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Commons Chamber

Volume 695: debated on Monday 17 May 2021

House of Commons

Monday 17 May 2021

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

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

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

New Member

The following Member made and subscribed the Affirmation required by law:

Anum Qaisar-Javed, for Airdrie and Shotts.

I will suspend the House briefly to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.

Speaker’s Statement

I have a short statement to make about the number of Members permitted in the Chamber. At its meeting this morning, the House of Commons Commission decided that, in accordance with Public Health England advice, it is now possible to safely increase the number of Members able to participate physically in the proceedings of the House. These changes mean that a total of 64 Members are now able to speak in the Chamber—almost double the original number. The changes include seven marked seats in the Under Galleries beyond the Bar of the House that have had new microphones installed to enable this.

I remind Members to sit only in the marked seats and to contribute only from those seats, as I do not want to disappoint them if they are not taken. I also remind Members that they must wear a mask when in the Chamber, other than when speaking. That is one of the steps that means we are able to allow more Members into the Chamber.

I am grateful, as I am sure all Members of the House are, for the quick work by the House service that has made these changes possible in response to the improving public health situation. I understand that many Members will be keen to attend the House in person to participate in debate. Although capacity in the Chamber has increased, it is still limited, and I must remind colleagues that I will suspend proceedings if I consider that the Chamber is becoming overcrowded. Nevertheless, I believe that every additional Member in this Chamber brings us a step closer to returning to normality, which I and all other Members wish to see.

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

PIP Application Process

We are currently reviewing the application process for all personal independence payment claimants. Building on our covid response PIP 2 online service, whereby claimants can receive and submit their PIP 2 online, we are in the early stages of developing a new end-to-end application process and plan to test it later this year.

As we return to normality, what steps are being taken to ensure that PIP claimants are assessed promptly, so that those in need of support can access it as quickly as possible?

I am conscious that my hon. Friend has raised some specific cases directly with me. As we return to normality, we have received more claims than normal. We are working hard to get through those as quickly as possible, with average clearance times slightly up from 16 to 19 weeks. As face-to-face assessments start to return, those unable to be assessed through paper-based reviews, telephone or video assessments will be prioritised.

Support for Tenants with Rent Arrears

What steps her Department is taking to ensure that the welfare system helps support tenants with rent arrears to sustain their tenancies. (900001)

At the start of the pandemic, we invested almost £1 billion in local housing allowance rates, and we have made £140 million available in discretionary housing payment funding for local authorities in England and Wales, to support those struggling with housing costs. We continue to work closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to support people to sustain their tenancies.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Would he accept, however, that there are many tenants who, through no fault of their own, will be in significant rent arrears and therefore facing eviction in the next few months, and will he therefore work on a cross-Government basis to find a solution that means those arrears can be cleared over a sensible period and those tenancies secured?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We continue to work very closely with the MHCLG to find long-term solutions to housing challenges. Work coaches are trained to identify people with potential housing issues and to provide tailored support, including referrals to homelessness services or debt advice. Discretionary housing payments are available, and the Government will make available a £310 million homelessness prevention grant for local authorities. However, I would of course be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss what further measures we may be able to take.

With the end of the eviction ban imminent, more than half of claimants needing help with housing costs face a shortfall between the help available and their actual rent—£100 a month in the case of universal credit claimants. The Government always say that discretionary housing payments are the answer to these shortfalls, so can the Minister explain to us why discretionary housing payments have suffered a real-terms cut and will be lower this year than they were before the pandemic?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. We take this issue incredibly seriously. That is why we pumped an additional nearly £1 billion into the local housing allowance and have frozen it in cash terms for a further year, and why we have the two-week run-on of housing benefit, direct payments to landlords available, £140 million in DHPs, the homelessness prevention grant, work coach support and, of course, Money and Pensions Service support. We stand ready to support any tenant who needs that support to sustain their tenancy and prevent homelessness.

Covid-19: Support with Essential Living Costs

What steps her Department is taking to support people with essential living costs during the covid-19 outbreak. (900002)

The Government are delivering an unprecedented package of support, injecting billions into the welfare system. This includes a £20 uplift to universal credit and a one-off payment of £500 to working tax credit recipients, as well as rolling out our covid local support grant scheme, worth over £260 million to local authorities.

As a good Conservative, I believe in devolution, and I think local government is far better placed than national Government to provide emergency support. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree with me, and if not, why not?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I do agree with him that the Government do not always know best. Actually, very often local authorities are best placed to decide how to allocate local funding to meet local need. That is why we moved quickly to implement innovative schemes during the pandemic, including the covid winter grant scheme and the local welfare assistance scheme. I have to say that, in his own constituency, Staffordshire County Council has spent the £3 million it was awarded on some really innovative projects, including oil heaters, warmth packs and, of course, food to support vulnerable families during the school holidays, meeting our objective of ensuring that vulnerable families would stay warm and well fed over the winter.

Hard-working, law-abiding families without indefinite leave to remain have not had as much support as others during the covid-19 outbreak because of the effect of the no recourse to public funds condition. Some of those families have been able to benefit from the job retention scheme, so how will they be supported after that scheme closes in September?

The right hon. Member knows that we are restricted, as per legislation, in what we can do in relation to the benefits system and those with no recourse to public funds. I know this is an issue that he cares very passionately about and has raised numerous times. I would certainly be very happy to raise this issue with the Immigration Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster)—and if we have a meeting, I will certainly invite the right hon. Member along.

Universal Credit Uplift

What recent assessment she has made of the potential effect of removing the £20 uplift to universal credit on recipients of that benefit. (900003)

What recent assessment she has made of the potential effect of removing the £20 uplift to universal credit on recipients of that benefit. (900010)

Since the start of the pandemic, the Government’s priority has been to protect lives and people’s livelihoods. In March, the Government announced that we were extending the temporary £20-a-week increase in universal credit for a further six months. It is right that the Government should now shift our focus to supporting people back into work, and we have a comprehensive plan for jobs to help us to achieve this.

This Tory Government chose to cut the lifeline of the £20 universal credit uplift in October, at the worst possible time, clashing with the withdrawal of the furlough scheme which the Office for Budget Responsibility warned will lead to UK unemployment levels peaking, hitting young people particularly hard. Will the Minister apologise to those whom his Government have pushed into further poverty and ask the Chancellor to do the decent thing and keep £20 uplift and extend it to legacy benefits?

The Government have always been clear that the £20 increase was a temporary measure to support households affected by the economic shock of covid-19. I am pleased to say that there have been significant positive developments in the public health situation since the increase was first announced, including the hugely successful vaccine roll-out. I have to repeat that it is therefore right that the Government should now shift focus to supporting people back into work and to progress in work, and we have a comprehensive plan via our £30 billion plan for jobs that will help us achieve this.

The Trussell Trust reports that hunger in the United Kingdom is not about access to food, but about low incomes from the social security safety net, revealing that 95% of people referred to food banks in early 2020 were living in destitution, with just £248 a month on average to survive on after housing costs. Does the Minister recognise that removing the £20 uplift to universal credit later this year will only push more families into hardship and deprivation across the United Kingdom?

No one in this House wants to see anyone in this country reliant on a food bank, and the Secretary of State and I are working across Government to identify and tackle the root causes of food insecurity and poverty. In the meantime, we continue to spend over £100 billion a year on benefits for working-age people, and during the pandemic we have pumped an additional £7.4 billion into our welfare system to support those facing the most financial disruption. But I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is right that we now shift our focus to supporting people back into work, because all evidence suggests that work is the best route out of poverty, and we have a comprehensive plan to do this via our £30 billion plan for jobs.

Since 2010 poverty has risen significantly in all parts of the UK, so much so that, despite having a job, one in eight workers are living in poverty under this Conservative Government. Given that the Government are adamant that they will make this cut to universal credit, which will affect people in work, should we understand that despite the Prime Minister’s levelling-up agenda, in-work poverty will continue to rise?

We take this issue incredibly seriously, which is why we have the In-Work Progression Commission, which is due to report back soon, and why we spend over £100 billion a year supporting people of working age through the benefit system and put an £7.4 billion into the welfare system over the course of the pandemic to support those facing the most financial disruption. But I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that he knows that the best route out of poverty is work. All the evidence suggests that that is the case; that is why all the efforts of this Government will be about, yes, ensuring that we have a strong, robust welfare safety net but also that the focus is on jobs, jobs, jobs—and through our £30 billion plan for jobs we will achieve that.

I say to the Minister that work is the best route out of poverty but it has not been working for the last 11 years, and the evidence is there for all to see.

Many disabled people are worse off on universal credit than under the old legacy systems. Ministers know this because they were forced to introduce transitional protections and, when speaking in this Chamber, always urge people to use a benefits calculator when applying in case moving to universal credit would cost them money. Keeping the universal credit uplift would go some of the way, although not all the way, towards mitigating this unfairness, so if the universal credit cut goes ahead what is the Government’s proposed solution for these disabled people—or is this yet another area where the Government actually plan to level down?

The opposite is in fact the case. Many of those with a disability will be better off on universal credit, and it is important, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, that they go on a benefits calculator—one of the independent benefits calculators on gov.uk—and check their eligibility. Labour Members—and the hon. Gentleman is no exception —regularly come to this House and ask for many billions of pounds more to be spent on benefits after the pandemic. Let us be clear: that is exactly what the hon. Gentleman is asking for when he refers to the universal credit uplift. I have to say that we fundamentally disagree with Labour’s approach. It is an approach that under the last Labour Government left a generation trapped on benefits and in poverty, incentivised not to work, and left children growing up in workless households, and we know what that meant for their life chances. Work is the best route out of poverty, and that is why we have put jobs and supporting people into work at the heart of everything we do. The difference could not be clearer: Labour’s focus is on billions of pounds more on benefits and the Government’s focus is on jobs, jobs, jobs.

It is not just the SNP, the Work and Pensions Committee and a range of stakeholders who are urging the UK Government to make the £20 uplift permanent, but 100 Conservative MPs in the Tory Reform Group and the one nation caucus. Is the Minister really saying that he disagrees with 100 of his own MPs who say it would be wrong to slash £1,000 a year from household budgets just as we are coming out of the teeth of this pandemic?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and welcome him to his place. Throughout this pandemic, this Government have consistently stepped up to support the lowest-paid, poorest and most vulnerable in our society. During the pandemic, the focus has rightly been on ensuring that people facing the most financial disruption got the support that they needed as quickly as possible, but all evidence suggests that work is the best route out of poverty. We had a jobs miracle before the pandemic, and with the help of our £30 billion plan for jobs, the support of business and creating the right environment, we will do so again. That is exactly why we shift our focus to supporting people back into work and to progress in work. We are doing that with the extra 13,500 work coaches in our jobcentres up and down the country and our £30 billion comprehensive plan for jobs.

Prison Leavers: Support into Employment

We are committed to cross-Government working to help prison leavers into work and to reduce reoffending. In support of the Prime Minister’s crime and justice taskforce, we are funding an additional 30 prison work coaches, bringing the total up to 200, to go into prisons after covid restrictions are lifted with a focus on both gaining employment and accessing benefits promptly, to remove excuses for prison leavers to return immediately to crime.

