House of Commons
Wednesday 1 March 2023
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Digital Connectivity: Rural Wales
Diolch yn fawr, Mr Llefarydd, and a happy St David’s Day—dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus.
The Government are committed to improving digital connectivity as demonstrated by our commitment to Project Gigabit, the shared rural network and, most recently, the new very hard-to-reach pilots, two of which are located in Wales.
Ofcom reports that some 30,000 premises across the UK have no access to decent broadband or to a decent 4G signal, including rural areas of Ceredigion, such as Lledrod, Pennant, Talgarreg, Cribyn, Sarnau, Abermeurig and Coed-y-bryn to name but a few. Will the Minister make representations to colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that those areas are prioritised in the next iteration of Project Gigabit?
The hon. Member is right to raise that issue. Let me reiterate that we have Project Gigabit, which is an ambitious £5 billion project to reach the hardest-to-reach areas outside of the commercial scope, and also the Alpha trials using satellites, two of which are in Snowdonia National Park. There are, as he will be aware, also opportunities through the Mid Wales growth deal. I would be happy to meet him to discuss what more we can do. With regard to mobile networks, there is the shared rural network, alongside the use of the Home Office’s extended area service infrastructure.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) is absolutely right to raise the issues that he has—he is often right, actually. I declare an interest here, Mr Speaker. In the Dysynni valley, in Gwynedd, broadband fibre was connected to premises after being a complete non-spot for so many years. Can my hon. Friend the Minister carry on with the hard work to ensure that there is gigabit connection within Cymru—Wales?
Happy St David’s Day, Mr Speaker. I thank London Welsh School for such a lovely flag-raising ceremony this morning.
On the subject of digital connectivity, EU structural funds have helped our universities to deliver research, innovation and skills development across areas that the Minister’s Government consider a priority, including digital transformation. Many of these projects now face a cliff-edge as EU structural funds finish, with 60 projects in Wales due to end this year, putting around 1,000 skilled jobs at risk. What conversations has he and the Secretary of State had with Cabinet colleagues to protect those valuable skilled jobs?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. She is right that academic institutions have been reliant on EU structural funding in the past. There is, of course, the shared prosperity fund coming forward, which universities will need to apply to. I know that my colleague the Secretary of State is visiting all universities across Wales. I have accompanied him to Bangor University and I have also visited Wrexham University very recently, and both are adjusting to the new landscape.
Going back to the subject of gigabit, the Government’s Project Gigabit boasts that it will deliver lightning-fast reliable broadband to every corner of the UK, but the project update that was published this week by the Minister’s Government shows that Wales has the lowest coverage of any of the home nations—just 57% compared with, for example, 73% in England and 89% in Northern Ireland. Does that not represent yet another broken promise by the Tories to Wales?
The hon. Lady is aware that the geography and topography of Wales make digital connections more tricky than in some other areas. She is also aware that it is the Welsh Government who have been leading on the roll-out of broadband in Wales in conjunction with Building Digital UK, and I agree that more work needs to be done to improve those figures.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Lefarydd, a dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus i chithau ac i bawb—happy St. David’s Day to everybody.
Although the Minister might blame the mountains, it is evident that poor connectivity in rural areas is clearly one of the factors holding businesses back. Another is trade barriers, particularly for Holyhead. Pre-Brexit, about 30% of all trade through the port went on to Northern Ireland from Dublin. That trade has collapsed and it is not protected by green lanes. Stena Line says that there needs to be a solution to this disparity. Can he come up with a solution to protect Holyhead from his Government’s policy?
The right hon. Lady recently attended a debate that I responded to in Westminster Hall, where she was making the case for a freeport in Holyhead. She knows that there are opportunities, through freeports, to boost the trade through Holyhead and other ports in Wales that are seeking the same designation. I urge her to continue that fight.
I urge his Government to come forward with news, because Wales desperately needs two freeports at least.
The Prime Minister said yesterday that Northern Ireland is in the “unbelievably special position” of having privileged access not just to the UK market, but hey, to the EU single market. That is an excellent argument for Plaid Cymru’s policy to rejoin the single market. Why is it not good enough for Wales?
Wales voted to leave the EU quite decisively. The right hon. Lady knows that the situation in Northern Ireland is really quite different from that in Wales, and this is a carefully put together deal to accommodate that situation. I feel quite sure that the EU is not in the business of allowing what she suggests.
A gaf i hefyd ddymuno dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus i bawb?—[Translation: May I also wish everyone a happy St David’s day?]
Health is a devolved matter and we therefore have no control over how the National Health Service is delivered in Wales—that is a matter for the Welsh Labour Government—but improving health outcomes for people across the UK is, of course, a priority for this Government, and we have made sure that the devolved Administrations have the funding to enable them to deliver the same high standards of care that have been delivered in England by this Conservative Government.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a top priority for the Welsh Government should be helping the 45,000 people who are currently waiting more than two years for treatment in the NHS in Wales, rather than focusing on things such as banning meal deals and axing road improvement schemes?
I agree completely with my right hon. Friend. Figures from the Office for National Statistics this week suggest that around 1 in 5 people in Wales is now on a waiting list as opposed to just 1 in 18 people in England. As she has just pointed out, 50,000 people have been waiting more than two years for healthcare in Wales. I would far rather see the money that will be spent on creating extra Senedd Members spent on delivering healthcare in Wales.
Despite the Welsh Government receiving £1.20 for every £1 spent on public services in England, they spend only £1.05 of that money. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Welsh Government should spend less time and money on expanding the Senedd and putting tampons in men’s toilets, and focus on delivering a proper service for the people of Wales?
I agree completely with my hon. Friend. I am sure that the 50,000 people who are in pain and on waiting lists at the moment would far rather see the £100 million that will be spent on expanding the Senedd being spent on delivering healthcare and reducing waiting lists in Wales.
The Secretary of State will be aware that higher levels of poverty give rise to higher healthcare costs and higher absolute numbers of people needing healthcare, so how can he justify the fact that Wales does not get its 5% share of High Speed 2—£5 billion—and is losing enormous amounts of money from EU funding, which he promised would be provided, and thousands of jobs in Welsh universities? We need that productivity to alleviate poverty and to put less pressure on the NHS. It is his fault that those waiting lists are growing.
I certainly do not recognise the figures that the hon. Gentleman has come up with on HS2. The fact is that the UK Government have replaced EU funding in full through the shared prosperity fund, the community ownership fund, the community renewal fund, levelling-up funds and much else besides. The UK Government have also made certain that £1.20 is delivered per head of population for NHS care in Wales, as opposed to £1 in England. It is very hard for him to explain why Wales receives more money to deliver healthcare and yet delivers lower standards.
If the UK Government were to uplift NHS and social care pay in England to the level in Scotland, it would unlock funding for all the devolved nations to support their national health services through the cost of living crisis. Will the Secretary of State discuss the possibility of a pay uplift and its impact on Wales with Cabinet colleagues?
