on the coach industry to bring tourists into the resort. Although the support for the industry has been very welcome, there have been one or two anomalies. Some coach operators in my constituency and elsewhere have been designated as tourism operators rather than coach operators, which meant that they did not qualify for some of the financial support. Will my right hon. Friend look again at this issue and perhaps arrange for me and representatives from the industry in my constituency to meet the Transport Secretary so that we can see whether any additional help is available?
Nurseries are a vital part of community infrastructure, helping our youngest to get a better chance of a good start to life and making it easier for parents to go to work. Given that over 300 shut their doors for good in February and March, will the Prime Minister publish a covid recovery plan for nurseries and early years providers to help to get them back on their feet?
I welcome today’s announcements of both an inquiry and the memorial, but may I also welcome the extraordinary progress that has been made that has allowed us further to lift restrictions? However, there are many individuals, charities, organisations and businesses that are still not confident to commit to further public events. Will my right hon. Friend therefore consider a covid indemnity scheme that will cover the costs of any last-minute cancellations that may occur due to ongoing restrictions to allow the planning of events to continue to avoid a second year of cancellations?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this point; I understand exactly why he says it. The best thing I can tell him is that we want to proceed with the caution and certainty with which we have done so far. All the evidence I have seen at the moment suggests that we will be able to continue with our reopenings, and that the businesses that have done so much to get ready should be able to plan on that basis.
I welcome much of the Prime Minister’s statement, although I concur with my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition; the sooner we can get the terms of reference and invite evidence from those who are able to give it, the better. The Prime Minister said that the end of the lockdown is not the end of the pandemic, and he is absolutely right. Some sectors of the economy will suffer from a longer time lag: travel and tourism; aviation; and, therefore, aerospace manufacturing. May I urge the Government to give support to these sectors in the longer term, because they will be affected long after the rest of us are trying to get back to normal?
The hon. Member is making an important point, but my strong view is that the best thing possible for all those sectors, including aviation, is to try, cautiously, to make sure that we get through the road map and allow their businesses to grow again. That is the single best long-term and medium-term solution.
I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s statement and the inquiry. As our fantastic vaccination programme continues to be rolled out and our vaccination continues to be effective against all mutant strains, and as other countries catch up, will the Prime Minister look at widening the green list of countries to which travel is permitted? Will he ensure that the airports have the border control and digitisation resources to deal with more passengers? Can he also warmly encourage President Biden, when he sees him next month in Cornwall, that other Americans would like to come over to this great country and, indeed, we would like to go over to theirs?
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the United States of America. We are on that issue with our American friends, but people have to recognise that we are still at risk of importing new variants into this country. We have seen the arrival of B1.617.2 and we must be cautious. On that basis, the green list—as my hon. Friend knows, some counties are already on that list, and they are very attractive-looking destinations, as far as I can see—will be subject to review every three weeks.
Last summer, covid was almost fully suppressed in Scotland, and on current trends it looks like we are heading, cautiously, in that direction again. However, as international travel reopens, many in my constituency are very concerned about new strains entering the country. Although our First Minister has welcomed the UK Government’s current cautious approach to travel, she will not sign up to any plans that might put Scotland’s progress at risk, so will the Prime Minister confirm today what will happen in the event that the devolved nations’ strategic ambitions are at odds with the UK Government’s? In that scenario, how is compromise reached, rather than it simply being England’s way or the highway?
Actually, I think that, in spite of the differences that are sometimes accentuated or emphasised for whatever reason, the levels of co-operation have been amazing. What is happening in Scotland today is very close to what is happening in the rest of the UK; that is the level of co-operation that we are showing together.
Right at the end of his statement, the Prime Minister echoed the words of his predecessor, Sir Winston Churchill, who said,
“let us go forward together”.—[Official Report, 13 May 1940; Vol. 360, c. 1502.]
Of course, precisely 80 years ago, on 12 May 1941, my right hon. Friend’s predecessor was standing in this devastated Chamber when he committed us to freedoms in the future. In that spirit, may I ask a practical question about the future? We had compulsory ID cards in the war, and they worked so successfully. Does the Prime Minister acknowledge that, if we had them now, the whole test and trace system would have worked superbly? They could be made to work in future—for instance, it could be made clear on a person’s smartphone that they had been vaccinated or whether they had been in touch with infections. It is all very interesting for the future. My right hon. Friend cannot give a definitive answer now, but will he at least have an open mind on how we can deal with future pandemics?
I am a long-standing admirer of the libertarian school of thought that I have generally associated with my right hon. Friend. He makes an interesting point about data and the importance of being able to access it fast to help people. Perhaps the idea of ID cards is slightly different, if I may respectfully suggest that to my right hon. Friend, and I think we are still some way off that solution.
As has been acknowledged already, it is Mental Health Awareness Week, and it is right that we note the huge impact of the covid pandemic on the mental health of our young people in particular and on their education. Will the Prime Minister reconsider whether imposing a summer of cramming is really the wisest thing to force on students and teachers? Instead, will he look at outdoor education centres—many of which are based in Cumbria, of course—which have been hit worse than pretty much any other part of the entire economy? Will he agree not only to save outdoor education centres but to deploy outdoor education by commissioning professionals from the sector to run an ambitious programme in schools and in outdoor settings, to re-engage young people with a love of learning and help to tackle the mental health crisis?