Northern College in my constituency is a resident education college that gives disadvantaged adults a second chance at adult education. Many students are former prisoners, but thanks to the college’s outstanding tuition and pastoral support, they go on to achieve educational success and secure well-paid employment. Sadly, the funding for such colleges is under threat, so will my right hon. Friend work with colleagues in the Department for Education to secure the future of Northern College and ensure that former prisoners continue to have access to this amazing opportunity to turn their lives around?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. I will absolutely share her concerns on the specific college to which she refers, Northern College. As I say, the Government are committed to helping ex-offenders to re-establish themselves back into the community and into work. As part of the Government taskforce, though, I am very keen to help prisoners get the right job skills while they are still in prison so they can walk straight out of prison into the world of work. However, the elements to which she refers will continue to be important in ensuring that people stay in jobs and succeed in jobs.

In-work Poverty

Analysis shows that prior to the pandemic, the poorest 20% of households saw their incomes increase by over 6% in 2019-20, even after taking account of inflation. Since the pandemic hit, we have strengthened the welfare system, spending £7.4 billion on measures such as the universal credit uplift, on top of additional support such as the coronavirus job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme. Her Majesty’s Treasury analysis has shown that the Government’s unprecedented support package means that working working-age households in the bottom 10% of the income distribution have seen no income reduction.

I am not at all surprised that the Minister’s answer bears little resemblance to the reality. Even pre-pandemic, 75% of children living in poverty lived in a household where at least one person worked. A recent NHS England-funded report found that around 700 child deaths could be avoided each year by reducing deprivation rates. Under this Government, work is no longer a route out of poverty. Why is that?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I know the passion with which she raises the issue. We have measures in place to tackle in-work poverty, and we intend to go further: whether it is our 13,500 additional work coaches in Jobcentre Plus up and down our country, kickstart or restart, or our £30 billion plan for jobs, it will help tackle in-work poverty through progression in work. In addition, we have the In-Work Progression Commission, which will report in the coming months on the barriers to progression for those in persistent low pay and, importantly, set out a strategy for overcoming them.

I have lost count of the number of times the Minister said all the evidence suggests that work is the best route out of poverty. We agree, in that the last Labour Government showed how it could be done, but under this Government it is simply not true, is it? As we have just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), 75% of children living in poverty are in a family where at least one parent is at work. Getting a low-paid and insecure job is not a route out of poverty if parents cannot afford childcare and housing, and if their universal credit will be cut. What is the Government’s strategy for making sure that work does pay?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but the statistics show that full-time work substantially reduces the chance of poverty. The absolute poverty rate of a child where both parents work full time is 3% compared with 47% where one or more parents are in part-time work. That is why we are supporting people into full-time work wherever possible, for example through our comprehensive childcare offer. As I said, we had a jobs miracle before the pandemic, and, through our £30 billion plan for jobs and with the help of businesses up and down our country, we will again. Part of that is having a welfare system that encourages and incentivises work. With universal credit, that is exactly what we have.

In my Rochdale constituency, no ward has fewer than one in five children living in poverty. Some wards have over half of all children living in poverty, and the bulk of those have parents who are working. That is a scandal. What is also a scandal is that the Minister insists that work always pays and keeps people out of poverty. It does not. What can he say to my constituents to assure them that they will be part of a genuine levelling-up process, with money in their pockets and their children not living in poverty?

When the opportunity allows, I would be delighted to visit the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I would say to him, however, that a child growing up in a home where all the adults are working is around five times less likely to be in poverty than a child in a household where nobody works. That is why our relentless focus is on supporting and empowering people into work, and progressing in work. As I said, we have a benefits system with universal credit, unlike the system proposed by Labour, that incentivises and encourages work—that is the key.

Over the years, Ministers have parroted the same lines over and over again on poverty, which is that work is the route out of it. Elements of the right-wing media have been trying to unscrupulously label hard-working people as scroungers from the welfare state, yet the true legacy of a decade of Tory Government is that the number of households in poverty where at least one adult is working increased by almost 2 million people. What are the Government going to do to rectify that unacceptable situation and ensure that hard-working Brits get a decent wage?

I have been absolutely clear. The evidence suggests that work is the best route out of poverty and that is why, through our £30 billion plan for jobs, we plan to make that happen. We increased the national living wage and have taken millions of people out of income tax all together. We continue to take action on the cost of living and the Secretary of State is looking at further measures we can take in that regard, such as, for example, our childcare offer. As I said, our plan for jobs will be game-changing and I hope the hon. Gentleman will get behind it. I will of course be very happy to meet him and businesses in Slough to see how we can make it happen.

Kickstart: Youth Unemployment

What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the kickstart scheme on levels of employment among young people. (900020)

Youth unemployment is down compared with 2010, currently standing at 575,000 young people, and we have the second-highest youth employment rate in the G7, second only to Canada. We are conscious of the scarring effects of long-term unemployment, which is why we developed kickstart as the flagship of our plan for jobs. Since its launch in September, over 200,000 jobs have been approved and over 20,000 young people have started their jobs. As our recovery continues, we expect to see many more starts in the next few weeks and months ahead.

I am afraid it is more damp squib than kickstart. An IT support and services company in my constituency started the much vaunted kickstart process on 15 September last year, with the expectation that it could recruit after 30 days. Eight months on, it still does not have anyone. Its conclusion: the scheme is pretty much a waste of everyone’s time and resources. Put simply, does this explain the fact that for every 25 young people who have lost their jobs over the past 12 months, kickstart has helped just one back into work?

It is fair to say that 20,000 people now have a salary coming in every week that they did not have before. I am sure that the employment Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies)—will be happy to look into the specific circumstances of the role to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Young people are not compelled to apply for kickstart if they are already applying for other jobs as well as part of their conditionality, but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will look further into the matter if the hon. Gentleman provides the details.

Suffolk’s gateway partnership has been very successful in promoting and rolling out the kickstart scheme, but to ensure that this initiative realises its full potential in supporting young people into work, it needs to be extended well beyond the end of this year. I would be most grateful if my right hon. Friend and Suffolk colleague confirmed whether she agrees with that conclusion and whether she is making representations to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for funding to be provided at the forthcoming comprehensive spending review.

I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour, and, indeed, I commend Suffolk’s gateway partnership and have seen its success in my role as MP for Suffolk Coastal. There are no current plans to extend the kickstart scheme. We want to focus on delivering jobs for young people as soon as we can, and eligible young people will be able to start new kickstart jobs until the end of this year—December 2021. Like him, I am very keen to make sure that we fill the vacancies we have. We are starting to see our first graduates who are getting permanent roles and we need to evaluate what the best route is for beyond, in 2022.

May I say that this is going to be my last DWP questions in this role and thank the Minister for the constructive way that she has developed the relationship? I will be handing—

I am sorry, Mr Speaker, but I will be handing over to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), on whose behalf I ask this question.

Last month’s data shows kickstart helping less than 4% of 16 to 24-year- olds who have lost their jobs over the last year. The scheme is nowhere near matching the scale of the challenge and, even worse, the Department, as has just been confirmed, still plans to end the scheme just as unemployment is set to peak. Employers speak of delays of weeks for vacancies to be approved and then advertised. It is almost a year since the Chancellor announced kickstart. There is no excuse for long-term unemployment becoming a legacy of the pandemic, so when are things going to change, and will the Secretary of State now urgently review the December kickstart end date in line with calls by Labour, the Confederation of British Industry and the Youth Employment Group, so that employers can also plan ahead?

First, I congratulate the hon. Lady on her new role; I understand that she is moving into the shadow Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy team and I am sure that she will be a huge success there, too.

In terms of kickstart, in the last four weeks, we have achieved, on average, 400 starts a day. This is in line with what we are seeing with the opening up of the economy. Today, we are on the first element of step 3, and we expect the starts under kickstart to get going. On the plan for jobs, we want to make sure that we properly evaluate all the measures to make sure that they achieve the ultimate goal of ensuring that as many people as possible are in work by the end of this year.

Kickstart: Thames Valley

What recent estimate she has made of the number of (a) successful and (b) total applications to the kickstart scheme in the Thames Valley region. (900008)

I can confirm that, as of 6 May, around 12,300 kickstart jobs had been made available for young people to apply for in the south-east of England region, and around 2,300 young people had already started in their new kickstart roles. Delivering the kickstart scheme at pace means that the DWP deal is still developing the tools to further break down the data on a more local level.

I thank the Minister for her answer. I agree that helping young people to get into work through this crisis is of paramount importance, but I was deeply concerned to hear, in a business roundtable organised by our local enterprise partnership, that that data is being gathered only at a regional level by the DWP. This means that the LEP and the councils cannot assess how well Oxfordshire is doing or measure the efficiency of any interventions that we might put in place to do even better. I thank her for her explanation, but can she give us any timeline on when we can have this data broken down to at least upper-tier council level? And can she meet me and officials so that we can understand how to ensure that young people make the most of this scheme?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising the issue of getting young people into work. As we heard from the Secretary of State, approximately 400 young people, on average, have been going into work per day for the past four weeks. I urge her to meet the Rose Hill youth hub, the newly launched DWP youth hub that covers her constituency and has been working with Oxford Jobcentre Plus from April, as well as Aspire, Activate and Oxford City Council. That will give her the insight that she needs about what is happening on the ground. She can also meet the local youth employability work coaches. We are breaking down the data as far as we can, but our priority right now is to get young people into those new roles.

Special Rules for Terminal Illness

The Department is committed to delivering an improved benefits system for claimants who are nearing the end of their lives, and is working across Government to bring forward proposals following the evaluation. I remain committed to implementing the key areas identified as soon as possible.

I have a constituent with incurable mantle cell lymphoma who does not meet the definition of terminal illness. She has been refused the personal independence payment, she is one year off her state pension, and because she owns a property that her disabled son lives in, she cannot claim means-tested benefits. She is in a dire financial situation. How much longer will she have to wait for the rules on terminal illness to be changed?

I thank the hon. Member for highlighting this. I do not know all the details, but if she is willing to share them, I would be very happy to look into that specific case. It highlights why we have carried out this vital evaluation, supported by stakeholders. The key three principles of improving awareness, consistency and scrapping the six-month rule remain a priority for our Department.

Employment: Young People

The new enhanced DWP youth offer has provided wraparound support for young people since September 2020, delivering employment and skills support and training through our youth employment programme, new youth hubs and additional youth employability work coaches. We currently have more than 110 new youth hubs operating digitally or physically, with at least one in every JCP district. We will have more than 140 physical youth hubs delivering face-to-face support as the covid restrictions are lifted further.

How is the Department encouraging businesses and other employers to sign up to these schemes so that we can create those vital jobs for 16 to 24-year-olds who might otherwise be long-term unemployed?

We are doing it non-stop, as my hon. Friend will be pleased to know. The DWP Lords Minister —my noble Friend Baroness Stedman-Scott—and I regularly attend stakeholder and outreach events to promote kickstart to employers. Last week, I spoke to more than 90 employers at an event partnering with MyKindaFuture, a mentoring platform. The team in my hon. Friend’s local jobcentre are working with local employers to support those most at risk of long-term unemployment through the new opportunities they need. I am pleased to share with my hon. Friend that they recently helped a young man who was struggling with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to find a new kickstart job as a green keeper.

I have recently received correspondence from the learning and skills lead for automotive engineering at Lincoln College in my constituency, which is shortly due to hold Autoinform 14-19, a practical taster event that aims to allow young people to spend time in workshops with local employers and industry specialists looking at electric cars, acoustic vehicle alerting systems, diagnostic methods and the MOT test. One difficulty is securing schools’ buy-in with the scheme. How does my hon. Friend believe the Government can support organisations such as Lincoln College to ensure that we help as many young people into employment as possible?