The hon. Lady is right that Scotland is very generously funded. She seems to be making an argument that Wales and England should receive more money per head than Scotland does at the moment and that she would be happy with that: I doubt it very much. The reality is that despite the generous funding that the Scottish Government receive, they have very poor outcomes, and some of their own members have said that health care in Scotland is close to collapse.
The UK Government are committed to supporting renewable energy generation in Wales, including for innovative tidal stream technologies at Morlais through our flagship contracts for difference scheme. I will continue to work across Government to ensure that we can capitalise on the huge renewable energy opportunities Wales has to offer.
The best way to bring down bills for Welsh businesses long term is to help to transition away from fossil fuels. That is why Labour is calling for a national wealth fund, so we can help industries such as Welsh steel win the race in the future. What comparable steps will the Government take to help heavy industry decarbonise?
The Government have an ambitious programme to decarbonise the country by 2050, and we have provided £21.5 million to the south Wales industrial cluster to decarbonise heavy industry and support the transition to net zero. Of course, the opportunities for floating offshore wind in that region could be critical too.
A Labour Government will more than quadruple offshore wind to make the UK a clean energy superpower, making the most of the fantastic natural resources in Wales. When will the Government match that ambition so that sectors such as Welsh offshore wind can achieve their full potential?
As I mentioned in my previous answer, there is an ambitious programme for offshore wind, including floating offshore wind in south-west Wales and south-west England. There is an intention for 4 GW of power to be provided through the Celtic sea by 2035 and many more gigawatts in the future.
On this St David’s Day there are many reasons to be positive about the Welsh economy, not least the role that Wales will play in delivering greater energy security for the UK and helping move us to net zero. On that theme, would the Minister agree that we have a brilliant opportunity with the deployment of floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea, but we need the Government to go ahead and give us the Celtic freeport for south Wales? We also have a huge opportunity on Ynys Môn with the development of new gigawatt-scale nuclear power there.
Does the Minister agree that over recent months we have seen better co-operation between the European Union and the UK over energy? Does he agree that the Windsor framework will mean that we can go much further? That co-operation will release the potential for energy security and hopefully see prices come down, which will help Wales.
My right hon. and learned Friend is of course right that co-operation is always a good thing, and in fact interconnectors are critical to our energy security. Only last week I met a company proposing to connect mainland Great Britain with the Republic of Ireland through a second interconnector.
We know that oil and gas producers have been making record profits for more than 18 months, but the Government’s paltry windfall tax began in May last year. How can the Government justify leaving billions of pounds of excess profits untouched while so many people across Wales are struggling with household bills and the rising cost of living crisis?
Mercifully, energy costs now appear to be on a downward trajectory, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that up to 70% in tax has been taken from energy producers through the windfall tax, which is bringing a great deal of money into the Treasury to help to fund the support packages that people are relying on.
Governance of Elite Rugby Union
I share the concerns of all hon. Members about the grave allegations of misogyny that have been made about the Welsh Rugby Union, and the recent contract negotiations with players have also been a matter of concern. Rugby has always been at the heart of Welsh culture and, as such, I was pleased to meet the acting chief executive officer Nigel Walker recently. He is an honourable man and well thought of. I am sure that he takes the allegations seriously and will be dealing with them.
Being half Welsh and half English, the game at the weekend can often be difficult, but I am united in being a rugby fan. In England, I have met the CEOs of premiership rugby and of the Rugby Football Union, and the Minister, to ensure good governance. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with the Welsh Labour Government to ensure that the players, fans and good governance secure rugby union and its elite stars in Wales?
Obviously, sport is a devolved matter, but I have had conversations with Nigel Walker and other members of the WRU informally. The UK Government, and I am sure the Welsh Government, were appalled by the allegations. I would be happy to work with the Welsh Government, the WRU or any other body, including the external body that has been set up to look at the issue, to ensure that the allegations are properly dealt with.
Dydd gŵyl Dewi Sant hapus, Mr Speaker. I am sure that all hon. Members are concerned about the allegations of discrimination and misogyny within the WRU that victims have come forward and said they have faced. What conversations is the Secretary of State having with his colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about the matter and the pressure that they can put on the WRU to address these serious allegations?
The hon. Lady will be aware that sport is a devolved matter, but those concerns will be shared in DCMS. Those sorts of allegations have been made about not just rugby, but other sports, so there is a nationwide problem. My colleagues in DCMS will be doing everything they can to deal with such allegations in England. I would honestly be happy to work with her, the WRU and the Welsh Government—or any other body that has some means of dealing with the issue. We must absolutely ensure that sport is safe for women, minorities and everyone to take part in without any form of discrimination.
Levelling-Up Fund: Welsh Communities
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about how the £330 million allocated to Wales so far through the levelling-up fund is supporting communities, creating jobs, driving up economic growth and keeping the Government’s commitment to ensure that Wales does not lose a penny as a result of coming out of the European Union.
The Labour Welsh Government have badly let down Clywd South and Wrexham by scrapping the A483 junction upgrade, which would have unlocked substantial investment and jobs in our community. Does my right hon. Friend agree that they need to support and maximise the benefits of the UK Government’s Welsh levelling-up fund projects by investing in road upgrades across Wales?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The Welsh Government’s response to the roads review gives the impression that Wales is closed for business by determining that no further road-building projects will take place. I urge them to consider the impact of not building roads on the economy and the long-term prosperity of Wales. They should consider how they might build on the record support that Wales has received through the levelling-up fund and city and growth deals by rebuilding roads and improving connectivity across Wales.
Dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus, Mr Speaker. The levelling-up fund offered prospects for communities such as Barry that had been ignored by the Welsh Labour Government for many years. In the last levelling-up fund round, however, Cardiff bay, which has received billions of pounds for regeneration in recent decades, received a further £50 million, but Barry Making Waves, which is delivering a marina project, was ignored. What hope, prospect and opportunity can I offer people in Barry for the next round of levelling-up funding?
I fully understand my right hon. Friend’s disappointment that the bid was not successful on this occasion, and I pay tribute to him for being such a champion for that particular bid and for his constituency. I suggest to him that there is going to be a third round of levelling-up funding, and I hope that local authorities that have not thus far been successful will apply.
Dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus i bawb. Will the Minister please join me in congratulating Mountain Ash in my constituency on being shortlisted for the Let’s Celebrate Towns competition, which is being announced here in Parliament this evening? On this St David’s Day, will he also now join me in urging the UK Government to restore the £1.1 billion missing in Wales, and allow the Welsh Government to administer those funds to enable every community in Wales, including Cynon Valley, to thrive?
First, Mr Speaker, I would like to say llongfyfarchiadau mawr to the constituents of the hon. Lady. I do not recognise the figure that she has just quoted: the UK Government have made sure that record funding has flowed through to the Welsh Government, and in replacing the funds that we used to receive from the European Union we have made sure that Wales has not lost out by one penny. The UK Government have been working directly with the 22 local authorities across Wales, including the hon. Lady’s, to ensure that we can continue to deliver jobs, prosperity and growth in Wales.