I do not think that “a summer of cramming” is exactly how I would describe our programme for educational recovery. It is generous and broad based and is intended to help students, pupils and kids across the whole spectrum of abilities to make up the detriment to their learning. May I say how warmly I welcome Cumbria’s outdoor education approach? The al fresco learning that the hon. Gentleman supports sounds magnificent to me and should be replicated throughout the entire country. I look forward to hearing more about it.
I can tell the Prime Minister that other venues are available and that the Forest of Dean would be fantastically keen to offer itself as a place for outdoor education for children across the United Kingdom.
I welcome what the Prime Minister said about being able to say more at the end of this month about relaxing all restrictions by 21 June, and he will know that I will welcome that, but may I take him to what he said in his statement about the winter? It is inevitable, I think, that, as with other respiratory viruses, we will see an increase in covid, and that there will be some increase in hospitalisations and deaths, although, because of our incredible vaccination roll-out and the effectiveness of our vaccines, that will be at a much lower level and will not overwhelm the national health service. So can he confirm that work is under way in Government to make sure that, even with that small increase— because of the success of our vaccinations—we will learn to live with the consequences of covid, as we do with flu, and that we will not need to shut down the country again in the winter?
There is plainly a difference, as my right hon. Friend understands very well, between a disease such as flu, which, every year, sadly causes a number—perhaps thousands—of hospitalisations and deaths, and a disease that has the potential to spread exponentially and to overwhelm the NHS. We need to be absolutely certain that we are right in thinking that we have broken the connection between covid transmission and hospitalisation, or serious illness and death, and that is still the question that we need to establish in the weeks and months ahead. I am optimistic about it, but that is the key issue.
I just want to make one point that I should have said earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) about weddings. It is very important that, for the purposes of the banns, we will be making an announcement within 28 days of 21 June.
The Israeli Government made the decision not to vaccinate more than 4.5 million Palestinian citizens in Gaza and the west bank, leaving this responsibility to the occupied territories’ under-resourced healthcare system. Only several thousand Palestinians have been vaccinated, in contrast to the 4.2 million Israelis. In the light of the shocking and appalling scenes in Jerusalem, where Israeli forces attacked worshippers, the holy al-Aqsa mosque and the healthcare units, will the Prime Minister outline what steps the Government are taking to provide assistance to the Palestinians at this difficult time, and will he condemn the actions of the Israeli forces and accept that the only way forward is a two-state solution to ensure peace, health equality and protection of human rights?
Yes, Mr Speaker. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about the situation in Israel. I am deeply concerned by the scenes we are seeing, as is everyone in this House. We all want to see urgent de-escalation by both sides. Let me tell him that the position of this Government is firmly behind his in that we continue to believe that a two-state solution is the best way forward.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement about a public inquiry. When covid first rolled into Barrow and Furness, we had a disproportionate impact from it due to a toxic mix of underlying health conditions. With that in mind, can he confirm that the inquiry will take a look at not just the actions that the Government did or did not take, but what we need to do to make sure that we can build back healthier after this pandemic?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point—it is a very important point. I hope that this is what they call a big teachable moment for the entire country about our obesity, our fitness levels and disparities across public provision not just between affluent areas, but within regions of the country. Levelling up needs to take place, and that is the ambition of this Government.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement of an inquiry. It is important because of the number of people who died and also because of the millions of people who will live with the consequences of the policies adopted by Ministers on the advice of their chief medical officers. Many people lost their lives because hospitals and surgeries were closed, people’s businesses were wrecked because of stop-go lockdowns, and children’s education has been disrupted, affecting their life chances. At the same time, there were many credible experts who questioned the modelling on which those policies were based, the impact that this had on the poor, and the appropriateness and the consistency of the actions. Can the Prime Minister assure us that the inquiry will include examining and listening to the views of those experts and the issues that they raised?
The right hon. Gentleman’s excellent points serve only to underline the extreme difficulty of the decisions that Governments in this country and around the world were forced to make and the terrible balances we had to strike. I am sure that the considerations he raises will be looked at by the inquiry.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the huge success of the vaccine roll-out. The economy in central London is hurting, partly because of the lack of commuters and partly because of the lack of international visitors. Can he confirm that the plan is to lift the work-at-home guidance as of 21 June, provided that we stay on track?
That is certainly our intention, provided that we stay on track, but I want to be sure that people wait until we are able to say that with more clarity a bit later on, because we must be guided by what is happening with the pandemic. My hon. Friend is so right about the dynamism of London. Indeed, London and our other great cities depend on people having the confidence to go to work. I think it will come back, and I think it could come back remarkably quickly, but it does depend on keeping the virus down.
On 22 February, the Prime Minister told the House that the PPE contracts
“are there on the record for everybody to see”.—[Official Report, 22 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 638.]
He also said that
“all the details are on the record”.—[Official Report, 22 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 634.]