The DWP’s partnerships on the ground with local labour markets are key to these new employment opportunities. I am pleased that Lincoln JCP is working in partnership with the Network, a charity that aims to prevent young people from becoming NEET—not in education, employment or training—and engages with and connects to wider support. Customers will also benefit from a key partnership locally with the DWP, Lincolnshire Chamber of Commerce and the Lincoln College Group, which have created many new opportunities for our young people within the new kickstart scheme.

The Government have brought in some brilliant measures to get young people into employment and I witnessed that at first hand on a visit to NORI HR. We are also hosting an education summit locally, and I welcome the support from our local training providers such as North Lancs Training Group, but can the Minister set out what measures are in place to help jobcentres and training providers to work together so that people are fully aware of all the opportunities available to them?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point, and I thank NORI HR for all its work. All MPs in this Chamber should take the opportunity to work with their local Jobcentre Plus team to support and promote kickstart. Locally, the DWP is working with employers such as NORI HR and also the Accrington Stanley community trust, which Members might have seen on “Football Focus” recently. The first cohort of employees started in March this year in a variety of kickstart roles including admin, sports coaching, youth work, site maintenance and leisure attendants. We are also working in partnership with the Hyndburn DWP youth hub to support our young people to be ready for these new kickstart roles.

Across Keighley and Ilkley, businesses care passionately about giving young people the skills they need for a successful career, and these include Byworth Boilers, an excellent business that offers apprenticeships to help local residents to take their first step on the career ladder. The desire from local businesses is there, but they often need Government help to turn this into a reality, so will my hon. Friend confirm how her Department is helping to give companies such as Byworth Boilers the chance to deliver for young people?

I am more than happy to support Byworth Boilers and all the local employers, and to extend my thanks to the businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency and up and down the land that are putting forward opportunities to work with young people. I know that my hon. Friend works closely with the team at the Keighley jobcentre, who are in touch with many local employers including the Spoons Tearoom, Ideabean Software Technology and Superdrug, who are working together with the DWP to help to create new opportunities and progression for local jobseekers.

I thank my hon. Friend for her response. Young people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, given the high rates of unemployment in hospitality. Today I visited one of our local hotels, the Hilton Cobham, which has now fully reopened and is looking forward to welcoming the guests who enjoy Runnymede and Weybridge’s local attractions such as Thorpe Park, the Brooklands Museum and, of course, the birthplace of Magna Carta. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the next step in lifting the restrictions and invite people to visit and stay in Runnymede and Weybridge, to go to our fantastic pubs and restaurants to eat, drink and be merry and to support—[Inaudible.]— economy and jobs?

I think I got the point; we all love a bit of Thorpe Park. I join my hon. Friend in welcoming the wider return of hospitality in the travel and hotel sectors. This will be a vital boost to our economy and local jobs. In my hon. Friend’s jobcentre, we have new kickstart roles advertised in various hospitality areas including golf at Foxhills Country Club and Resort, sports and leisure through the RunThrough events team and social media opportunities with Little Olive Consulting, as well as vital local roles with Woking Borough Council and Surrey County Council.

I appreciate all that my hon. Friend is doing to help young people, many of whom will bounce back into work quickly and easily, but what dedicated support is available to help those who face more complex barriers to employment?

My right hon. Friend is right. That is why we have our new youth hubs with work coaches dedicated to youth employability to support young people with complex needs. They are able to remove barriers and support young people into employment and, crucially, to continue that support for the next six weeks after they have moved into work. In my right hon. Friend’s area, the jobcentres are running crucial sector-based work academy programmes in social care, construction and security, as well as offering new kickstart roles to young people and working with the London Borough of Bexley, which is also a vital kickstart gateway.

Support for Families Living in Poverty

This Government have been clear that supporting people back into work and empowering them to progress in their role is the best approach to tackling poverty. Evidence shows that households where all the adults work are six times less likely to be in absolute poverty than households where nobody works. To help to fulfil our commitment to get people back into work, we are investing over £30 billion through—you guessed it, Mr Speaker—our ambitious plan for jobs, which is already delivering for people right across our country.

Are this Government determined to be known as the most heartless Government since the end of the last world war? If these Ministers look at this morning’s report from Save the Children, they will see that 4 million children in our country are in poverty, going to bed at night with no food in their tummy. What are the Government going to do about that? It is a disgraceful state of affairs, and it is particularly hitting the north of England and people in the towns of West Yorkshire. Is it not about time we secured good, well-paid jobs and affordable childcare for these people, and tackled the problem, which has got worse and worse since 2010?

I am disappointed in that question, and I certainly do not recognise the picture painted by the hon. Gentleman. This Government have stepped up to support people facing financial disruption throughout this pandemic, pouring billions of pounds more into our welfare system to support those facing the most financial disruption. Those were short-term, temporary measures—we know that—to support people during the pandemic. I hope he will agree that it is right that our focus should shift to supporting people back into work and to progress into work, because we know that the evidence suggests that work is the best route of poverty. We will achieve this with our £30 billion plan for jobs.

Covid-19: Support for People on Legacy Benefits

We have introduced a substantial package of temporary welfare measures to support those on low incomes throughout the pandemic. We have paid out more than £100 billion in welfare support for people of working age this year and have consistently supported the lowest-paid families by increasing the living wage. This includes an investment of almost £1 billion into the local housing allowance rates, benefiting housing benefit and universal credit claimants alike. In addition, we have made sure that benefits retained their value against prices by raising benefits by a further £100 million from April 2021 in line with the consumer prices index.

The Trussell Trust reports that 62% of the working-age population referred to food banks were disabled, yet the Tories’ decision to deny people on legacy benefits the same £20 uplift as those on universal credit, which will be challenged in the High Court, continues to exclude 2 million disabled people, despite the extra costs they have faced during the pandemic. Will the UK Government finally provide the support that disabled people need, or will they continue trying to force people on to UC?

It is the policy of the Department not to comment on live litigation, so I will not comment on that aspect. I gently point out to the hon. Lady that we spend more than £57 billion a year on benefits to support disabled people. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work reminds me that that is an extra £4 billion in real terms. That is support for people with disabilities and health conditions, and this is about 2.6% of our GDP.

Ministers have been asked many times about the lack of uplift to legacy benefits, and every response has been woeful. The Government are now being taken to court to correct this discrimination. Do Ministers not see that they are discriminating against millions of disabled people on these benefits? This needs to be sorted. Does the Minister agree that it should not take a judicial review to tackle this injustice?

I have a lot of time for the shadow Minister, but however many times she asks the same question she is going to get the same response. The Government have focused support on UC and working tax credit claimants because they are more likely to be affected by the sudden economic shock of covid-19 than other legacy benefit claimants. I am not going to comment on the live litigation, but I would say that legacy claimants can make a new UC claim and benefit from the £20 a week increase; the Government encourage anybody to go on gov.uk and use one of the independent benefit calculators to check carefully their eligibility before they apply.

Topical Questions

The nation is today uniting to toast an important milestone in the Prime Minister’s road map to recovery, with the long-awaited full reopening of the hospitality sector—thank God for that, given the rain we are suffering. The British public have stood up to the challenge of the pandemic and, while still being cautious, we need to get out there and spend our dosh. Let’s do our bit to support our communities, businesses and jobs, including more than 1 million workers who were furloughed and whom I hope we will now see back at work. As hospitality booms, I am sure that many more new kickstarters will be out there, able to hit the ground running.

Before the introduction of universal credit, single parents under the age of 25 received a higher rate of benefit payment in recognition of the increased costs of raising a child as a single parent, but that support has sadly not been extended to young single parents who are in receipt of universal credit. Does the Secretary of State agree with me and the assessment of One Parent Families Scotland that the omission amounts to a “young parent penalty”?

No; we took a sensible approach in having a differential rate for universal credit. Of course, if any of the hon. Lady’s constituents would like support to secure extra income via the child’s other parent, the Child Maintenance Service is there to help parents in such situations.

We have heard a lot about youth unemployment this afternoon. The House of Commons Library tells me that it has increased by 10%, with a 110% increase in the number of young people claiming unemployment benefits. Those statistics are concerning, especially for the Clacton constituency, where historically we have struggled with youth unemployment. We must get these young people back to work. The new lifetime skills guarantee will help, but what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Treasury about the introduction of national insurance contribution relief for employers who hire young people, as we have done for those that hire veterans? If discussions have not taken place, will they soon? (900062)

I have regular discussions with a range of Ministers across the Government about how best to get young people into work and thriving. We are already incentivising employers to hire young people through the kickstart scheme, through which we pay wages and the associated national insurance contributions for six months. It is a job creation scheme for the young people who are most at risk of long-term unemployment, building vital experience throughout the pandemic and giving them the confidence and skills needed to thrive in their future workplace.

The kickstart scheme was launched with much fanfare but it has been a bit of a flop, not to mention a headache for many businesses such as METERology in my constituency, which has been given a total runaround by the Secretary of State’s Department. Recent figures suggest that if the UK Government maintain a rate of 400 new employees starting each day, they should hit their target of 250,000 new jobs in 625 days—that is two years—so what more are they going to do to ensure that kickstart can really live up to its hype rather than just be a slogan for the Chancellor’s naff hoodie?

The hon. Gentleman is being ungracious. We are still at step 3 of the road map to recovery. Dare I say that the Scottish Government are putting up a roadblock to recovery by pursuing the whole independence agenda when they should be focused on the economic recovery? If the hon. Gentleman has specific constituency matters to raise, he is welcome to do so. As we go through the steps, we will see even more kickstarters taking full advantage of the generous support, which will help them and employers alike.

As the Pensions Minister knows from when we visited Airedale Springs together last September, climate change is a major concern for many constituents of mine across Keighley and Ilkley. With COP26 now less than six months away, will my hon. Friend update the House on the progress the Government are making to ensure that pensions play their part in tackling climate change so that we can build back greener from the pandemic? (900063)

We are the first G7 country to legislate for net zero and lead the world in sustainable environmental investment, with the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures and more, all of which address climate change. It was a pleasure to visit Airedale Springs, which is a great company that is doing good business but with due regard to climate change. That is our approach to UK pensions as we build back greener.

Some 200,000 women who worked hard and paid their taxes all their lives have been underpaid their state pensions. It is an absolute scandal. I welcome the announcement that the DWP is trying to repay the money owed to these women, who have been so badly let down, but the repayments are being made far too slowly. Will the Minister confirm how many repayments were made last month and when the Department will finally speed up the process?

It is good to see that the hon. Gentleman survived the deputy leadership reshuffle.

The simple point is that the DWP formally commenced correction activity on 11 January this year, and I published a written ministerial statement on 4 February this year. We are clearing up a mess, the responsibility for much of which goes back to the changes made under the Labour Government in 2008, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware. Where underpayments are identified, the Department will contact the individual to inform them of the changes to their state pension amount and of any arrears payments that they will receive in accordance with the law.

My constituent Martin Burnell is living with motor neurone disease, which is a progressive terminal illness for which there is no effective treatment or cure. Earlier this year, he was told to reapply for his benefits or risk having them stopped. Will my hon. Friend commit to removing the burdensome and unacceptable requirement under the special rules that people with a terminal illness have to reapply for their benefits after three years? (900065)

As part of the Green Paper, we will be going further than the special rules for terminal illness evaluation to look at the principles of extending the severe health condition criteria to remove unnecessary assessments and reviews.