The Minister says that he does not recognise the figure of £1.1 billion—well, the people and communities of Wales will recognise that £1.1 billion when it fails to materialise any significant improvement in their communities and healthcare outcomes, or in business investment. What will he do to compensate the people of Wales for the paltry levelling-up funding that is no match for European funding?
The hon. Gentleman will know perfectly well that it is not just levelling-up funding that is replacing EU funds: it is levelling-up funds, community ownership funds, community renewal funds and shared prosperity funds. On top of that, the Government are delivering nearly £790 million in growth deals. Wales has not lost out by one penny as a result of the UK Government’s implementing the result of the referendum, in which the people of Wales voted to leave the European Union.
Cost of Living Crisis: Impact on Businesses
This Government have provided an unprecedented package for non-domestic energy users through this winter, worth £18 billion, and our new energy bills discount scheme will provide a discount on high energy costs to give businesses certainty while limiting taxpayers’ exposure to volatile energy markets.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s support running up to April, but he must accept that the changes that the Government are introducing from April are also bringing about huge amounts of uncertainty for many businesses, including in my constituency of Ogmore. One business is looking at potentially making several hundred of its workforce redundant because it is unable to get guarantees on funding beyond April. Will the Secretary of State meet me to see what work we can do to try to ensure that business is secured, and convince the Chancellor that more support is needed in the Budget for businesses in Wales and across the UK?
I certainly know that the Chancellor and the Treasury have been having discussions with businesses in Wales about what support can be given, but I would be perfectly happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and that business in his constituency to see what further support can be given.
Dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus. Businesses on Ynys Môn have been impacted by the cost of living crisis, compounded by a lack of investment in key infrastructure. With the cancellation of plans for a third Menai bridge, it is clear that Labour and its Plaid chums in Cardiff would rather Anglesey was on a road to nowhere. Does the Secretary of State agree that a freeport on Anglesey would demonstrate that my constituency is on a superhighway to the future?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has been a doughty champion for not only a freeport, but a nuclear power station and a third Menai bridge, in her constituency of Ynys Môn. She must have been as disappointed as I was that the Welsh Labour Government have decided that they will build no more roads in Wales, meaning that her constituents will lose out as a result of not being able to have that vital road connection.
Public Services: Government Support
This Government are committed to delivering high-quality public services. For instance, by next month, there will be a record number of police officers serving communities across Wales, and we have seen crime decrease by 10% across England and Wales between 2021 and 2022. As the hon. Lady is aware, many public services, including health and education, are devolved in Wales.
Will the Minister urge his colleagues to accept the Welsh Affairs Committee’s recommendation that HS2 be reclassified as an England-only project? Wales will then receive Barnett consequentials estimated at £5 billion, allowing the Welsh Labour Government to continue to expand public transport services, and people in Wales can then receive the same benefits from HS2 as those in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The hon. Lady knows that HS2 is an England and Wales project and is an important backbone of Britain’s rail infrastructure, and the important thing for Wales is to be able to plug in to it and take advantage of it. We also need to see the roads review that the Welsh Government have brought forward scrapped. We need to see investment in our roads.
Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to inform Members that a book of condolence for Baroness Boothroyd has been placed outside the Library.
I point out that live subtitles and British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings are available to watch on parliamentlive.tv.
The Prime Minister was asked—
May I wish everyone, but in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams), a very happy St David’s Day?
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
The Prime Minister understands the importance of NHS staff, because he was out there every Thursday night clapping for them during the pandemic. He must therefore also surely know that he has not got a hope of dealing with the NHS crisis if he does not invest in its workforce. We have a plan to double medical school places and end the scandal of straight-A students being denied the chance to become a doctor. Patients support our plan, the NHS supports our plan, and even his Chancellor supports our plan. Why doesn’t he?
The hon. Gentleman needs to keep up—we are doing a workforce plan for the NHS. There are tens of thousands more doctors, more nurses in the NHS, a record number of GPs and record investment in the NHS. That is what we get with a Conservative Government delivering.
I join my hon. Friend in thanking everyone at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust for their fantastic work, and I can confirm that we are committed to a new hospital scheme at the Queen’s Medical Centre and City Hospital as part of our new hospital programme. I know that progress is being made, and I look forward to seeing the project come to completion.
Can I join the Prime Minister in wishing everybody a happy St David’s Day?
After 13 years of Tory failure, the average family in Britain will be poorer than the average family in Poland by 2030. That is a shocking state of affairs. If the Tories limp on in government, we are going to see a generation of young people learning to say “auf Wiedersehen, pet” in Polish, aren’t we?
It is clear to everyone that the biggest impact on household living standards is the energy prices we are suffering as a result of an illegal war in Ukraine, and I would just remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman what we are doing to ease people through that. Because of our energy price guarantee, the Government are paying more than half of a typical household energy bill, saving households right now £1,000. It is one of the most generous support schemes globally. He knows that future decisions to support the cost of living are for the Budget, but if he is concerned about the cost of living, what he should do is stop making inflationary, unfunded spending commitments and back our plan to halve inflation.
The dictionary definition of unfunded commitments is last year’s kamikaze Budget. We are the only country in the G7 that is still poorer than it was before the pandemic, and the Prime Minister stands there pretending that it is all fine—total denial about the damage and decline that he is presiding over. Delivering growth and tackling the cost of living crisis will mean standing up to vested interests. Energy bills will go up by £900 in April. He knows he will have to act, but who is going to pay? Hard-working families through higher taxes and more borrowing, or the oil and gas giants celebrating record profits?
I know the right hon. and learned Gentleman recently made a rare trip out of north London to visit Davos. Perhaps while he was there, he missed the survey of 4,000 global CEOs from 100 different countries who ranked the United Kingdom as their No. 1 European investment destination. If he is serious about getting the economy growing, he should stand up to the vested interests in the unions and back our minimum service levels.
Here is the thing: all CEOs of businesses are saying there is only one party with a plan for growth, and it is this party here. There is one party that broke the economy, and its Members are sitting on the Government Benches. On energy bills, it is not as complicated as the Prime Minister pretends. Oil and gas companies are making vast, unexpected profits while working people face the misery of higher bills. He can boast all he likes, but companies like Shell did not pay a penny in windfall tax last year, and they are still not paying their fair share now. Why does he not admit his mistake, get rid of the loopholes in his botched windfall tax and finally choose family finances over oil profits?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman seems to forget that, as Chancellor, I introduced a new tax on energy companies. Energy companies will pay a 75% tax rate on extraordinary profits comparable to—indeed, higher than—other North sea nations. That is what his shadow Levelling Up Secretary recently called for, but I have good news for them: we did it a year ago. They have to keep up. I know they claim to support levelling up, but they really need to keep up.