What the Prime Minister told Parliament was not true. A large number of contracts were neither there for everybody to see nor on the record, including a £23 million contract to Bunzl, which was not published until 8 March. The ministerial code states:
“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”
So will the Prime Minister finally apologise to the House and the country for this misleading statement, and ensure that the Government’s procurement practices during the pandemic are in the scope of the covid inquiry?
As life continues to return towards normality and attention turns to how we can learn lessons from the pandemic, there remains an urgent need to tackle this country’s problem with obesity. Following the Queen’s Speech, what reassurances can my right hon. Friend give me that the Government will continue to pursue that agenda with vigour?
I can give my hon. Friend, who is a doctor, every possible assurance. This is a struggle that many of us face. I am afraid that we are one of the fattest countries in Europe, if not the fattest, and that has medical consequences. It is extremely costly, both medically and financially.
In November, in response to my question on funding for charities throughout covid-19, the Prime Minister said in this Chamber:
“We will be doing much more over the winter to support the voluntary sector”.—[Official Report, 2 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 41.]
He has delivered nothing—absolutely nothing—over the winter. Now, £10 billion in debt and with tens of thousands of jobs gone, charities are scaling back and closing, and our communities are suffering, so will he tell the House why he made that empty promise and what he will not just say but do to support our charities now, at this critical time?
We have had huge support for businesses of all kinds—premises, cuts in business rates, cuts in VAT and furloughing. The single best thing that we can do for charities is getting non-essential retail opened again, as we did, and allowing our economy to come back. The British people give huge amounts to charity. We are one of the most generous countries in the world. I have no doubt that that instinct has been there throughout this pandemic and will continue.
The NHS in Kirklees has now given over 50% of people who have been vaccinated their second dose. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking our local NHS, GPs, community pharmacies and the wonderful volunteers at my local Honley vaccination centre, who have all played a magnificent part in this superb effort, which now means that we can proceed to the next step of the road map on Monday?
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee published a report last September that recommended that
“the Government should announce the inquiry into the response to the coronavirus immediately to allow time to set up the secretariat and other administrative functions which should mean it could start taking evidence early next year.”
That was eight months ago, so I support the comments made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition that the statutory public inquiry should be set up as soon as possible, before spring 2022. I also seek assurances from the Prime Minister that a key element of the terms of reference will be to investigate why there was a disproportionate impact on our black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, and that any chair of the inquiry will have an expert reference panel that is diverse and has community leaders involved.
I agree totally about the need to establish those facts: the impact on black and minority ethnic groups, what was driving it, and what could have been done to mitigate it. I am sure that the inquiry will be suitably set up to address that, among many other issues.
My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the tremendous success of the vaccine programme in Harrow; indeed, he visited The Hive vaccination centre very early on during the vaccination programme. What message does he have now for younger people who will be approaching the position where they will be called for their vaccination, so that we can ensure that all adults are vaccinated by the end of July?
I thank my hon. Friend because he is totally right. That is one of the key messages that all of us in this House should be transmitting to adults, who are getting younger and younger now in the groups that we are reaching: “Come forward when you are asked. Get your vaccine. You won’t feel a thing. It is absolutely vital. It is not just good for you; it is good for the whole country, so get it done.”
Earlier, the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), raised the question of the recruitment and retention of medical staff. Throughout the entire health and social care sectors we could be about to see a big increase in the numbers of staff leaving, either because they delayed their retirement in order to stay on and help until the worst of the crisis was over or, in some cases, because they are simply burnt out with the stress that they have been working under for so long. What specific plans do the Government have to increase the recruitment and retention of staff across the entire spectrum of the health and social care professions?
We actually have 60,000 nurses in training. I am reading every day about the enthusiasm with which people now want to go into that wonderful profession. We have, I think, 11,000 more nurses this year than last year, and we are investing massively in social care to ensure that our older people are looked after properly. One of the reasons we will be bringing forward plans for reform of social care is that I want to see proper join-up between health and social care. At the moment, we do not have that as a country, and we need it.
The Times reported at the weekend that there are 120,000 people who are immunocompromised—for instance, those having treatment for cancer. For them, the effectiveness of the vaccine is still unknown. What safety reassurances can my right hon. Friend give to those worried and anxious—the clinically extremely vulnerable—as we continue to unlock?
My hon. Friend is totally right to raise the immunocompromised and their continuing anxiety. The risks continue to diminish, as he knows—I think, today, one in 1,340 are estimated to have the virus. The number is going down at the moment quite steeply. As I said earlier to the House, it is much lower than at any time since last summer, or even before. But plainly those who are anxious, who are immuno-compromised, should continue, as I have said, to exercise caution and common sense in the way they go about their lives for some time to come.
Covid has left tens of thousands of people in this country with problems that are remarkably similar to a brain injury. They are going to need long-term neurorehabilitation. When we add them to the 1.4 million people who, before covid came along, had suffered from a brain injury—from carbon monoxide poisoning, concussion in sport, stroke, a traumatic brain injury or foetal alcohol syndrome—that is a phenomenal financial and medical need. I urge the Prime Minister—there still is not anybody in this country who takes sole charge of this area of brain injury. It is a hidden pandemic, because someone cannot often see that the person across the other side of the room is affected. Maybe the Prime Minister should meet a group of us to talk about it, because it affects every single Department of Government and I really want him to take it on, so that all these people get the support that they need.