Youth unemployment is rising and one route out of this is through apprenticeships. One of the problems with apprenticeships can be apprenticeship pay, often described as apprenticeship poverty, where it costs more to attend work than the young apprentices earn. What is the Minister doing across Departments to address that injustice? (900061)

I thank the hon. Lady for pointing out the great opportunities of apprenticeships. The kickstart scheme can lead to such an opportunity, and we will be explaining to young people the opportunities that exist through our youth hubs. On supporting people, we have our flexible support fund for people to get into work and to thrive in work. Our in-work progression report will be reporting soon and we will look at it closely to see whether it covers any of these matters.

As society leaves lockdown restrictions and recovery accelerates, will my right hon. Friend confirm that universal credit is designed not only for people who are unemployed, but to support people into work and to continue to support them while they are in employment? (900070)

My hon. Friend is right. The design of universal credit means that people will always be better off working than not working. It is important that people take advantage of extra hours that they may be offered in order to get that benefit, and we will continue to help people get into that type of job.

According to research by the Resolution Foundation, we are facing a U-shaped unemployment crisis, which will hit the youngest and the eldest workers the hardest. For women who are already being forced to work beyond their expected retirement age, this only adds to their financial hardship and many fear that they will never find work again. Do the Government have any plans to help, or will they continue to let down these hard-working women, many of whom started in the labour market when they were just 15 or 16 years old? (900066)

Older workers can get help from their work coach if they need further qualifications or modern certifications. The DWP works with the Government’s business champion for older workers, providing outreach and advice for employers. We encourage all employers to reap the many benefits of recruiting workers who can bring a wealth of skills and experience to any workplace. I advise people to head to the JobHelp website, to look at the Department for Education’s digital toolkit, or to speak to their work coach about any support so that they can perhaps have the best part of their career in the final years of their career.

This Government are focused on getting more people into work through an ambitious plan for jobs. However, last week I was contacted by a constituent in Redcar and Cleveland who is a qualified primary teaching assistant looking for work. She told me that, every time she declares her autism and epilepsy, employers sadly decide not to pursue her applications further. What more can the Government do to encourage employers to give differently abled people such as my constituent the equal opportunity of work? (900073)

My hon. Friend highlights a vital issue, which is why we have developed a disability confident toolkit with stakeholders to provide comprehensive information and guidance for employers on autism and hidden impairments. I hope that his constituent’s undoubted talents will be unlocked shortly.

Govanhill Housing Association has told me that, each time there is a rent increase, some tenants inadvertently go into arrears as they do not realise that they have to notify the DWP. Will Ministers make a common-sense change to this bureaucracy to allow housing providers to report any rent increases directly for all their tenants rather than as a fallback? (900067)

I have explored this issue, which is a little bit more complicated than the hon. Lady makes out. We have been working with housing associations. I would be very happy to sit down with her and have a briefing on the matter with officials.

I welcome the DWP’s commitment to delivering an improved welfare system for people with a terminal illness, and I hope that it can be delivered very soon. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the proposals to change the special rules will not be included in the upcoming Green Paper, which would result in further delay and would be unnecessary, as the DWP has already consulted stakeholders? (900074)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The SRTI—special rules for terminal illness—evaluation has been completed and will not need to be rerun through the forthcoming Green Paper.

Will the Minister recommend that his colleagues purchase and read the recently released e-book, “The Brown Envelope Book”, which contains more than 200 poems, pieces of prose and short plays about disabled people who say they have been“brutalised by the bureaucracy of the Department for Work and Pensions”? (900069)

The Government are rightly proud of providing record amounts of support for people with disabilities and long-term health conditions. Through our forthcoming health and disability Green Paper, we will work with stakeholders and those with real lived experience to make sure that we improve the services and support we provide.

Tomorrow, I will be hosting a workshop between local disability support groups and the DWP in my constituency to discuss the Green Paper. Ahead of that meeting, will the Minister update the House on what steps are being taken to increase access to benefits and support for the most vulnerable people during the pandemic? (900075)

I thank my hon. Friend for being so proactive, along with about 50 other MPs who have already agreed to host health and disability Green Paper events to look at the key themes of advocacy, getting supportive evidence, the assessment process and the appeals process. It is the Government’s absolute priority to support those with disabilities and long-term health conditions.

I have a constituent who, after having her jab recently, had a nasty reaction and could not go to work the following day. She then found that she had lost 10 hours’ pay—half her week’s wages. That is the world of precarious work, and it certainly does not encourage people to have a jab, so what can the Government do to rectify the situation? (900072)

I thank the hon. Member for raising that point. We have been improving guidance and sharing best practice with employers. We have also made changes to statutory sick pay for those who are either self-isolating or sick to remove the four-day wait. It is disappointing to hear how that specific employer has treated their hard-working employee.

What support is the Department for Work and Pensions providing to those who have unfortunately been made unemployed in aviation communities, which have of course been particularly negatively impacted by the covid-19 pandemic? (900079)

My hon. Friend knows the pain of the impact on the aviation sector, as do I in my nearby constituency. The DWP has a range of support for individuals who have been employed in this sector and are affected. The DWP rapid response service provides key help and advice for employers and their employees if they are facing redundancy. Our work coaches provide claimants with individual personalised support, utilising our plan for jobs, which includes SWAP—the sector-based work academy programme—for those currently displaced by the impact on the aviation sector. That can help to build confidence and transfer their very wide-ranging skills into other opportunities for the short or the longer term. I am pleased that many of them are working locally, vaccinating—

Every day, 7.6 million people go without sufficient nutritious food, according to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, so will the Secretary of State look carefully at the Welsh Government’s pilot for a universal basic income, and will she provide an estimate for the cost of a UK roll-out of a universal basic income? (900076)

Ah, my favourite question on UBI. The answer is no. If the Welsh Government wish to use the extra money they receive through the Barnett formula to undertake other aspects, the question is whether it is within their legal powers to do so. I am conscious that we all want to make sure that food insecurity comes to an end, and that is why we are working across Government to tackle it.

I will now suspend the House to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.

Antisemitic Attacks

Before I call the Secretary of State to respond to the urgent question, I have a short statement to make. I know that all Members will be deeply concerned by the footage of apparently antisemitic behaviour that appeared online yesterday. I understand that a number of individuals have been arrested in relation to the incident, but that no charges have yet been made. Therefore, the House’s sub judice resolution is not yet formally engaged. However, I remind all Members to exercise caution and avoid referring to the details of specific cases in order to avoid saying anything that might compromise any ongoing investigation or subsequent prosecution.

I call the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who has three minutes to answer the urgent question from Robert Halfon.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on recent antisemitic attacks across the UK.

No one could fail to be appalled by the disgraceful scenes of antisemitic abuse directed at members of the Jewish community in the past week. In Chigwell, Rabbi Rafi Goodwin was hospitalised after being attacked outside his synagogue. In London, activists drove through Golders Green and Finchley, both areas with large Jewish populations, apparently shouting antisemitic abuse through a megaphone. These are intimidatory, racist and extremely serious crimes. The police have since made four arrests for racially aggravated public order offences and have placed extra patrols in the St John’s Wood and Golders Green areas.

During Shavuot, as always, we stand with our Jewish friends and neighbours, who have sadly been subjected to a deeply disturbing upsurge in antisemitism in recent years, particularly on social media. Like all forms of racism, antisemitism has no place in our society. A lot of young British Jews are discovering for the first time that their friends do not understand antisemitism, cannot recognise it and do not care that they are spreading it. British Jews are not responsible for the actions of a Government thousands of miles away, but are made to feel as if they are. They see their friends post social media content that glorifies Hamas—an illegal terrorist organisation, whose charter calls for every Jew in the world to be killed. Today, the world celebrates International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. Under Hamas, people are murdered for being gay.

Every time the virus of antisemitism re-enters our society, it masks itself as social justice, selling itself as speaking truth to power. This Government are taking robust action to root it out. We are leading the way as the first Government to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism and calling on others to do the same. As a result, nearly three quarters of local councils have adopted it. I have written to councils and universities that are still dragging their feet. They will shortly be named and shamed if they fail to act. All Members of Parliament, bar one, have signed up to it.

We are also doing our utmost to keep the Jewish community safe through the £65 million protective security grant to protect Jewish schools, synagogues and community buildings. We are working closely with the Community Security Trust to ensure victims can come forward and report attacks to the police.

We recognise that education is one of the most powerful tools we have for tackling antisemitism. We are proud to back the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Anne Frank Trust, among others, to ensure that we challenge prejudice from an early age. With the last holocaust survivors leaving us, we are also ensuring that future generations never forget where hatred can lead through—I hope—a new world-class holocaust memorial and learning centre next to the Palace of Westminster. It is currently awaiting the outcome of a planning inquiry. Some of the opposition to it has only served to make the case for why it is needed.

Today, the Government and, I hope, the whole House send a clear message of support and reassurance to our Jewish friends and neighbours. We seek a society where the UK’s largest established religions can live safely and freely, and can prosper, as an essential part of a nation that is confident in its diversity but ultimately strong in its unity.

I am very disappointed. I said at the beginning that the Secretary of State had three minutes, and he went on to take four minutes. Unfortunately, I do not make the rules of the House, but I have to stick to them. We now go to Robert Halfon, who is participating virtually, with two minutes.

In a 2018 House of Commons debate on antisemitism, I said the air had grown tighter for Jews:

“you feel very hot, you undo a button on your shirt and your mouth goes dry.”—[Official Report, 17 April 2018; Vol. 639, c. 262.]

Sadly, after yesterday’s horrific incidents, highlighted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—particularly the rabbi being beaten up in Chigwell in Essex—I fear that the air has become even tighter. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Dame Eleanor Laing) for her strong support against antisemitism.

Since 2018, the Community Security Trust has recorded the highest ever number of antisemitic incidents—more than 1,800 in 2019. In Harlow just a few days ago, swastikas were graffitied on walls in a public walkway. Thankfully, they have now been removed. Why, in the 21st century, must Jewish schools and synagogues have guards outside? The growth of antisemitism has happened for a number of reasons. There are too many of what Vladimir Lenin called “useful idiots”, whether they are some Labour party activists, condemned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and those who use the conflict in Israel as an excuse; the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen telling Jews to read negative articles about Jews; or the NUS giving moral equivalence to antisemitism and what it calls the liberation of Palestine. I remind the House that the so-called liberation is being conducted by Iranian-funded extreme Islamist terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

What protections and support are being given specifically to Jews and to the Community Security Trust? What are the Government doing to educate pupils about antisemitism so that this evil is wiped out? Will there be severe penalties for those found guilty of antisemitic behaviours? As a proud British Jewish MP, I never imagined that I would live at a time when I and the Jewish community would question whether Britain is a safe place for Jews any more.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks today and his long record of supporting the British Jewish community and fighting antisemitism. We must ensure that this is a country where our Jewish friends and neighbours feel safe, and I am sure that the whole House will send a strong message today of support and reassurance to them.

The Government will continue to support the Community Security Trust—I join my right hon. Friend in praising its work. Partly funded by the Government and partly by philanthropy, it helps to ensure the security of 650 Jewish communal buildings and 1,000 events every year. It has reported to us a steep rise this week in antisemitic incidents—a 320% increase in a week. I am afraid that that is likely to rise further as there is always a delay in reporting. We will continue to support the trust and we will work with the Metropolitan police and police forces in other parts of the country, who are putting out extra patrols in the coming days to provide reassurance to Jewish citizens.