The Prime Minister introduced a tax on Shell and it has not paid a penny—fantastic work! If he were serious about investing in the future of the country, he would start with housing. A few months ago, his Back Benchers forced him to scrap house building targets. At the time, he stood there and said it would mean the Government would build more homes. Well, would you believe it? A few months later, the Home Builders Federation say house building will fall to its lowest level in 75 years. He can change course on this. He can bring back targets and planning reforms, or he can duck that fight and let a generation down. Which is it?
Actually, we have had record high numbers on house building and, indeed, the highest number of first-time buyers in around 20 years under this Government. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about investing for the long term of our country, and that is important when it comes to energy security, but Labour’s policy is to oppose any new oil and gas licences in the North sea. It is an absurd policy that would see us paying billions to countries abroad for our energy, while shipping it here with twice the carbon emissions. It is typical political posturing. It is bad for the economy; it is bad for our security—just like the Labour party.
House building is at the lowest level for 75 years. A whole generation of people are desperate to get on the housing ladder. Thirteen years in power, and all the Prime Minister has to say to them is, “It’s somebody else’s fault—let me deflect.” No wonder they are furious with his Government.
It is not just bills or housing. Families are paying over £1,000 a month just to send their child to nursery. If the Prime Minister scrapped his non-dom status, he could start to fund better childcare, put money back into people’s pockets and get parents back to work. It seems a pretty simple choice to me. Which is he going to choose: wealthy tax avoiders or hard-working parents?
If we want to see what happens with house building under a Labour Government, we just need to look at what is going on in London—and when it comes to the facts, they do not suit the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s argument. Let us just go over them: the wealthiest pay more tax and the poorest pay less tax than under any year of the last Labour Government. As for his plans, he has already spent the money he claims he would raise from his policy on five different things. It is the same old Labour party: always running out of other people’s money.
The Prime Minister is never happier than when he is pretending that everything is fine or blaming someone else—and didn’t we just see it there? He is choosing tax avoiders over hard-working parents.
I do not want to finish this session without asking about the covid disclosures in today’s Daily Telegraph. We do not know the truth of what happened yet—there are too many messages and too many unknowns—but families across the country will look at this, and the sight of politicians writing books portraying themselves as heroes or selectively leaking messages will be an insulting and ghoulish spectacle for them. At the heart of this is every family who made enormous sacrifices for the good of the country or who tragically lost loved ones.
The country deserves better. The covid inquiry has already cost the taxpayer £85 million and has not heard from a single Government Minister yet. Can the Prime Minister assure the House that there will be no more delays and that the inquiry will have whatever support it needs to report by the end of this year?
The past couple of years were an incredibly difficult time for everyone involved in the health service. I pay tribute to all their hard work, and I know that the House will join me in that regard.
Rather than comment on piecemeal bits of information, I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman will agree that the right way for these things to be looked at is through the covid inquiry; that is why we have established the covid inquiry. He will know—he has mentioned once or twice before that he was a lawyer in a previous life—that there is a proper process for these things. It is an independent inquiry. It has the resources it needs, it has the powers it needs, and what we should all do in this House is let it get on and do its job.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his support for the Windsor framework. He is right about the benefits that it can bring. I also join him in paying tribute to our incredible research community, who do a fantastic job. I can assure him that we will continue to work with the EU in a range of areas—not just research collaboration, but strengthening our sanctions against Russia, energy security and, crucially, illegal migration. I look forward to those discussions and hope we can conclude them productively on a range of different areas.
It is disappointing that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to play politics with the situation in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland, as he well knows, has a unique place in the United Kingdom. What we are trying to do is restore the balance inherent in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and he would do well to acknowledge that.
Let us be clear: what the Prime Minister said yesterday was that EU single market access will be a good thing for business. Of course, that is in contrast to the leader of the Labour party, who said in December that EU single market access would not boost economic growth. Does it hurt the Prime Minister to know that the Labour party believes in Brexit more than he does?
With regard to Northern Ireland, the important thing is to avoid a land border on the island of Ireland between north and south. That is what it is crucial to achieve in getting the right framework for the arrangements in Northern Ireland, and the businesses there that trade across that border on a daily basis, with complex supply chains need, and value that access. That is something that the Windsor framework has sought to achieve and, I believe, delivers. It is not about the macro issue of membership of the European Union; it is about getting the right mechanisms in place to support businesses and communities in Northern Ireland. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that he knows better than that: he knows that this is about Northern Ireland, and I hope that he can support what we have agreed.
When it comes to our energy policy, the important thing is to focus on our long-term energy security. That means more renewables, more offshore wind, hydrogen, carbon capture and storage and, indeed, more nuclear. Wylfa remains one of the best nuclear sites in the UK, and the strong support from the local community, and indeed my hon. Friend, makes it an attractive site for the UK’s nuclear revival. I know that Great British Nuclear, when that body is up and running, will be taking a very close look at it.
Well, I have to say it is great to hear of the conversion that the Prime Minister has had on the benefits of the single market. Given Northern Ireland’s access to the dual market—both markets—and the benefits that that brings, will his Government commit to investing in infrastructure and higher education provision to maximise that benefit?
I thank my hon. Friend for his engagement and support in developing the Windsor framework. I think it delivers on what he wanted, which was to ensure that we protect Northern Ireland’s businesses and the supply chains that they have, and I can give him that commitment. He and I both want to see more investment in Northern Ireland not just from the Government, but from the private sector. This agreement will unlock that investment, but, critically, a step on that journey is to have a reformed Executive, something I know everyone in this House would like to see.
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. I am delighted that Lithuania and the city of Vilnius will host the NATO leaders summit in July, and the UK does have a strong and growing relationship with Lithuania. It was just yesterday that its Defence Minister was here supporting our efforts, together with Lithuania, to train Ukrainian soldiers. At the summit, we will work together to ensure we can deter and defend against Russian aggression by making sure that we implement the next phase of the most radical military transformation since the 1960s.
Safety on our roads is our absolute priority, and we will do everything we can to make sure drivers do feel safe. Last year, we in fact paused the roll-out of smart motorways not already in construction while we consider the data and next steps. In the meantime, we have committed almost £900 million for safety improvements across the entire network.
I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Zero Carbon Guildford on receiving the Climate Coalition’s Innovative UK Community Project award. She is absolutely right that community empower-ment, engagement and action can play a role in supporting the UK’s transition to net zero, enabling communities to access the benefits that it brings, from greener jobs to improved health.
We are investing record sums in the hospital capital upgrade programme across the country. I am very happy to make sure that we are making progress on the scheme that she mentioned and that she gets the detail of that. It is not just the 40 hospitals but the 90 upgrades around the country, and up to 300 community diagnostic centres and elective surgical hubs. This is a Government who are backing the NHS with the resources it needs.