I am really grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I know that he was going to raise him with me yesterday and I hope that he forgives for me not allowing him to intervene, entirely inadvertently. He has raised an extremely important point. I believe that not only brain injury—he is right to raise the 1.4 million people—but brain cancer is an area that is too often neglected in our system and may fall through the cracks. I certainly undertake to get him the meeting that he needs, whether it is with me or the relevant Minister. I cannot currently promise that, but he will get the meeting he needs.
Almost every human crisis produces advances in human innovation, and the covid crisis has been no exception. We have seen in the UK what collaboration between academia and the private sector has done in terms of vaccine production. The mRNA vaccines may turn out to be as important as antibiotics in dealing with global disease outbreaks. As soon as we are able to identify the genome of a virus, we will be able to move to rapid vaccine production—something we were unable to do before. What can we in the UK do with our leadership of the G7 and our membership of the G20 and other international organisations to determine global protocols to enable us to be able to move forward in any future pandemic in a less chaotic way than we did on this occasion and to be able to develop global capacity for vaccine productions? Surely if anything is a long-term and valuable legacy of global Britain, it will be this.
My right hon. Friend, who is also a doctor, is completely right: necessity is the mother of invention. We have been driven by the pandemic to great, great feats of scientific genius, producing, as he rightly says, the mRNA vaccines at incredible speed—the AstraZeneca vaccine—and the pandemic has meant that the abilities of this country alone to cope have hugely increased. We are now capable of producing a vaccine through the fill and finish plants. We have the new Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre. We have invested in bioreactors across the country. We are much, much more resilient than we were, but we are also leading across the world in making sure that countries co-ordinate and work together on spotting zoonotic diseases earlier, with the research hubs, and making sure that we co-ordinate data and share data much earlier. We are also making sure that there are not the barriers that have, sadly, sprung up between countries to the sharing of supplies and vaccines, so that we have secure supply chains around the world. So what the UK is doing is not only spending £548 million on COVAX, investing in vaccines around the world—I think that the UK has so far given 40 million vaccine doses to 117 countries—but working on a global response to pandemics. That will be one of the things we will do together at the G7, and it is supported by all the partner countries. So that is what we will be doing.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Earlier this week, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards published the names of nine Members currently under investigation for breaches of the code of conduct. Their names were published along with the allegations made against them. She was able to do that following a motion passed by the House on 21 April amending Standing Order No. 150. This was brought before the House as part of a package of changes, which passed after a very brief debate, without a vote.
This is a very serious matter. A finding of a breach of the code of conduct can destroy reputations, end careers and, in effect, end the working lives of the individuals concerned. Perhaps most importantly, it can have a devastating effect on their families. Yet under the commissioner’s amended power she is able to publish the allegations without the individuals being able to defend themselves or respond publicly. Those who claim that Members can defend themselves are wrong—I have had access to legal advice on the matter.
Paragraph 17 of the report by the Committee on Standards requires any Member’s proposed statement in response to be subject to approval by the commissioner; in effect, this is the prosecutor being given the right of veto over the defence. This situation allows information to be issued under the power of privilege of this House, which can then be used by others to attack the reputation of hon. Members without them having the right—the ability—to freely defend themselves. That defies natural justice.
If any one of my constituents were to face such a procedure, I would be raising hell on their behalf. I imagine other Members would do the same for their constituents. It cannot be right that we do not allow to Members of Parliament the same rights that we would fight for for our constituents here in the mother of Parliaments, particularly today, on the 80th anniversary of its destruction by an authoritarian powers. This situation also allows the political weaponisation of a process that is supposed to be fair and just. It is, in my view, in complete defiance of natural justice and accordingly contrary to access to justice under the European convention on human rights.
I would be grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, if you let the House know whether Speaker’s counsel has asked for an opinion on compliance with the convention before the vote was put to the Commons, and if not—and it is perfectly proper if not—please can such an opinion be requested, to guide the Committee and the House to ensure that Members’ rights are not trampled? I have been party on a number of occasions to the defeat of the British Government in the European Court of Human Rights. I would hate to see the same happen to this Parliament.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. He is right to state that on 21 April the House endorsed the recommendations of the Committee on Standards, which included a recommendation that the commissioner should have authority to publish a list of non-independent complaints and grievance scheme investigations, returning the situation to that before 19 July 2018.
The right hon. Gentleman is also correct that the process endorsed by the House contains a provision in some circumstances for a rebuttal to be issued, but that the wording of any such rebuttal requires the approval of the commissioner. The Committee’s deliberations on the report and the advice taken are a matter for the Committee, not for me or the Speaker. As the House has endorsed the process we are discussing, it is also not for me to comment on the right hon. Gentleman’s criticisms of it. However, he has put his views on the record and he might wish to pursue the issues he has raised with the Committee itself.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to be helpful to the House on this point, and I have already had a private conversation with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) about this. The Committee on Standards will obviously consider the matter that he has already raised. I am absolutely clear in my mind, and I am sure the Committee is, both that the commissioner was granted the power to do this by the House—indeed, was required by the House to do this, in returning to the situation that existed before July 2018—and, even more importantly, that the Committee will always consider every single instance that comes before us on an entirely impartial basis, so as to secure justice and fairness for every single Member of this House.