We will also support groups across the country, for example, the Union of Jewish Students, which does so much good work for Jews on campuses across the UK who suffer antisemitic attacks and abuse. We will keep on with that work as well as the educational work to which my right hon. Friend referred. In my opening remarks, I paid tribute to a number of the fantastic organisations, such as the Holocaust Memorial Trust, which deliver that day in, day out, and have continued to do so even during the difficulties that covid-19 posed.

I commend the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for securing the urgent question. What we saw and heard in the footage from the streets of London yesterday was vile antisemitism and sickening, threatening mysogyny. Those who engage in that appalling, terrible behaviour should feel the full force of the law.

Time and again, we have seen these attacks aimed at the Jewish community. The Community Security Trust, which I also commend for its work, recorded 63 antisemitic incidents from 8 to 16 May. We send a clear, unequivocal message that that is not acceptable—not then, not now, not ever. I have been moved by the Jewish community’s sharing testimonies at the weekend. I have contacted the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Community Security Trust to make clear the absolute condemnation on these Benches for those terrible acts.

There is too often a completely unacceptable pattern: distressing scenes in the middle east—we on these Benches have called for a ceasefire—can lead to a minority of people attempting to whip up hatred between communities. There is often an upsurge in Islamophobic attacks, too. Those who do that do not in any sense represent those who seek to bring about peace in the middle east.

I understand that four men have been arrested, but I ask the Secretary of State whether anyone else is being sought. What more can be done, particularly in intelligence gathering, to prevent this kind of incident from happening again? What additional support is being given to places of worship and other key sites at this worrying time? Does the Secretary of State agree that, in response to those who seek to stoke division and hatred, we must stand united and send a message that they will never win?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his strong words today, which will have been heard by Jewish communities across the country. The whole of the House of Commons is united in this regard. He is also right to say that whatever one’s views are on the current conflict in Israel and Gaza, that is no excuse whatsoever for the kind of antisemitic abuse or, indeed, anti-Muslim hatred that we are seeing on our streets right now. Tell MAMA, which reports the number of anti-Muslim incidents, has also informed us that there has been a rise in incidents directed against the Muslim community in recent days. Both are unacceptable, and both need to be tackled.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the police should be taking a lead, and we expect the police to be urgently investigating the issues that we have seen in recent days. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has spoken with the commissioner of the Metropolitan police, who has given assurances that the police will do everything they can to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. Further patrols are now happening in areas with larger Jewish communities in London, for example, and I know that other police forces in other parts of the country, such as Greater Manchester, are taking the same proactive approach. As I said in my opening remarks, the police have since made four arrests for racially aggravated public order offences, and have placed extra patrols in the St John’s Wood and Golders Green areas.

With respect to the incident regarding the rabbi in Chigwell, Essex police have announced that they are investigating the incident as a religiously aggravated assault, and have appealed for witnesses. They are engaging with the affected communities equally to provide reassurance, and I call on anyone who may have been a witness to either of those events or, indeed, others across the country to come forward as soon as possible.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the concern you have shown the British Jewish community today by granting this urgent question so soon. The fact that people feel emboldened to drive through Jewish neighbourhoods calling for the rape of women, or to march through the streets of London warning Jews that an army is coming against them, does not happen in isolation. It happens because antisemitism on campuses is ignored; because university lecturers who target Jewish students are not dealt with; because far-right holocaust denial content on online platforms is not dealt with; and because some people, some campaigners —including, perhaps, some in this place—place an emphasis on Israel and use emotive language that they do not use in relation to other conflicts, while giving Hamas, the terror tunnels and the murder weapons a free pass. That is why it happens: it does not happen in isolation, and enough is enough.

I thank the Secretary of State for what he has said today, but I urge him to go even further. It is great that we are putting so much money into holocaust education, but we have to go further in ensuring that every child in this country is taught about antisemitism, as they should be taught about Islamophobia and all racism.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is crucial that we ensure that young people uphold the values of this country and understand antisemitism. That is one of the reasons why we were the first country in the world to sign up to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition, which makes it abundantly clear that anti-Zionism is antisemitism. It is one of the reasons why we fund the Holocaust Educational Trust, and why we have now expended its remit from going into schools to going into universities as well. We also fund a range of other organisations.

It is also important to underline the point that my hon. Friend made: Hamas is a proscribed terrorist organisation, and those considering its activities or reporting upon them should make very clear the kind of organisation it is and the relationship that the UK has with it, which is that we do not engage with a terrorist organisation.

I, too, thank the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for having secured this urgent question, which offers us an opportunity to unite in unequivocal opposition to, and condemnation of, antisemitism. There is never any excuse or justification for it, and hatred expressed here helps absolutely nobody, anywhere. The events that have already been described were absolutely horrendous—vile, targeted antisemitism and misogyny—and our solidarity goes out to the Jewish communities directly targeted and to everyone across the country who has suffered such hatred. We support all steps to bring the perpetrators to justice and all initiatives to tackle antisemitism.

Finally, can I suggest that we also take this opportunity to condemn all forms of racism and religious hatred, whether it is antisemitism, Islamophobia, or the atrocious anti-Catholic bigotry witnessed this weekend during disgraceful disorder by Rangers fans in Glasgow city centre? It has absolutely no place, and there is absolutely no excuse for it. I am sure that Members across the House will agree that we all have a duty to call it out and condemn it.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those remarks. Like him, this Government have zero tolerance for all forms of racism, including antisemitism. We must do everything we can to ensure that where individuals do perpetrate these crimes, they are brought to justice.

I have been heartened by some of the comments made so far. However, it was frightening and horrible over the weekend to watch videos of people hurling abuse from cars; to hear about the rabbi who was badly beaten up; and to see pictures from the Arndale centre of yobs—from Bradford, I am told—intimidating shoppers and shouting antisemitic remarks. And it is dreadful that it is happening in this country. Of course, all racism, whether it be antisemitism, Islamophobia or anti-Catholicism, must be condemned, but my question is: what lessons have been learned about this? Some might say that all of this was predictable as soon as it was known that the march was going to happen. What lessons have been learned, and what new practices are the police going to put in place to make sure that this sort of thing cannot happen again?

I, for one, never thought that I would see banners being held aloft on the streets of London, apparently with impunity, saying, “Death to Jews”, or individuals being able to drive for some time through neighbourhoods, broadcasting the kind of antisemitic bile that we saw over the weekend. That is disgraceful. It is wrong and we need to ensure that our police services are equipped to take action quickly and robustly when this happens again in the future. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will speak again to her counterparts so that they can ensure that where such instances arise in the future, action is taken as fast as possible, as we would expect with regard to any other racist or intimidatory incident.

May I thank you, Mr Speaker, and the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for securing this urgent question? Like others, seeing racist posters, swastikas, a rabbi attacked and a racist convoy going through north London, I could see that the message was one of hate and, often, misogyny. This House is sending out a very strong message today denouncing this vile racism. But our message cannot just be for today. Tragically, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not go away, and we must be able to debate and disagree without Jew hate or Islamophobia taking over. What action is the Secretary of State taking beyond today, and beyond the brilliant work that the Holocaust Educational Trust is doing with young people, to inform and educate communities throughout Britain, including elected representatives, so that a discussion on an international conflict does not morph into a national expression of hate?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her remarks and, of course, for her own record of standing up to antisemitism in the past. She is right to say that this is, sadly, just one of a number of incidents, and past incidents of this nature have flared up at the same time as conflict in the middle east. In 2014, for example, there was a significant spike in antisemitic incidents. Many members of the Jewish community are fearful that we will see a similar situation now. Indeed, some have said to me that there is greater intensity today than there was back then, perhaps fuelled by the rise of social media.

We need to ensure that we are rooting out antisemitism and doing so through education, working with all parts of society. That is one of the reasons that the Prime Minister and I have appointed Sara Khan as our independent adviser, who will tackle extremism of any kind and ensure that it cannot exist with impunity in plain sight. All parts of Government and civil society must play their part in that—not just central Government and local authorities, but charities, schools and faith groups the length and breadth of the country.

I very much agree with the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). Many Jewish people in Southend were appalled at the disgusting scenes in north London over the weekend. I stand with them, and I am frankly bemused at how those events were allowed to happen in the first place. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is more important than ever that the Government continue to support the work of the Community Security Trust, which does such vital work to keep the Jewish community safe through the protective security grant? I know that money is tight, but will he ensure that sufficient funding is made available to the trust, to enable the Jewish community to worship safely and peacefully?

The Community Security Trust has an absolutely essential role in supporting Jewish institutions such as schools, nurseries and places of worship—frankly, places that should not need to have security. As the father of Jewish children, it shocks me every time I take my children to synagogue or to their nursery to see individuals in stab-proof vests guarding the entrance to those places. That should not have to happen in this country, but it does happen today, and we will continue to support the Community Security Trust, giving it all the funding it needs to protect Jewish communities.

The whole House will stand in solidarity with Jewish people across the country in the face of vile antisemitism, misogynistic hate speech, violence and incitement. No one should be in any doubt that attempting to blame Jewish communities for the actions of the Israeli Government is appalling antisemitism and is wrong. The Secretary of State will know that the kinds of incident we saw over the weekend are also being fuelled by online antisemitism and extremism, and he will have seen the recent CST report on Google and antisemitic imagery. What more is he doing to tackle this awful online antisemitism?

The right hon. Lady raises an extremely important point. The Home Secretary and the Culture Secretary are working closely on this issue. They are in contact with the providers to ensure that antisemitic and other hate speech is taken down quickly and that action is taken against the perpetrators. Of course, this is an issue that we will return to and debate when considering the online harms Bill, which I hope will play a role. My Department is also funding organisations that are taking action to put a counter-narrative on social media, to educate people about the harm that is caused by antisemitism and to ensure that people of all backgrounds—particularly young people—understand that some of the memes and graphics that are being circulated as we speak are deeply antisemitic and deeply offensive to communities and are fuelling the kind of hatred that boiled on to the streets over the weekend.

We have seen vile physical and verbal assaults against Jews in the real world, but there is also a deep well of antisemitic content online and on social media, as the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said, which often goes unchallenged. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these clearly antisemitic messages cannot be allowed to continue? Memes are allowed to socialise and water down some of the horrific content online. Can he outline what action the Government will take against not just mainstream social media companies but smaller ones such as BitChute and Telegram, where some of the worst content is shared?

My hon. Friend raises a number of important points. It is not simply an issue of the large international providers; there are smaller ones as well. They all need to be subject to the regulatory regime that we are devising and will legislate for in the online harms Bill. We are taking action as we speak, and the Culture Secretary, the Home Secretary and I are working with those providers to ensure that harmful antisemitic content is seen, identified and removed as quickly as possible.

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I would like to add our unequivocal condemnation of all forms of racism and hate speech, including the appalling antisemitic abuse recorded on the streets of London. The Secretary of State has already agreed that we must all actively condemn and confront all forms of inflammatory rhetoric by those with public platforms. Can he expand on how he sees the work of Government encouraging us here and the public at large to get to a place where we can stop such appalling racial abuse and misogynistic hate crimes?

We are taking a number of actions in my Department, and we work with organisations right across society, including faith organisations, to ensure that those perpetrating abuse and discriminatory behaviour of this kind are brought to justice. We want to ensure that we have a tolerant society. We are proud of the diversity in this country, but we also want a united country in which all people feel comfortable and safe. That is why we are taking the actions that we are taking, and why we are working with our hate crime action group and a number of organisations all over the UK to raise awareness and to stamp out this kind of abusive behaviour where we find it.