My hon. Friend is right that the tragic incident near Italy at the weekend demonstrates only too well how illegal crossings put lives at risk. That is why last year the Home Secretary and I last year announced five new measures to tackle the problem of small boat crossings, including the largest ever boats deal with France and a landmark deal with Albania. But we must do more, and as soon as the legislation is ready it will be brought to this House to ensure that if you arrive in this country illegally, you will not be able to stay. You will be swiftly detained and removed to your own country or a safe third-country alternative. That is the right and responsible way to tackle this problem.
The Prime Minister will know that Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board has yet again been put in special measures. The chairman and the whole board resigned en masse, as they no longer have faith in the Welsh Labour Government. Yet on a call earlier this week, the Welsh Health Minister told me that it was not the Welsh Labour Government’s fault that healthcare has collapsed in north Wales. Given that Labour runs the NHS in north Wales, can my right hon. Friend suggest to the people of north Wales whose fault it is and who should put it right?
I share my hon. Friend’s concern. The House will know that health is a devolved matter for the Labour-run Government in Wales, where one in five people in the entire country are now on a waiting list. The Government there should focus on the people’s priorities and start cutting waiting lists, as we are doing here in England.
The Liberal Democrats’ shadow Energy Secretary said that there was no role for nuclear power in our future energy industry, which is not something that we need to listen to. As for helping people with their energy bills, as I said earlier, because of the energy price guarantee we are paying, typically, about half a family’s energy bill at the moment, which is worth £1,000. However, the support does not end there: over the next year there will be about £1,000 of direct support for the most vulnerable families in the nation.
I agree with the hon. Lady about energy efficiency. It is important, which is why the Government have allocated more than £6 billion over the current Parliament, and the new schemes that we have just introduced will help hundreds of thousands of households across the country, saving them about £300 on their bills through improvements in their energy efficiency—and the hon. Lady is right: it should be available everywhere, including Scotland.
As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Greece, may I put on record how sad we all are about the tragic train accident and loss of life there?
The double child rapist and killer Colin Pitchfork is once again up for parole next month. I know that the Prime Minister has no part in any decision-making process in terms of the independent Parole Board, but can he organise an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State for Justice, so that I can refer my constituents’ views about this dangerous man and he can take them into account in his submissions to the board?
Pitchfork’s crimes were heinous, and our thoughts remain with Lynda and Dawn’s friends and families. My hon. Friend knows that it is for the Parole Board to make these decisions, but my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will be submitting his views on the Pitchford case to the board before the oral hearing and will be happy to meet my hon. Friend again. We recently published a root-and-branch review of the Parole Board system that outlined our plans to introduce greater ministerial oversight, and I look forward to my hon. Friend’s contributions and thoughts on that.
Rough sleeping levels have been 35% lower this year than the peak, partly as a result of our £2 billion of extra investment over the last three years to tackle rough sleeping. We still have one of the lowest rates in the world, according to when it was last measured, but we will continue to do more. We do not want anyone to have to sleep rough. Because of the innovations that we have made we are taking more and more people off the streets, and we will keep delivering more.
Last month The Pines Primary School in my constituency achieved a “good” rating in its Ofsted inspection. That in itself is laudable, but what is particularly significant is that The Pines is now the 40th of 40 eligible schools in Bracknell to be rated “good” or “outstanding”. This clean sweep is itself an outstanding achievement, and I am very proud of everyone locally. Will the Prime Minister please join me in congratulating our fantastic teachers, staff, governors and pupils, as well as Councillor Gareth Barnard and the entire education team in Conservative-run Bracknell Forest Council?
Education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet for transforming people’s lives, so I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in praising everyone involved, from the councillor to the teachers to the staff to the governors, for delivering such fantastic results. They are in the business of providing tremendous opportunities for the children in their care, and we all owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.
We are helping people now. We are helping people with the energy price guarantee, which is ensuring they have a £1,000 saving on their energy bills right now, and we are providing further support over the coming year for the most vulnerable with direct cost of living support of up to £1,000. There is also a record increase in pensions, a record increase in benefits and a record increase in the national living wage, because that is what Conservative Governments do.
Some 97% of ceramics businesses are small and medium-sized enterprises, which means that they have not received the level of support that many other energy-intensive sectors have, so will my right hon. Friend look at what more support, particularly financial support, can be offered to help this sector to decarbonise and invest in energy efficiency measures?
My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate for his ceramics industry, and rightly so. It has been a pleasure to meet him and his businesses in the past. He will know that our energy bills discount scheme will support businesses with their energy bills through to March next year, and we have a range of other funds to support energy-intensive industries. There is the scheme that he mentioned, and also the industrial energy transformation fund, which provides capital grants to businesses such as his to help them decarbonise. I look forward to discussing this with him and his businesses in the near future.
It is amazing, when we have had a question about the awful tragedy of illegal migration that happened recently, that the hon. Gentleman cannot accept that there is absolutely nothing compassionate about tolerating illegal migration when people are dying. That is why the Government will bring forward legislation to improve the system here. It is absolutely right that if people come here illegally, they should be sent to a safe alternative, because that is the only way we will break the cycle of these criminal gangs and stop people dying needlessly.
A school in my constituency was complaining that it could not afford to turn the heating on, yet that school and others are spending money on PSHE materials from organisations such as Stonewall and Jigsaw that are educating our boys and girls that they may not have been born in the right body or that they may have an inner gender identity. Will the PM meet me to see how we can stop this unscientific, ideological education being taught in our schools and get our children learning where they should be learning—in a warm, safe place?
We have boosted school funding by around £2 billion in each of the next two years, which will help schools to manage their energy costs, but we do expect schools to take responsible and sensible decisions on their RHSE materials and make sure that those materials are age-appropriate, suitable, politically impartial and value for money. I look forward to discussing this matter with my hon. Friend, and I will make sure that he gets a meeting with the relevant Minister.
The Prime Minister may be aware of Sky News’s investigation and report today on the over-the-counter sale of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, to children and young teenagers. One alarming aspect is the change in the size of canisters from 8 grams to 620 grams, and ambulance call-outs related to overuse have tripled. Instead of criminalising the young people who buy nitrous oxide, is it not time to take urgent action against those knowingly selling this harmful and potentially life-changing substance to children under age?
I share the hon. Lady’s concern and that of Members across the House about nitrous oxide’s detrimental impact on communities and its contribution to antisocial behaviour. Indeed, I mentioned it specifically in a speech I made at the beginning of this year. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is conducting a review of nitrous oxide and looking at this question in particular. The Home Secretary has asked it to expedite that review and we will consider its advice carefully when it is received.
Covid Pandemic: Testing of Care Home Residents
The covid-19 pandemic was an unprecedented global health emergency involving a novel coronavirus that we were still learning about day by day, even hour by hour. Even in those early days, the UK Government and colleagues in my Department were clear that testing would be crucial. That is why the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), set ambitious testing targets to drive a true step change in the quantity of tests, because he knew that testing would be a vital lifeline until vaccines could be developed and proven safe and effective.