I thank the Chair of the Committee for that clarification and suggest that we now move on.
Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill
Presentation and resumption of proceedings (Standing Order No. 80A)
Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Matt Hancock, Secretary Oliver Dowden, Secretary Ben Wallace, Secretary Grant Shapps and Amanda Solloway, presented a Bill to make provision for and in connection with the establishment of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency.
Bill read the First and Second time without Question put (Standing Order No. 80A and Order, 23 March); to be considered tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 1) with explanatory notes (Bill 1-EN).
Armed Forces Bill
Presentation and resumption of proceedings (Standing Order No. 80A)
Secretary Ben Wallace, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Priti Patel, Secretary Brandon Lewis, Secretary Alister Jack, Secretary Simon Hart and the Attorney General, presented a Bill to continue the Armed Forces Act 2006; to amend that Act and other enactments relating to the armed forces; to make provision about service in the reserve forces; to make provision about pardons for certain abolished service offences; to make provision about war pensions; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First and Second time without Question put, and stood committed (Standing Order No. 80A and Order, 8 February); to be printed (Bill 2) with explanatory notes (Bill 2-EN).
Presentation and resumption of proceedings (Standing Order No. 80A)
Secretary George Eustice, supported by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Michael Gove, Alok Sharma, Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, Secretary Robert Jenrick, Secretary Grant Shapps, Secretary Brandon Lewis, Secretary Alister Jack, Secretary Simon Hart and Rebecca Pow, presented a Bill to make provision about targets, plans and policies for improving the natural environment; for statements and reports about environmental protection; for the Office for Environmental Protection; about waste and resource efficiency; about air quality; for the recall of products that fail to meet environmental standards; about water; about nature and biodiversity; for conservation covenants; about the regulation of chemicals; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First and Second time without Question put (Standing Order No. 80A and Order, 26 January); to be considered tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 3) with explanatory notes (Bill 3-EN).
Presentation and resumption of proceedings (Standing Order No. 80B)
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Chairman of Ways and Means, the Prime Minister, Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, Secretary Thérèse Coffey, Secretary Robert Jenrick, Secretary Oliver Dowden, Steve Barclay, Jesse Norman, John Glen and Kemi Badenoch, presented a Bill to grant certain duties, to alter other duties, and to amend the law relating to the national debt and the public revenue, and to make further provision in connection with finance.
Bill read the First and Second time without Question put (Standing Order No. 80B and Order, 13 April); to be considered tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 4) with explanatory notes (Bill 4-EN).
Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill
Presentation and resumption of proceedings (Standing Order No. 80A)
Secretary Robert Buckland, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Priti Patel, Secretary Grant Shapps, Secretary Oliver Dowden, the Attorney General, Victoria Atkins and Chris Philp, presented a Bill to make provision about the police and other emergency workers; to make provision about collaboration between authorities to prevent and reduce serious violence; to make provision about offensive weapons homicide reviews; to make provision for new offences and for the modification of existing offences; to make provision about the powers of the police and other authorities for the purposes of preventing, detecting, investigating or prosecuting crime or investigating other matters; to make provision about the maintenance of public order; to make provision about the removal, storage and disposal of vehicles; to make provision in connection with driving offences; to make provision about cautions; to make provision about bail and remand; to make provision about sentencing, detention, release, management and rehabilitation of offenders; to make provision about secure 16 to 19 Academies; to make provision for and in connection with procedures before courts and tribunals; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First and Second time without Question put, and stood committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 80A and Order, 16 March); to be printed (Bill 5) with explanatory notes (Bill 5-EN).
Telecommunications (Security) Bill
Presentation and resumption of proceedings (Standing Order No. 80A)
Matt Warman, supported by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Dominic Raab, Secretary Priti Patel, Michael Gove and Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, presented a Bill to make provision about the security of public electronic communications networks and public electronic communications services.
Bill read the First and Second time without Question put (Standing Order No. 80A and Order, 30 November); to be considered tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 6) with explanatory notes (Bill 6-EN).
Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Secretary Brandon Lewis, supported by the Prime Minister, Michael Gove, Secretary Alister Jack, Secretary Simon Hart and Robin Walker, presented a Bill to make provision about Ministerial appointments, extraordinary Assembly elections, the Ministerial Code of Conduct and petitions of concern in Northern Ireland.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 7) with explanatory notes (Bill 7-EN).
Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Michael Gove, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Robert Buckland, Steve Barclay, Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mark Spencer, the Attorney General and Chloe Smith, presented a Bill to make provision about the dissolution and calling of Parliament, including provision for the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 8) with explanatory notes (Bill 8-EN).
Compensation (London Capital & Finance plc and Fraud Compensation Fund) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
John Glen, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Thérèse Coffey, Guy Opperman, Steve Barclay, Jesse Norman and Kemi Badenoch, presented a Bill to provide for the payment out of money provided by Parliament of expenditure incurred by the Treasury for, or in connection with, the payment of compensation to customers of London Capital & Finance plc; provide for the making of loans to the Board of the Pension Protection Fund for the purposes of its fraud compensation functions; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 9) with explanatory notes (Bill 9-EN).