Today, Jewish people in my constituency and around the world will be gathering to mark the festival of Shavuot, and I wish them all a good and a safe Yom Tov. As the Member with the largest Jewish community outside London, I have been contacted by constituents scared to take their children to shul, due to the appalling scenes of antisemitism on the streets of the UK over the weekend. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that the Jewish community cannot be targeted due to the situation in the middle east, and will he reassure the community in Bury South and across the country that the police will deal with all instances of antisemitism with the utmost severity?

I hope I can provide the reassurance that police forces across the country, including in Greater Manchester, are taking action to ensure that there are patrols and, where there are incidents, that they are investigated and individuals are brought to justice, where necessary. I was very concerned to see the intimidating scenes at the Arndale centre in Manchester, and I would not want to see those repeated. We want to provide protection to my hon. Friend’s constituents, and that is exactly what we will do.

Plaid Cymru has a long tradition of promoting peace over conflict and of standing alongside oppressed people. This includes calling for the human right of people in Palestine and Israel to be able to live in peace. The language we use in politics matters, and everyone seeking peace knows that words used irresponsibly can be twisted into weapons. This week, Jews in the UK have suffered hate speech, threats and acts of violence both on the streets and over social media. Does the Secretary of State agree that the online harms Bill provides an opportunity to protect not only individuals, but groups of people from hate speech that incites such violence?

I think that the online harms Bill outlined in the Queen’s Speech will be an important weapon in our arsenal, enabling us to take action against the virus of antisemitism and other forms of hate speech where they occur online. That is absolutely critical; we find it in many other aspects of our life. That is one of the reasons we pursued the IHRA definition, and have urged institutions to sign up to it, such as councils, universities and, of course, Members of this House. There is more work to be done there, and a particular focus for this Government will now be in universities. Many have not signed up to that definition, and many have done so but not yet put it into practice. We need to see urgent change there.

I welcome and indeed echo the words of the Home Secretary at the weekend in urging the police to take the strongest possible action against those responsible for these horrific and totally unacceptable incidents of antisemitism. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that his Department will work closely with the Home Office to ensure that all those responsible will be held to account and face justice as soon as possible?

Antisemitic crimes, like all those with regard to racism, are serious crimes, and we expect police forces investigating these issues to do so rigorously, robustly and swiftly, and for action to be taken against the individuals if they are found to require prosecution. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is working with the Metropolitan police, and has received assurances from them that they will be doing everything they can to bring these individuals to justice.

Last night, Jewish communities across the country began our celebrations for the festival of Shavuot, and I wish all of those marking it a chag sameach. The scenes of antisemitic and misogynistic abuse yesterday have been incredibly disturbing and have caused significant alarm and distress, coming off the back of a rise in hate crime incidents both online and in physical attacks on and desecrations of our places of worship. I have been heartened by unequivocal condemnations from across society, including by the Muslim Council of Britain and the Palestinian ambassador in the UK, as they recognise that all forms of racism and oppression reinforce one another, that they cannot be fought in isolation from each other and that we all have more in common than that which divides us. What support, therefore, will the Secretary of State provide to interfaith initiatives such as the Warrington Ethnic Communities Association and the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester to help us build solidarity and co-operation across our communities, where a minority of extremists seek to divide us?

I thank the hon. Lady, and wish her chag sameach as well. We are working with a number of different groups that help bridge the divide and ensure that there is greater understanding among different groups in society. There are many such groups, including Solutions Not Sides, and Streetwise with its Stand Up! programme. They are important, but we want other parts of civil society to step up too. The report that Sara Khan produced earlier in the year for the Prime Minister was significant, saying that there is more work to be done by schools, local councils and civil society organisations to take their responsibilities seriously now in rooting out extremism and encouraging a better understanding between different parts of society. That work needs to be done swiftly, and Sara Khan is now part of my Department, independently advising myself and the Prime Minister on how we can take that work forward.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

Like many Members, I saw the scenes in north London unfolding on social media and obviously was completely appalled. While those events were unfolding the Metropolitan police tweeted:

“Officers are in the area and are engaging with those taking part.”

I do not wish to condemn the Metropolitan police for one misjudged tweet in the heat of the moment, but does my right hon. Friend agree that that tweet misses the mark entirely and does not take what happened yesterday sufficiently seriously? I welcome the arrests that have taken place, but does he agree with me and the Home Secretary that we need to see the strongest possible action against all those who took part in yesterday’s disgraceful scenes?

Yes, I do. I am grateful for the work of the Metropolitan police, Essex Police and other police forces across the country in recent days and the work they will be doing right now providing reassurance to Jewish communities, but my hon. Friend is right that the correct response to an incident like this is not merely engagement; the Jewish community, like all of us in society, wants to see action against the perpetrators of those offences. That is now happening: individuals have been arrested and those crimes are being investigated.

I think we can all agree with the Centre for Holocaust Education on the importance of education in tackling antisemitism. However, given that a recent survey found that only 37% of young people know what the term “antisemitism” means, what more can the right hon. Gentleman do to ensure adequate funding is made available for education programmes so that future generations are aware of the history and causes of antisemitism?

We have only to look on social media today to see that a very large number of our fellow citizens do not understand what antisemitism is, or else they would not be liking and sharing some of the memes and graphics, which are antisemitic and deeply offensive and are helping to fan the flames of the kinds of incidents we have seen in recent days. The Government are taking action in a number of respects, through the Holocaust Educational Trust, which the hon. Gentleman rightly praises, and the Antisemitism Policy Trust, which is doing work online, and through other works with the Holocaust education centre which we hope will be built near the Palace of Westminster and holocaust museums across the country, such as the Beth Shalom museum in north Nottinghamshire, so that we can raise awareness of these issues and help to debunk some of the myths.

The antisemitism of the weekend has been inflamed by allegations originating with perhaps easily disproved campaigns concerning the al-Aqsa mosque, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Muslims worship there during Ramadan and Eid. My right hon. Friend has described a lot of what he is going to do, but what more can he do to stop antisemitic mistruths being used to drive a wedge between communities here in the UK?

That is an extremely important point. As I have said, there is work to be done online and in our schools, and there is also work we can do through the creation of new museums and educational institutions such as the memorial that we hope will be built. There is also work for all of us just as citizens of this country, to call out antisemitism wherever we find it and see it, and ensure that there is no immunity—there is no safe space for it in the way that I am afraid many people feel there is today.

Antisemitism, and any other form of racism, is utterly abhorrent and must be swiftly dealt with. Many of us are strong advocates for the Palestinian people, to stop them being evicted from their homes and to demand an immediate end to the current bloodshed, but for racists who parade as allies of Palestine to use this tragedy to fuel antisemitism and misogyny is utterly condemnable. Is the Secretary of State concerned about the possibility of far-right organisations using this to stir further community tensions? If so, what steps will the Government take to address it?

As I said earlier, when we have seen conflicts arise or intensify in the middle east in the past, that has led to an upsurge in hate crimes against both members of the Jewish community and members of the Muslim community. We saw that in 2014. I hope that we are not witnessing a similar situation today, although I think many would say that we are. We need to take concerted action now. That is why it is important that, with your support, Mr Speaker, we are having this debate; that the police provide the reassurance that they are on the streets of our cities in the places where there are Jewish communities; and that where there are incidents against members of the Jewish community or the Muslim community, action is taken very swiftly and in the strongest possible terms.

Having the second largest number of Jewish constituents in the country, I know that yesterday’s events caused great concern to many. The Community Security Trust told me this morning that it had recorded 63 confirmed cases of antisemitism over the weekend, with more cases expected. Most shockingly, that included a Jewish teacher being abused by pupils in the classroom. In the protests, we saw conflation of Jewish identity with Zionism, which ensures that British Jews are physically and verbally attacked for actions that occur in Israel for which they have no cause or control. In a comment echoed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), one constituent told me that many people are asking the same question as before the 2019 election; namely, is there a future for Jewish people in this country? Can the Secretary of State please advise my constituents if there is?

Yes, there certainly is. As the father of three young Jewish girls, I am absolutely committed to ensuring that the British Jewish community feel protected, feel safe and feel that they can continue to thrive in this country. They are our longest-established religious minority. They have added so much to this country over the generations, and I hope that they will do so for many, many generations to come.

I thank the Minister for his statement. I am unashamedly a friend of Israel, and I condemn the antisemitic attacks in London over the weekend and welcome the police response that the Secretary of State referred to. However, does he not agree that headlines such as “Israel launches airstrikes on Gaza Strip after Hamas rocket attacks” may prevent readers from understanding that Israel launched rockets in defence and not first? Does he agree that no resolution will be found if the media continue to stir tension with biased reporting? Further, will he confirm once more, to make it very clear, that Israel has a right to defend herself, and that while we may ask Israel to enter into peace talks, we will never disregard her right to defend herself against any attack?

Let me be perfectly clear: the UK Government believe that Israel has a right to self-defence. The UK Government believe that that must be exercised proportionately and with due regard to civilians. We will ensure, as far as we can, that both sides engage. If there is any route now to bring this to a peaceful resolution, it must be sought, and we are doing that at the United Nations and in every forum that is available to us. But we will also condemn any form of antisemitism that we see in this country. Jewish citizens are citizens of the United Kingdom. They are not in any way responsible for the actions of the Israeli Government, whether good or bad. They are citizens of the United Kingdom; they deserve our complete support, and they have it today.

Yesterday, racists drove past the amazing Jewish community centre JW3 on Finchley Road in my constituency shouting antisemitic hate speech. I am very proud to represent an area with a sizeable Jewish community and several synagogues, but my Jewish constituents are now feeling unsafe in their own homes. Will the Secretary of State commit to ensuring that these hate crimes are punished, and will he provide additional resources to protect community centres like JW3, Jewish schools and synagogues?

I thank the hon. Lady for her work. I appreciate that yesterday’s events played out partly in her constituency, and partly in the constituencies of the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) and my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), who would, I am sure, be speaking on behalf of his constituents today if he were able to. We must now ensure that residents of all those parts of London, and indeed elsewhere in the country, have the reassuring presence of police on the streets, and the knowledge that should these events arise again the police will be there to support them and to take action against the perpetrators. We will continue to provide support to the Community Security Trust and other good organisations that help to protect community centres, synagogues, schools and nurseries as far as we possibly can, and money is no object in that regard. Members of the Jewish community have our complete support in the months and weeks to come.

I am glad that Westminster North is home to a large Jewish community. It is also home to the largest Arab community in Britain. Many people, across party, work very hard to ensure community cohesion. That work was undermined desperately by the events yesterday: the spewing of vile misogyny and antisemitism by the convoy that drove through Westminster North, among other areas. The police have acted swiftly with arrests and reassurance patrols, but can the Secretary of State reassure me that that support will continue over the long term, not just over the coming days and weeks? Also, will he urgently review the capacity we have in local government and our civic institutions to build on the work of community cohesion and education, so we can ensure that nothing as vile as the events we saw this weekend will ever happen again?

The hon. Lady is right to say that in London, as in many other parts of the country, relations between the Jewish community and the Muslim community are generally good, and inter-faith dialogue is generally strong. We have seen that very prominently in recent months, for example, in tackling covid-19, where both religious communities have come forward, been incredibly supportive and have worked together. I have seen that myself on many occasions. She is also right to say that councils have an important part to play. I have asked Sara Khan, as part of her work, to provide recommendations to us on how we can provide better advice to local councils on how to spot and tackle extremism; which groups they should not be interfacing with; and, where they do find extremists in their communities, what action they can take to root it out. Extremists should not be able to operate with impunity in plain sight in any part of this country.