The importance of testing was never in doubt, and there was full agreement on that in every part of Government, from the chief medical officer to the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister. But in a situation where we had the capacity to test, at most, a few thousand each day, tough decisions about prioritisation had to be made. Those decisions were taken on the best public health advice available. Thanks in no small part to the bold testing ambitions driven by the Government, we were able to build the largest testing network in Europe.
I put on record my thanks to all those who worked tirelessly on this mission day and night, from civil servants to the NHS and, of course, our incredible social care workforce, who did so much to look after their residents. They all deserve our lasting gratitude.
The situation in our care homes was extremely difficult during the pandemic, not just in England but across the UK and, indeed, across the world. Because of the vulnerability of residents and the large number of people who come in and out of care homes, it is vital that we learn lessons.
It is equally vital that we learn those lessons in the right context. Selective snippets of WhatsApp conversations give a limited and, at times, misleading insight into the machinery of government at the time. The covid inquiry is important so that we have the right preparations in place to meet future threats and challenges.
Throughout the covid pandemic, Ministers repeatedly claimed that they had thrown a protective ring around England’s care homes and that they had always followed the evidence and scientific advice, but WhatsApp messages from the former Health Secretary revealed in today’s Daily Telegraph suggest that nothing could be further from the truth.
Will the Minister confirm that the chief medical officer first advised the Government to test all residents going into care homes in early April 2020? Can she explain why the former Health Secretary rejected that advice and failed to introduce community testing until 14 August—a staggering four months later? Can she publish the evidence that following the advice would have muddied the waters, as the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) claimed? And can she confirm that 17,678 people died of covid in care homes between the CMO’s advice and the Government finally deciding to act? She should know, because she was responsible for care homes at the time.
Former Ministers are touring the studios this morning claiming that this delay was simply because there were not enough tests. Where is the evidence for that? Even if tests were in short supply, why were care homes residents not prioritised when the devastating impact of covid was there for all to see?
Nobody denies that dealing with covid was unbelievably difficult, especially in the early days, but care home residents and staff were simply not a priority. Yet the former Prime Minister and former Health Secretary were first warned about the emerging horror in care homes by my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) in March 2020. I myself raised the lack of testing in care homes with the Health Secretary on 8 April, 28 April, 19 May and 17 June 2020, long before the CMO’s advice was finally followed.
The Minister will no doubt say that all these issues will be looked at in the public inquiry, but its findings will not be available for years. The families of the 43,000 care home residents who lost their lives will be appalled at the former Health Secretary attempting to rewrite history—an attempt that will turn to ashes along with his TV career. We need more humility and less celebrity from the right hon. Member for West Suffolk, and above all we need answers.
It is relatively easy for the hon. Member to come to the House today and make these highly political points. Knowing how she and I worked together in the pandemic, and that she and I talked about all that we were doing to look after people in care homes, I am shocked and disappointed by the tone she has taken today, when we are dealing with extremely serious questions.
I will turn first to some of the difficult prioritisation decisions that were made, given the limited quantity of testing we had at the beginning of the pandemic. The Government followed the expert public health advice available at the time. We had the capacity to test just 3,000 cases a day in mid-March, and I am sure colleagues will understand why the health advice at the time was to prioritise those working on our NHS frontline and, for instance, the testing of people in hospitals and care homes who had symptoms. In fact, the courts have already agreed that our prioritisation decisions on testing were completely rational.
As we dramatically ramped up testing capacity, we also adjusted that prioritisation in line with the public health advice and the capacity, so by mid-April—just a month later—with testing capacity exceeding 38,000, we were in a position to test more widely. In fact, that is reflected in our adult social care plan published on 15 April, which made it clear that everyone discharged from a hospital to a care home should be tested even if asymptomatic, and that all discharged patients, regardless of the result of their test, should be isolated for 14 days. It is worth reflecting just what a dramatic increase in testing the Government oversaw, from just 3,000 in March 2020 to over 38,000 in mid-April, to over 100,000 by mid-May, to the point where we could test many millions in a single week. We established the largest testing network in Europe from a standing start, and the science proves that it saved lives.
The hon. Lady asked about the content of the WhatsApp messages that have been published. I say to her that it is a selection from a larger quantity of messages. Clearly, while there were discussions and debates between Ministers and colleagues, partly on WhatsApp, there were also meetings and conversations and other forums in which advice was given and decisions made. A huge quantity of that is with the public inquiry, but I can say to her that, for instance, a meeting to discuss the implementation of the advice on testing was not referenced in the WhatsApp messages she is talking about. There is an email following the exchange to which she is referring that says, “We can press ahead straightaway with hospitals testing patients who are going into care homes. And we should aspire, as soon as capacity allows and when we have worked out an operational way of delivering this, that everyone going into a care home from the community could be tested.” As I say, she is basing her comments on very selective information.
As I said, the hon. Lady knows how the Government, and me personally, strained every sinew, worked day and night, and did everything in our power to help people, and specifically the most vulnerable, during the pandemic. She and I spoke about it regularly during our frequent calls. In fact, at the time I appreciated her perspective, questions and insights from her own area of Leicester. I say to her that we should go about this discussion in the right way for the country. This is not the time to play political games. We should look to save lives. That is the purpose of the public inquiry: to learn lessons in the right way in case this should ever happen again.
My hon. Friend will agree that it was Labour that called for a public inquiry, and the Government agreed to it. It is a full public inquiry and we could not have a better judge than Dame Heather Hallett, one of our most experienced and distinguished judges. She will do a very thorough job. Does my hon. Friend agree that what we are seeing today is a bit of trial by media and party politics?
My right hon. and learned Friend is exactly right; we are having a public inquiry and the Government are fully co-operating with it so that it has all the information required to look through all that happened, to investigate it and, rather than trying to score political points, to truly learn lessons for the benefit of the country.
On 2 April 2020, I wrote to the former Health and Social Care Secretary, jointly with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), highlighting the urgent need for testing in care homes for staff and residents and, in particular, for patients being discharged from hospital. I knew at the time, as did other colleagues, that without that testing, care homes in my constituency and those across the country were suffering a heavy toll of deaths of residents. Indeed, one of our care home managers died of covid in my constituency.
Furthermore, at a session of the Select Committee on Health and Social Care in July 2021, I asked the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) why the Government had not taken up the offer from care providers of facilities to isolate people discharged from hospital before admitting them to care homes. He told me that he did not know anything about the letter, despite it being sent by Care England. Will the Minister now admit that the Department and Ministers failed to understand and to involve social care in the key decisions about the covid pandemic, and ignored letters offering help that could have saved lives?