National Insurance Contributions Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Ben Wallace, Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, Secretary Elizabeth Truss, Steve Barclay, Jesse Norman, John Glen and Kemi Badenoch, presented a Bill to make provision in relation to national insurance contributions.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 10) with explanatory notes (Bill 10-EN).
Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Secretary Robert Jenrick, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Michael Gove, Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, Jesse Norman, Paul Scully and Luke Hall, presented a Bill to make provision about matters attributable to coronavirus that may not be taken account of in making certain determinations for the purposes of non-domestic rating; and to make provision in connection with the disqualification of directors of companies that are dissolved without becoming insolvent.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 11) with explanatory notes (Bill 11-EN).
Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Secretary Gavin Williamson, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Dominic Raab, Secretary Priti Patel, Michael Gove, Secretary Robert Buckland, Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, Secretary Oliver Dowden and Michelle Donelan, presented a Bill to make provision in relation to freedom of speech and academic freedom in higher education institutions and in students’ unions; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 12) with explanatory notes (Bill 12-EN).
Debate on the Address
Debate resumed (Order, 11 May).
Question again proposed,
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
Better Jobs and a Fair Deal at Work
I am pleased to speak today in support of the Queen’s Speech and the measures it contains to make the United Kingdom stronger, healthier and more prosperous than before. Let me first warmly congratulate and welcome the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) to her new position on the shadow Front Bench. Her predecessor and I often had robust debates, but always in the right spirit, and I am sure that that will continue with the hon. Member.
While there is much to debate, the fundamentals of our economic recovery should be a point of consensus in this House: one of the quickest, largest and most comprehensive economic responses to the pandemic anywhere in the world; continued agility throughout the crisis, making sure that, where we can, support gets to those who need it; and now, with our economy reopening, I can say with full confidence that our plan for jobs is working.
The Government and I strongly believe that firing and rehiring should not be used as a negotiating tactic by companies; that is absolutely right. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has asked ACAS to look into this matter. It is currently doing so, and we await its findings.
I will make some progress.
Before I turn to the details of the Queen’s Speech, let me first update the House on the improving economic context. A year ago today, I stood at this Dispatch Box and told the House and the country that I and this Conservative Government believe in the nobility of work, and that we would stand behind Britain’s workers throughout the crisis and beyond. Judge our commitment to those values by our record. When the furlough scheme ends in September, we will have helped to pay people’s wages for a year and a half, supporting, at its peak, the jobs of almost 9 million people. We have protected the incomes of more than 2.7 million self-employed people; backed businesses to keep people in work with tens of billions of pounds of loans, grants and tax cuts; and supported the most vulnerable through the crisis with a strengthened safety net, increased funding for local authorities and public services, and help for the charity sector.
I notice that the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not mention young people. Recent figures reveal that the kickstart scheme is helping only 5% of unemployed young people who were made redundant during the financial crisis. Given that there are over 600,000 young people out of work at the moment, why did the Queen’s Speech not contain more measures to help tackle youth unemployment? Did he just forget?
With the greatest respect, I am only one minute into my speech, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not mentioning everything in the first 30 seconds. I completely agree with him. As I have said repeatedly from this Dispatch Box, not only are jobs my highest economic priority, but I have, from the very beginning, highlighted the particular impact that this crisis has had on young people because many of them work in the sectors that are most affected, particularly in the hospitality industry, which is why the Government have taken steps to support that industry. As I will come on to say later, the kickstart scheme is a key part of our way to help those young people find work. It is one of many things we are doing, whether it is traineeships, apprenticeships or the Prime Minister’s lifetime skills guarantee, and we will continue to focus on that.
I will make a tiny bit more progress.
Taken together, over the last year and this, our plan for jobs is providing over £407 billion of support for British people and businesses—a historic package of economic support unmatched in peacetime—and the evidence shows our plan is working. GDP statistics published only this morning show that the economic impact of the lockdown at the start of the year was less severe than had been expected and that there are clear signs that we are now on our way to recovery. The Bank of England said last week that it now expects the economy to return to its pre-crisis level by the end of this year—earlier than it previously thought.
My right hon. Friend has just given us the excellent news that the economy should have rebounded by the end of this year. He and I have discussed on a number of occasions the importance of international development. In view of that, can he confirm to the House today that he will restore the 0.7% target at the end of the year when the economy has so recovered?
I appreciate all the constructive conversations my right hon. Friend has had with me on this topic, which I know he feels passionately about. As he will know, while our economy will have recovered its pre-crisis levels, the damage to our public finances is much longer-lasting. That is what led the Government to make the difficult but I hope understandable decision to temporarily divert from the 0.7% commitment, with a full intention to return to it when the fiscal situation allows, but in the meantime to remain one of the leading donors to the causes that both he and I are passionate about.
I will make a tiny bit of progress.