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

Sitting suspended.

Covid-19 Update

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on coronavirus. Since January last year, and especially since 8 December, when the world’s first clinically authorised coronavirus vaccine was given in Coventry Hospital, we have been engaged—all of us—in a race between the virus and the vaccine. As a nation, we have taken some huge strides forward and we can make careful further progress today, and we must remain vigilant.

I can report to the House that there are now fewer than 1,000 people in hospital in the United Kingdom with coronavirus, and the average number of daily deaths is now nine. This progress means we are able to take step 3 in our road map today, carefully easing some of the restrictions that we have all endured. People have missed the things that make life worth living, businesses have endured hardship and everybody has made sacrifices. While we can take this step today, we must be humble in the face of this virus. We have all learned over the past year that, in a pandemic, we must look not just at where we are today, but where the evidence shows we may be in weeks and months down the track. The vaccination programme can give us confidence, but we must be alert to new variants that could jeopardise the advances that we have made.

Today, I would like to update the House on the work we are doing to tackle variants of concern—in particular, variant B1617.2, which is the variant of concern first identified in India—so that we can protect the progress that we have worked so hard to achieve. There are now 2,323 confirmed cases of B1617.2 in the UK; 483 of these cases have been seen in Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen, where it is now the dominant strain. Cases there have doubled in the last week and are rising in all age groups. In Blackburn, hospitalisations are stable, with eight people currently in hospital with covid. In Bolton, 19 people are now in hospital with coronavirus, the majority of whom are eligible for a vaccine but have not yet had one. That shows that the new variant is not tending to penetrate into older vaccinated groups, and underlines again the importance of getting the jab—especially, but not only, among the vulnerable age groups.

In Bolton and Blackburn, we have taken the approach that worked in south London against the South African variant. We have surged in our rapid response team: 100 people so far, who visited approximately 35,000 people this weekend to distribute and collect tests. We have installed six new testing units, brought in more than 50 new vaccinators and set up two new vaccination centres, as well as extending opening hours and capacity at our existing sites. In Bolton, we have quadrupled the rate of vaccination. We carried out 6,200 vaccinations over this weekend, and it is brilliant to see so many people from the most vulnerable groups coming forward to get the protection, whether it is their first or second jab.

All in all, this is the biggest surge of resources into any specific local area that we have seen during the pandemic so far. It has been co-ordinated by Dr Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the new UK Health Security Agency, drawing on all the health capabilities, locally and nationally, that we have built in the past year. I thank everyone who is working so hard to make it happen, including everyone at the two local authorities; the rapid response team; all the volunteers, including those from St John Ambulance; and, most importantly, the people of Bolton and Blackburn for the community spirit that they are showing.

It has been really heartening, as I am sure the whole House will agree, to see the videos published over the weekend of people queuing up to get the jab. I say to anyone who feels hesitant about getting the vaccine, not just in Bolton or Blackburn, but right across the country: just look at what is happening at the Royal Bolton Hospital. The majority of people in hospital with coronavirus were eligible for the jab but had chosen not yet to have it, and have ended up in hospital—some of them in intensive care. Vaccines save lives. They protect you, they protect your loved ones and they will help us all get out of this pandemic.

This is not just about Bolton and Blackburn. There are now 86 local authority areas where there are five or more confirmed cases. The next biggest case of concern is Bedford, where we are surging testing. I urge everybody in Bedford to exercise caution and engage in testing where it is available.

I also want to tell the House the latest scientific assessment of this variant. The early evidence suggests that B1617.2 is more transmissible than the previously dominant B1117 variant. We do not yet know to what extent it is more transmissible. While we do not have the complete picture of the impact of the vaccine, the early laboratory data from Oxford University corroborates the provisional evidence from the Royal Bolton Hospital and the initial observational data from India that vaccines are effective against the variant. This, of course, is reassuring, but the higher transmission poses a real risk.

All this supports our overriding strategy, which is gradually and cautiously to replace the restrictions on freedom with the protections from the vaccines. The data suggests that the vaccine has already saved more than 12,000 lives and prevented more than 33,000 people from being hospitalised, and we are protecting people at a very rapid pace. Last week was the biggest week of vaccinations since the end of March. Some 36 million people have now had a first dose, and yesterday we reached the milestone of 20 million people across the UK having had their second dose.

I am delighted to see the figures released by YouGov today, which show that the UK has the highest vaccination enthusiasm in the world, with 90% of people saying that they have had or will have the jab. This was no accident. We began planning the campaign for vaccine uptake a year ago. I thank the huge range of people involved in promoting the benefits of vaccination, from Her Majesty the Queen to Sir Elton John, Harry Redknapp, Lenny Henry, Holly Willoughby, Lydia West and many, many others. Our campaign has been based on positivity and science, and I am grateful to everybody who has played their part.

I can confirm that from tomorrow we will be inviting people aged 37 to come forward, before expanding this further later in the week. It has been brilliant to see people’s enthusiasm when they have been invited to come forward, and we want to make it as easy as possible for them to show that they have had the protection the vaccine provides. I am delighted to say that, as of today, people can demonstrate whether they have had their jab, quickly and simply, through the NHS app.

Since January, we have been following a dosing interval of 12 weeks for second doses. Because of the extra protection people get from the second dose, particularly among those most likely to end up in hospital or dying, it is incredibly important that everyone comes forward for that second dose at the right moment. The approach we have taken aims to give the most vulnerable the strongest possible protection against this virus. Since January, that has meant getting the first dose to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. The research shows that this approach has saved about 12,000 lives.

Now, it is important to accelerate the second doses for all those most vulnerable to ending up in hospital or dying. Our vaccination strategy for all parts of the UK, including the areas of surge vaccination, will therefore stick by the clinical advice set out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation: first, prioritise anyone over 50 who has not yet been vaccinated; next, second doses to those over 50 are vital—that will now be done on a schedule of eight weeks; and, then, follow the cohorts in priority order, and the age groups as we open them. This clinically approved approach is the best way to save the most lives, rather than jumping ahead with first doses for younger people. Although the JCVI of course keeps this under constant review, we are clear that its advice is the best way to protect those most in need of protection and so save as many lives as we can. The NHS will be reiterating this advice to all vaccination centres and all directors of public health, and I am very grateful to everyone, in the NHS, local authorities and in the whole system supporting this vaccination programme, for following it.

Today’s opening and step 3 marks an important step on our road to our recovery. We must proceed with caution and care, and bear down on the virus, in whatever form it attacks us, so that in this race between the vaccine and the virus, our humanity, science, and ingenuity will prevail. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. May I start by congratulating the Leicester City football team on winning the FA cup on Saturday? The winning goal from Tielemans was one of dreams. Leicester City fans boast that Foxes never give up and nor do I, so let me turn to the matters before us.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State warned on the television that the B.1617.2 variant could “spread like wildfire” among the unvaccinated, but does he accept that we could have avoided this? Our borders have been about as secure as a sieve, and the delay in adding India to the red list surely now stands as a catastrophic mis-step. One month ago in this House, I urged him to act quickly in response to this variant. The Wellcome Sanger Institute data today shows a rapid increase in this variant, to 30% of all sequenced cases in the UK, and that excludes cases from travel and surge testing. Alarm bells should be ringing, because although the Secretary of State offers reassurance that vaccines are effective, we have also heard Professor Anthony Harnden of the JCVI recently warn us that vaccines are “almost certainly less effective” at reducing the transmission of this variant.

I entirely appreciate that when questioned I suspect that the Secretary of State will not be able to give a cast-iron assurance about opening up on 21 June, and I am not going to try to push him into a corner; we all understand that we are dealing with uncertainties and we have to be grown up about these things. But we do need a plan now to contain this variant urgently. He is said to be considering local lockdowns. As he knows, I speak as a resident of long locked-down Leicester. Before he takes out his mallet to try to whack moles again, may I suggest a number of things for him to try first?

First, will he consider surge vaccination in all hotspot areas and go hell for leather to roll out vaccinations to everyone? I listened very carefully to what he said about vaccination increases in Bolton, and I hope that also includes Blackburn. Is he saying that everyone over 18 in those areas will now be eligible for vaccination? As he knows, that is something that public health directors on the ground have been calling for, and I hope we listen to them.

We have had these debates in the House before, and the Secretary of State knows that even if we drive up vaccination as high as it can possibly go among adults, there are still about 20% of the wider population—children —who remain unvaccinated, which means the virus can still spread. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US are moving to vaccinate children. Will he update us on what progress he is making on that front here? On children, the Secretary of State knows that in many secondary schools, mask wearing is no longer necessary. Will he assure us that he thinks that is the right response in the light of the data he unveiled today?

Secondly, the Secretary of State has announced extra surge testing, but he knows by now that surge testing must be backed up by proper sick pay and decent isolation support. That should have been fixed in the Queen’s Speech last week.

Thirdly, more venues are opening up today. Many will be spending a lot of time disinfecting surfaces, like we do in here, which is good and important, but we know so much more about this virus now. We know about airborne spread of the virus, so why are we not supporting venues more with ventilation? What are we doing to help supermarkets, shopping centres and larger venues where air circulates around the building to put in place covid-secure air filtration systems?

Fourthly, what the Secretary of State said about the NHS and the uptake of beds is welcome, but NHS staff, as he knows, are exhausted and fear another surge. What modelling has been shared with NHS leaders, and what are they doing to prepare for any surge in admissions?

Finally, the surge in this variant reminds us that we are not safe until everyone is safe. That is not a slogan; it is a fact. Some 3.3 million lives have been lost globally to this virus, and Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus from the World Health Organisation warns that we are on track for the second year of this pandemic to be far more deadly than the first. Only 0.3% of vaccine supply is going to low-income countries. Trickle-down vaccination is not an effective strategy for fighting this deadly virus. Not only do we have a moral responsibility to play our part internationally, but that also reduces the risk of new variants bouncing back at us and setting us back.

At this critical time, when we need to work internationally to defeat this virus, why are we the only G7 nation cutting its aid budget? How can the Secretary of State defend cutting our contribution to vital science and research projects? Given the total silence from the Government on President Biden’s support for the temporary lifting of patent protections to increase vaccine production, should we assume that the Government do not agree with President Biden?

Let me address the hon. Gentleman’s substantive questions. The first was about the surging of vaccines and testing into hotspots. We saw in south London earlier in the month and last month that that sort of surge testing can work. We had an outbreak of the South African variant in south London. We put in more than 200,000 tests, and we effectively managed to contain that outbreak. That is the approach that we are taking in Bolton and Blackburn, and we will also take that approach if we see a further spread in other areas of the country. We have been working very hard on that to ensure we have that capacity and can do that effectively. We do that, of course, hand in glove with the local authorities in question, which know the communities on the ground.

We are also making sure we have the vaccines available, but I want to be absolutely crystal clear about the approach to vaccination. The hon. Gentleman asked about vaccinating all over-18s in Bolton and Blackburn, but that is not our approach. I have looked into it in great detail, and we have taken clinical advice. The approach is to make sure that we get done as many second vaccinations as possible, as many first vaccinations as possible among the vulnerable groups, and then as many vaccinations as possible among those aged under 50 in the eligible groups. We have taken that approach because that is what is likely to save most lives. That second jab is vital. The first jab for anybody over 50 could mean the difference between life and death. The very strong focus is to get the vaccine to all those over 50 who have not yet taken the first jab. I am glad to say that reports from both Bolton and Blackburn suggest that uptake among people who are eligible, but who have not yet taken the jab, has increased since we saw the rise of the B1617.2 variant in those areas. It is effective in proving to people that the jab really does work to protect them. That is what the data shows.