The hon. Lady is right about the importance of testing. It is a view that she has and that I had at the time; some of the exchanges will show how I, as Social Care Minister, was arguing very hard for testing for care homes, as Members would expect. I know that other Ministers and other people were arguing for the things that they had oversight of. Ultimately, of course, the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister had to make decisions, based every step of the way, clearly, on the scientific advice on these things, as we did. To that point, during the course of the pandemic, as the capacity allowed, millions of tests were distributed to care homes. As I have said, as the capacity increased, care homes were prioritised in that process. Specifically to address one of the points she made, let me say that the guidance set out on 15 April was not only that everyone discharged from hospital to a care home should be tested, but that they should be isolated.
It seems that the Opposition want to rewrite history. The fact is that at the time people did not know what was right or what was wrong. The then Secretary of State listened to a whole lot of advice and then had to make a decision. Even one of the WhatsApp messages I have seen said:
“Tell me if I’m wrong”.
What should happen is that the covid inquiry should deal with all these matters properly. The one question I have for the Minister is this: is it possible to get the covid inquiry to report earlier?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the covid inquiry being the right place for people to go through the details of what happened—who said what and, as he said, the genuine debates that took place behind the scenes. This was a new virus and, at the time, we had only limited information about it. For instance, when it first hit our shores, it was not known who would be most vulnerable to it. We also did not know about asymptomatic transmission. There was a huge amount of uncertainty at the time, but the best possible decisions were made. As for the timing of the public inquiry, that is not within the control of Ministers.
The leaked WhatsApp messages from the then Health and Social Care Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), showed that, despite a shortage of covid tests in September 2020, one of the Minister’s advisers sent a test to the home of the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) by courier. This is yet more evidence that it is one rule for Conservative Ministers and another for everyone else. Can the Minister please inform the House how many other Government Ministers, Conservative MPs and their families received priority tests during the pandemic when there was a shortage of tests?
It is difficult for me as a Minister to see WhatsApp messages from me in the pages of a newspaper. If the hon. Lady has read those, she will have seen that I was seeking a test for a member of my family and that I used exactly the same test app as everybody else to try to access a test that was needed.
I seem to recall that two years ago, when there was a limited supply of testing equipment, there were all sorts of calls for certain groups to be prioritised. There were also urgent calls for available beds in hospitals to be freed up to cope with the likely surge in cases. In hindsight, some of those priorities may have been wrong, but at the time it was an urgent situation. Will my hon. Friend confirm that exactly the same set of priorities about access to testing prevailed in Wales, and it took the Welsh Government two weeks longer to mandate testing for care home residents in Wales than it did in England? Why are we not seeing equal outrage from the Opposition about that?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the challenges that were faced around the world in handling the pandemic, and very conspicuously for us across the UK. Decisions were having to be taken in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as here in England. Had Opposition Members been in our position, in government, and having to make these difficult decisions, I am sure that they, like us, would have strained every sinew and done their very best to make the best possible decisions in a situation of limited information.
Even if we now know that the Secretary of State was not following the scientific advice, the Minister was in her job at the time these decisions were being made. Can she explain why she did not do the right thing then? Was she not listening to the chief medical officer either?
I fear that the hon. Lady did not hear my previous answer, which was that the public health advice and the advice of the chief medical officer was followed. Of course there is a job to do when advice is given, and then there are the practicalities of implementation. As the volume of tests became available, those tests were used as advised, following the public health advice.
I will not forget the totally shameless politicking by Opposition Members during the pandemic. I specifically remember the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, who is no longer in her place, and the Leader of the Opposition talking about how we had the worst death toll in Europe. They said that again and again. [Interruption.] I hear the shadow Minister say from a sedentary position that we did, but the studies now show that we were ahead of Italy, ahead of Spain, broadly in line with France and Germany, and very far from the worst in Europe. Have we ever heard any Opposition Member come to the Dispatch Box and apologise for misleading the British public about our record during the pandemic? Does my hon. Friend agree that they might seek to do that before criticising us any further for our record?
My hon. Friend is right. The right thing for us to do as a country is to reflect overall on how we handled the pandemic, on the decisions that we made and, indeed, on how prepared we were in the first place. That is the right way to do it. Of course we regret every life that was lost; I think about the families who lost mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and grandmas. It is so deeply sad that so many lives were lost, but that is something that affected us here in England, across the UK and, indeed, across the world. But the right thing for us to do is to look at these things in the reasoned environment of the inquiry and then use the lessons learned and the reflections from that inquiry to make sure that, in the event that we ever have to face another pandemic like it, we can do better.
The Government entered the pandemic unprepared, ignoring the lessons from Operation Cygnus, and ran the NHS at 96% capacity. That was part of the problem. We all know that mistakes happen. We all know that it was really difficult. However, today is disappointing, because some humility should have been brought to this place. More than 17,000 people lost their lives. It is our job as the Opposition to scrutinise decisions. The former Secretary of State has thrown his colleagues under a bus because of his own vanity, but I suggest that Government Ministers need to use this time before the inquiry to ease families’ suffering by coming forward with more detail on actually what did happen.
There has already been a legal investigation into some of the aspects that we are talking about today. Given the huge number of decisions that had to be made and the period of time that we are talking about, the right way to do this is to bring all the evidence together, in the form of a public inquiry, and have it fully examined. That is the best way to answer the sorts of questions that the hon. Lady suggests.
This is a profoundly serious question—literally a matter of life and death. As such, I am sure that my hon. Friend is right to say that the appropriate way to reach conclusions is through a proper public inquiry conducted by a very distinguished judge. Can she assure the House that the Government will be as transparent and as open as possible in giving evidence to that public inquiry, so that we can all be confident at the end of this that we have reached the appropriate conclusion?
The emails and WhatsApp messages expose the fact that the scientific advice was that people leaving hospital should be swabbed before going into care homes, and the Government ignored that. That shows that the Government were not following scientific advice. The Minister has said that other priorities had to be considered before the Government could implement that policy, but no one would have been more aware of the competing priorities than Professor Whitty. What was it that the Government knew that Professor Whitty did not when they decided not to follow his advice?
It really feels as though Opposition Members have not been listening to my answers. The public health advice was followed. The situation was that we had a limited capacity for testing. That is not spelled out in those messages, because, as I have said, other meetings and other conversations were taking place. As soon as testing capacity was available, further testing was used—for example, on people being discharged to care homes. Having been Care Minister at the time, I can tell the hon. Gentleman how hard we worked across Government. We all worked—not only me, but all of us involved in this—to get millions of tests out, during the course of the pandemic, to care homes in order to help protect those residents. This was followed by our prioritising those in care homes for the vaccination because, when it came down to it, although testing was helpful, what really made a difference was being able to vaccinate people. That is what really started to provide protection.
Is it not regrettable, if all too typical, that the Labour party ignores the fact that when the pandemic struck there was capacity for only 2,000 tests a day—ignoring, too, the huge, successful efforts to massively increase that capacity—and instead chooses to leap on partial information to make political points rather than listen to the full facts of the public inquiry?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about how we ramped up incredibly fast from a capacity of just 3,000 tests a day in March 2020, to more than 38,000 in mid-April, and more than 100,000 by May. We were then able to test many millions per week during the course of the pandemic. That was the most extraordinary increase in the capacity to produce, carry out and analyse tests, and he is absolutely right to draw attention to it.