In the labour market, it is worth reminding the House that at the start of this crisis, unemployment was expected to reach 12% or more. It is now expected to peak at about half of that level. That means almost 2 million fewer people losing their jobs than previously feared. Our unemployment rate today is one of the lowest in the G7—lower than those of Italy, France, Canada and the United States. Our plan has protected incomes, too.
The Chancellor mentions countries in the G7. It is, without question, good news that our economy is back into positive growth territory, but why does he think that the British recession was so much worse than in all the countries he has mentioned and at the bottom of the G7 during the coronavirus?
It is difficult to make such comparisons on GDP figures specifically, for the simple reason that the way in which we calculate GDP in this country uses different deflators for the public sector. That has been explained by the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Office for National Statistics, and it actually means that we are disadvantaged relative to peers. If we look at it on nominal GDP, which corrects for that difference in calculation, as the ONS has said, our performance actually looks very comparable to all our major competitors. I could point the hon. Member to the box in the Office for Budget Responsibility report—an independent organisation that would verify what I have just said.
It is worth bearing in mind what I have always said—that GDP is of course important, but it is abstract. What matters to people are their jobs and livelihoods, so the fact that unemployment is as low as it is compared to the projections at the beginning of this crisis is something that everyone in this House will welcome.
Our plan has protected incomes too. The latest statistics show that real household disposable incomes in the last quarter of last year were only 0.2% below the same period the year before. Of course, many families are facing profound difficulties, but it is an extraordinary relief that in the face of one of the largest falls in output in 300 years, we could broadly maintain household incomes. In turn, that has meant that some people have saved more, with household savings last year £140 billion higher than the year before, and surveys now showing that consumer confidence is returning to its pre-crisis levels.
I spoke to the Chancellor beforehand about this. During the lockdown, covid loans were made available to companies. Companies in my constituency have indicated to me that the repayment scheme is not over a flexible period of time and they have to pay back large amounts of money in one go. To ensure that those companies can survive beyond the lockdown and into next year, may I ask the Chancellor whether it is possible to make some flexibility in the repayment of those loans for those companies?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. It is one that, I hope, we have already addressed. He is right about the importance of companies having the cash flow to bounce back strongly, which is why late last year we introduced something called “pay as you grow” to help the 1.3 million small and medium-sized companies that have taken bounce back loans. It means that automatically, at their choice, they will be able to turn those loans from five-year repayment loans to 10-year repayment loans, which almost halves the monthly repayments. Furthermore, it gives them the option to go for interest-only repayment periods of six months or for payment holidays, none of which will impact their credit rating as long as they do it in advance. That should be automatically communicated to businesses by their bank. I hope that is helpful to the small and medium-sized companies in his constituency.
All the pressure on my right hon. Friend has been from one direction, so let me try to right the balance. When this is over, in terms of a smaller state, deregulation and lower taxes, are there any Thatcherites left in the Government?
Well, my right hon. Friend and I strongly agree on the role of the private sector in driving our recovery. What is important, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, is businesses having the confidence to invest, which is why the Government have provided support for businesses not just to get through the crisis, but, through tax cuts such as the super deduction, to help them invest and drive our recovery forward. Both my right hon. Friend and I know that the prosperity that we all want can only be created by those private sector companies. I hope that gives him the reassurance that he is looking for. I should make some progress.
Talking of those businesses, I do believe that they are also now beginning to feel more confident. Although many firms have been hit hard by the pandemic, the latest data shows that the number of businesses becoming insolvent actually fell by nearly a quarter last year compared to the year before, and in aggregate firms have been able to build up an extra £100 billion of corporate deposits since the start of the pandemic. Since we announced our super deduction tax cut, businesses now have a virtually unprecedented incentive to invest and create jobs. Bank of England surveys show that businesses expect to invest around 7% more than they would have done over the next two years, and Deloitte’s recent survey of business leaders shows that their intention to invest is stronger than it has been at any point since 2015.
It is, of course, going to take this country and the whole world a long time to recover fully from the shock that saw the largest fall in output in 300 years, but although our recovery will be long and difficult, it is beyond doubt now that our plan is working. We will, however, never be complacent. Eight hundred thousand people have lost their jobs through this crisis, and no Chancellor could guarantee that there will not be more jobs lost. People losing their jobs is the thing that weighs most heavily on me. Work is the best route out of poverty. It brings people financial independence. It improves long-term outcomes for families and children. Work is not just another economic variable—it provides us all with purpose and fulfilment. That is why every job lost is a tragedy. That is why jobs are our highest economic priority. That is why we have a plan for jobs, and that plan is working.
The right hon. Gentleman may have noticed that we recently elected a new Mayor of the West of England region who has pledged to commit to jobs, green jobs and bringing people together across the west of England. Will the right hon. Gentleman commit to working with the new West of England Mayor to deliver that promise, because no one from the Government has currently been in touch to ensure that that promise is delivered on?
The Government believe in devolution and have worked successfully with Mayors across the country. I have a very productive relationship with Mayors. I commend all Mayors who have recently been re-elected, particularly Andy Street in the west midlands and Ben Houchen in the Tees Valley. I believe that all leaders want to drive jobs and growth in their areas. I look forward to working with anybody who shares that goal, and I look forward to working with that new Mayor.