The hon. Gentleman asked about children. I have been closely following the results of the clinical studies from Pfizer that show that the vaccine is safe and effective among children between the ages of 12 and 18. We have procured enough Pfizer to be able to offer that jab to children should that be clinically approved here, but given that we are at the stage of opening tomorrow to people aged 37, there is some time to go before we get to 18-year-olds. We are on track to meet the target of offering the vaccine to all those aged 18 and above by the end of July, so we have a couple of months before we need to make and operationalise a decision. We want to be very, very careful and sensitive about whether and how we offer the vaccine to children.

The hon. Gentleman asked about important wider measures. He mentioned ventilation. We have put in place guidance for businesses in terms of strengthening the rules around ventilation, and that, too, is important. He did a bit of a Captain Hindsight act on the Indian variant. He did not seem to mention that we put India on the red list before this variant was even deemed a variant under investigation, let alone a variant of concern. Indeed, we put India on the red list before countries such as Germany and Canada stopped flights from India. We have a strong policy of restrictions at the border and we will remain vigilant.

The final point to which I wanted to respond was on the global moral responsibility to vaccinate everybody in the world. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we have a global moral responsibility. I argue that, thus far, the United Kingdom has done, and will continue to do, more than any other nation. It is about not just the huge sums that we have put into COVAX, but the way that we delivered the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine around the world. As of this morning, 1.47 billion vaccines have been delivered globally, 400 million of which have been the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. AstraZeneca has charged a profit margin and a margin for intellectual property of zero—no charge for intellectual property, no profit for AstraZeneca. Costs, of course, need to be met, but we have taken nothing for the money that we put into the vaccine’s development. This is the biggest gift that this country could give to the world. A total of 65% of those 400 million doses have been delivered into the arms of people in low and middle-income countries, including more than 150 million in India. On the COVAX facility, which is the biggest global effort to vaccinate in low and middle-income countries, it has delivered 54 million vaccines so far, 53 million of which have been done with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

This country can be hugely proud of the contribution it has made. It is far bigger so far than that of any other country. We took the view from the start that we do not need to change our IP rules, we do not need to change the law, we just need to get on and get the vaccine out to as many people around the world as possible, at cost. Everybody in this House should be very, very proud of what AstraZeneca and Oxford University have done with the support of the UK Government. That is how we save lives around the world.

Many of the new variants come from abroad, so clarity on borders policy is essential. We now know that the first wave was largely seeded by people coming back from their spring holiday break in Italy, France and Spain, so will my right hon. Friend provide absolute clarity on the amber list? Should my constituents in Farnham, Godalming and Haslemere—indeed, all our constituents—go on holiday to countries on the amber list even when it is no longer illegal?

The answer is no. The official Government advice is very clear that people should not travel to amber or red-list countries or territories. People should not travel to amber-list countries for a holiday. What is on the amber, red and green lists is kept under review, based on the data assessed by the Joint Biosecurity Centre. Our priority is protecting the progress we have made at home. We will assess whether any new countries might go on to the green list every three weeks and, of course, we constantly monitor to check that the countries on the green list remain safe. If a country is not on the green list, people should not travel there unless they have an exceptional reason.

Covid cases in India began to soar at the start of April, so why were Pakistan and Bangladesh added to the red list at that time but not India? Was it because of the Prime Minister’s planned trade visit? After India was finally added to the red list on 19 April, the restrictions did not take effect until 23 April. How many people arrived from India in those days, trying to escape having to go into hotel quarantine? When I previously raised the issue of applying hotel quarantine to all travellers, the Secretary of State claimed that the current system was protecting the UK; does he now accept that the entry and community spread of the Indian variant shows that that simply is not the case and that having a negative test does not rule out the possibility that travellers are carrying covid?

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has stated that evidence shows that the B1617.2 Indian variant is up to 50% more infectious than the Kent variant and has advised that, as in Scotland, areas with rising numbers of cases should remain under covid restrictions. The Indian variant has been doubling every week despite lockdown, so why is the Secretary of State ignoring SAGE advice and opening up areas like Bolton that have exponential growth?

Thankfully, the Indian variant does not show significant vaccine resistance, but the Secretary of State must know that it is not possible to outrun the virus through vaccination alone. As those aged up to 35 are not eligible for surge vaccination, that leaves a large pool of unvaccinated people among whom the variant can spread. It will take two to three weeks before even those who receive a vaccine in the coming weeks are protected. Does the Secretary of State not accept that the variant is in danger of surging and that without local travel restrictions it will spread to other areas? It is good news that fully vaccinated people are not ending up in hospital, but just letting the virus spread among young adults could allow the evolution of yet another UK variant.

I answered those questions in response to the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth). The truth is that when we put Pakistan and Bangladesh on the red list, positivity among those arriving from those countries was three times higher than it was among those arriving from India. That is why we took those decisions and, of course, they were taken before the Indian variant became a variant under investigation, let alone a variant of concern. It is striking that the Scottish Government took the decision to put India on the red list at the same time as we in the UK Government did. It is all very well to ask questions with hindsight, but we have to base decisions and policy on the evidence at the time.

When it comes to how we are tackling the virus in the UK, the hon. Lady is quite right that it is good news—albeit early news—that the vaccines do appear to be effective against the B1617.2 variant. I am obviously pleased about the evidence we have seen but we are vigilant about that. I am glad that the approach we are now taking in Bolton and Blackburn worked against the South African variant in south London. We always keep these things under review, but I think that as a first resort, surge testing, going door to door, ensuring that we find and seek out the virus wherever we can spot it, and putting in the extra resources with the armed services who are supporting us, are the right approaches while we keep this under review. The numbers thus far nationally are still relatively low and, thankfully, we have a very good surveillance operation across the UK so that we can spot these things early and take the action that we need to.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with Sir Patrick Vallance, who told my Committee that new variants will arise all the time and that border restrictions will only slow, not prevent, those variants that originate overseas? What level of vaccination protection do we need to get to in this country before my right hon. Friend is in a position to rescind the rather strange advice that he has just given to my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) and allow people who have been tested three times and quarantined for 10 days to travel to places such as France and Spain?

Typically my right hon. Friend asks the most pertinent question, to which we do not know the answer. The level of vaccination that we need in order to withstand the incursion of new variants, even those that the vaccine will work against, depends on their level of transmissibility, and we do not know the increased level of transmissibility over and above that of B117, the previous main variant here in the UK, which was first discovered in Kent. This is an absolutely critical question, but unfortunately we do not know the answer to it yet.

Having reached this tremendous milestone today, and given the sacrifices that the British people have made through lockdown and the fantastic successes of the vaccination programme, will the Secretary of State listen to his own colleague, the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who said last week that, with the new variant, we must “isolate, isolate, isolate” every single case and its contacts? Will he finally commit to paying people’s wages to stay at home to self-isolate, and provide practical support in terms of accommodation and support for dependants if necessary? Otherwise, we will only go backwards.

I am afraid I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s characterisation of the situation, not least because the approach we are taking in Bolton did work effectively in south London. We are piloting new approaches to ensuring that we can support people to isolate, and some of those pilots are taking place in areas where we can see cases of B1617.2. We keep this under close scrutiny and review to see what works effectively.

Part of our fight against covid, and indeed against future viruses, is to improve our domestic vaccine manufacturing capability. To that end, the Government are fast-tracking the Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre at Harwell in my constituency. I will be visiting it in a few weeks, but could my right hon. Friend provide an update on the progress so far?

Yes, we are making significant progress with the onshoring of vaccine capability. It is about developing the vaccine, as the team in Oxford did brilliantly, but also about manufacturing it onshore, and boy, if there is one lesson we have learned from this whole thing, it is that we cannot just not care about where manufacturing happens. Having it onshore really, really matters, for resilience but also to ensure that it is close to the NHS so that the whole supply chain can learn and constantly improve. I am delighted that we are pushing forward with the VMIC project in the same way that we have brought onshore manufacturing supply in Teesside, in Livingston in Scotland and in the fill-and-finish plants at Wockhardt in Wrexham, at Barnard Castle and elsewhere. It is a big project and, frankly, a big opportunity for life sciences in the UK to ensure that we can do all this onshore, because in my view, the pandemic has shown that we need to.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for his comprehensive answers. I know that he has regular discussions with the Northern Ireland Assembly Health Minister, Robin Swann. There has been a surge in the Indian variant in Donegal in the Republic of Ireland and in the maiden city of Londonderry in Northern Ireland. Can the Northern Ireland Assembly Health Minister call upon the UK for expertise from Westminster to assist us, which I believe will show once again that we are always better together with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. The UK fights this together. There are outbreaks also in Moray and in Glasgow, and I have been talking to the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Health about the action that is going on to tackle the outbreaks there. I talk frequently with Robin Swann, who is doing an absolutely brilliant job with the Health portfolio in Northern Ireland. The fundamental point is that the benefits of the United Kingdom working together are once more demonstrated by our ability to work together to tackle this variant.

More than 20 million people have now received their second dose of the vaccine, an achievement that demonstrates the phenomenal pace at which we are delivering vaccine across the UK. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this incredible milestone demonstrates what our Union can achieve when we work together?

I have just waxed lyrical about the value of Scotland working with the UK Government and of Northern Ireland working with the UK Government, and my hon. Friend almost chastises me for not mentioning Wales. Of course working with Wales is incredibly important—look at the Wockhardt fill-finish plant. The number of people who have been vaccinated in this country with a product that is manufactured in Wales measures in the tens of millions, including me. We should all be very proud of that, and I look forward to working with my new Welsh counterpart, the Minister for Health in Wales, and making sure that we use all capabilities across these islands to get us back on the road to recovery.

Today sees the long-anticipated lifting of many of the restrictions on our life and social life. At the same time, this strain of the virus reminds us that we need to be cautious in how we mix and how we hug our loved ones. It is important that we have clear messages about interaction, so will the Secretary of State ensure that Government messages are clear, unambiguous and not mixed, as at present?

It is really clear that we are removing restrictions. I am delighted that we are able to remove restrictions, such as the absolute restrictions on close physical contact, and rely more on people’s personal responsibility. In order to do that, we are providing the best possible advice that we can, such as to hug, but cautiously. Everybody knows what that means: it means outside is better than inside, it means making sure it is in ventilated spaces and it means that those who have had the vaccine, and in particular two vaccines, are safer than those who have not.

It is incumbent on us all to communicate these messages from our scientists and to make sure that people understand them. I am pretty sure that the British public get that. Given how brilliantly people have responded to requests during the pandemic, I am highly confident that this approach will be successful and that people will be cautious, but enjoy the new freedoms that we are thankfully able to give.

I listened very carefully to what the Secretary of State said in his statement about people being able to prove that they have had the vaccination through the NHS app. I also listened carefully to what he said about the importance of the Union. Can I just draw to his attention something that I hope he can look at urgently? I have thousands of constituents who live in England, but who are registered with GPs in Wales and who receive their vaccinations in Wales. At the moment, it is not proving possible for them to register with the NHS app that they have had their vaccination. Can I ask him to urgently fix that for my constituents and those across our United Kingdom?