When it comes to supporting work, what also matters is that we reaffirm our commitment to ending low pay by increasing the national living wage to £8.91, an annual pay rise for someone working full time of almost £350. We are providing targeted support to young people, who, as has rightly been identified, have been hardest hit in the pandemic. The £2 billion kickstart scheme will create hundreds of thousands of jobs for 16 to 24-year-olds who would otherwise be at risk of long-term unemployment.
The kickstart scheme is not reaching nearly as many people as the right hon. Gentleman suggests. Labour has proposed an apprenticeship wage subsidy funded by the underspend in the apprenticeship levy, which would ensure that companies that took on young people would be putting a lot more into them than under the kickstart scheme. Rather than continually pushing the kickstart scheme, which is much more expensive than the apprenticeship wage subsidy, why will he not adopt the apprenticeship wage subsidy that Labour has proposed?
The kickstart scheme has now created almost 200,000 job placements for young people in record time, given that the scheme was only announced in July last year and operational in autumn. Its ramp-up compares very favourably with the future jobs fund, which preceded it, and with which the hon. Member will be familiar. Now that the economy is reopening, many more young people can start those placements over the coming months. I commend all people both at the Department for Work and Pensions and at the thousands of companies involved for their participation in a scheme that will transform the opportunities of young people up and down the country.
With regard to apprenticeships, we already have an incentive for employers to take on apprentices. In the crisis, the Government introduced a £3,000 hiring subsidy for small and medium-sized businesses to take on a new apprentice—a significant 35% subsidy, I think, of an apprentice at the apprenticeship median wage. It also pays for 95% of all training costs for apprentices employed by SMEs, as well as improving the quality of those apprenticeships. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that apprenticeships are important, but we took action in July last year.
To help people of all ages to get back into work, we have doubled the number of work coaches in jobcentres and provided over £3.5 billion to help people to search for work or retrain, and we are launching the restart programme, with £2.9 billion to provide intensive support to over 1 million people who are long-term unemployed. This Queen’s Speech goes even further to turbocharge our economic recovery and get people into decent, well-paid jobs. The plan set out in the Queen’s Speech creates more jobs, and jobs where people live. The levelling up White Paper will set out bold new interventions to improve livelihoods and opportunities. We are strengthening the Union with record investment in new infrastructure, such as road, railways and broadband. We are turning Britain into a science superpower, with our plan for growth making this country the best place in the world for inventors, innovators and engineers.
First, may I wish the Chancellor a very happy birthday? The scale of his ambition on levelling up is absolutely right, but the scale of the challenge is also huge. The economic gap between London and the south-east and the north-east, in relative terms, is as great as it was between East Germany and West Germany prior to reunification, and it took 30 years to narrow that gap. Does he agree that it will take more than one Parliament and more than the significant investment he has already committed to truly to level up this country?
I thank my hon. Friend for his warm words, and I agree with him. This is the task that this Government will meet head-on, and it is right that it needs to be an ambitious goal that we set ourselves to meet. Like him, I share an eagerness to get on with it and keep going—and he will know, like me, that we are already doing it. Indeed, we are making the most of our new-found Brexit freedoms to launch freeports, for example, creating jobs and growth in innovative new industries in places such as Teesside, which both he and I know very well.
I must now make some progress, because I am running out of time.
The Queen’s Speech gives people the skills they need to get good jobs and progress in their careers. Right now, 11 million adults in this country, nearly a third of our entire workforce, do not have a level 3 qualification. The Prime Minister’s lifetime skills guarantee will change that, giving every adult flexible access to fully-funded, high-quality education throughout their lives, and this will have a transformational impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.
This Government believe that we should value equally every path to a good career, not just a degree, so the Queen’s Speech provides landmark reforms to post-16 education and training. As I have mentioned, we have doubled to £3,000 the incentive payments for employers to hire new apprentices, and we are reshaping the system around the needs of employers so that people can get training in the skills we know the economy will need now and into the future.
This Queen’s Speech delivers two critical pieces of Treasury-sponsored legislation. The National Insurance Contributions Bill will introduce new reliefs to encourage employers to employ veterans, to incentivise regeneration and job creation in freeports, and to provide relief on NHS Test and Trace payments. The public service pensions and judicial offices Bill will make sure that dedicated public servants are fairly rewarded for their service, while making sure that the system is affordable and sustainable into the future.
I am just going to wrap up.
In conclusion, it is apt that today the Opposition broke with a minor tradition, choosing to debate economic matters first, not last, and specifically to cite jobs as a focus—not the wider economy, as is the norm. I have been saying for over a year, since the very outset of this crisis, that protecting jobs and livelihoods was this Government’s No. 1 economic priority. It has shaped my decisions and actions and I have said it over and over again, to leave the British people in no doubt that this Government are on their side.
Last week’s results showed that, from Hartlepool to Harlow, the people heard us, so I cannot welcome enough today’s debate to share with the Labour party our plans to continue protecting the jobs of the British people and to defend a record that has seen millions of livelihoods protected and hundreds of thousands of businesses supported, and has created the conditions for one of the strongest economic recoveries anywhere in the world. We have a plan, and that plan is working.