The Minister said that what my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) said was shocking. What is shocking is the number of people who died but who might have been saved in the first place. Is the Minister really saying that, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was no rush to get people out of hospital and back into the community without being tested?
The questions about the discharge policy have been interrogated on a number of occasions, including by Select Committees. The hon. Gentleman will well know that in general, and in the work that we are doing now on discharge, it is rarely good for somebody who is medically fit for discharge to continue to be in hospital beyond that time. So of course it is right that when people are medically fit, they should be discharged home. The guidance of how that was done was set out on a number of occasions during the pandemic, and that guidance was updated both as we learned more about the virus and as greater testing capacity became available.
I am very proud of this Conservative Government’s record during the pandemic: 400 million tests, a world-leading and world-beating vaccine programme, and £400 billion spent to keep jobs and people’s prospects going. Clearly, hard decisions were made, and hindsight is a wonderful thing, but we should not be reflecting with hindsight now; we should deal with the facts at hand. Does the Minister agree that this Government will continue to take measures, and that if—God forbid—there is another pandemic, we will not let party politicking get in the way of making decisions to protect lives, fund jobs and keep our country going?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the extraordinary things that were done during the pandemic. I do not think that the Government should seek to take credit for that; so many people worked incredibly hard, whether in local authorities, social care or the NHS, or through their involvement in supply chains and the huge efforts to secure personal protective equipment when that was incredibly hard to get hold of across the world. I am glad that he draws attention to some of those things. He is absolutely right that, in the context of the public inquiry, we should reflect overall.
In April 2020, now-disappeared Government guidance in relation to hospital discharges stated:
“Negative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into the care home.”
It was later reported that the Minister then leaned on Public Health England to alter its proposed advice to care homes from ensuring that those discharged from hospitals tested negative to not requiring any testing at all. Why, at every stage, were the Government content to send people to their deaths in our care homes?
I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s account at all. If she looks back at one of the legal cases that has looked into this question, she may find more accurate information about some of the conversations that went on behind the scenes. I can assure her that, as she would expect, in my capacity as social care Minister, I fought the corner for people receiving care—both home care and in care homes—throughout the pandemic.
Leaked WhatsApp messages will be partial and selective, but in reading even those I note that the Minister was doing her job on behalf of my constituents. In a message on 8 April, she spoke up for a care home in Newcastle-under-Lyme and raised it with the Government and her fellow Ministers. Everyone was doing their best. I served in the lessons learned inquiry, and there are lessons that can be learned with the benefit of hindsight, but the hindsight that we have seen from the Labour Front Bench is opportunistic. Does she agree that the Government were doing everything they could to respond to an unprecedented situation under severe pressure and severe supply and capacity constraints?
My hon. Friend is 100% right. The context is absolutely important as part of this conversation. It was a global pandemic about which very little was known and about which we worked incredibly hard to find out more, and on which we continually made the best possible decisions in the light of the information that we had. At all times, we prioritised protecting people and saving lives, particularly those who we learned would be most vulnerable. It is extremely disappointing to see an attempt to play politics with this issue.
Care home residents and their families were failed not just at the beginning of the pandemic but in the months and years that followed, as families and loved ones were prevented from visiting. The leaked WhatsApps show that the Minister was arguing against the ban on visiting. Can she say why the ban was sustained for so long throughout the pandemic, and what plans she has to ensure that families with loved ones in care homes have the right to visit if this ever happens again?
I know how strongly the hon. Member feels about this. Clearly, we are having ongoing conversations about visiting in care homes at the moment. As is evident in the WhatsApps, I was concerned during the pandemic about ensuring that families were able to see loved ones in care homes. As I have said in response to a number of questions, public health advice had to be taken into account all the way through the pandemic. Getting the right balance between protecting people from the risk of covid being taken into care homes and seeing friends and family will, I am sure, be looked into as part of the public inquiry discussions to answer questions such as his about the decisions taken on visiting. I will continue to work with him here and now to ensure that those who are currently in care homes get the visiting that they need.
The front page of today’s Telegraph, which reveals that the medical advice was not followed, will be heartbreaking for so many families up and down the country, re-opening the grief that so many felt about the loss of their loved ones. I have listened carefully to the Minister’s responses, and she has basically said that she is unable to compel the public inquiry to move more quickly—that it is above her pay grade. But what she could do now is commit to lobbying the Government to complete that public inquiry before the end of the year, and to doing everything she can to bring those answers forward for all those families who are today feeling so deeply hurt and upset.
To reiterate the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) just made, every time there is a statement, every time there is a revelation, every time such an issue is raised, whether in this House or in the press, it triggers trauma for many people who have not healed from losing their loved ones, who were not able to go to funerals, and who were not able to seek closure. I hope that the Minister will reflect on her response in that context.
To come back to the public inquiry, Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice said that the revelations show why the inquiry must allow the bereaved families to
“be heard in the hearings and for our lawyers to cross-examine key people”—
including the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock)—
“so we can get full answers to our questions in the right setting instead of having to relive the horrors of our loss through exposés.”
Does the Minister agree?
As I have said, we are talking about, very sadly, people’s lives being lost—people’s mothers and fathers, grans and grandpas, sons and daughters, and sisters and brothers. We should always remember the genuine and real human cost, as well as all those who worked in health and social care looking after dying people and who had a traumatic time themselves.
On the trauma that the hon. Lady talks about, it is Labour Front Benchers who have asked the urgent question and made this conversation happen in this forum rather than in the context of a public inquiry, which might encourage a more reasoned form of debate. I hope she will have noticed that my tone fully appreciates the points that she makes, but it is not for me to dictate who will give evidence to the public inquiry.
As the Minister will recall, I spoke for the Opposition on dozens of regulations to do with the pandemic, and on occasions I questioned some of the decisions that were made. The suspicion was that sometimes political rather than medical or scientific decisions were taken. What has come out overnight has caused me to question that again, and I hope she can understand why. It is an important question of trust for us as politicians but also for the wider public. Does she agree that rather than a partial and selective release of information to sell newspapers or books, the public deserve from the Government the release of all information so that we can get to the bottom of this?
I do remember many of those SI debates. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it was not political decision making as he suggests. At every step of the way, Ministers such as I, the Health Secretary and of course the Prime Minister were making incredibly difficult decisions but always trying to do the right thing to save people’s lives and to protect people from that cruel virus which particularly attacked those who were most vulnerable, such as the frail elderly. In doing so, we continuously took public health advice. The way to look into everything that happened is indeed through the public inquiry: that is where the evidence is being provided and that is the forum in which the reflections will be taken and the lessons can be learned.
My heart goes out to the bereaved families and I cannot imagine what they must be feeling again today. My heart also goes out to care workers, many of whom lost their lives having contracted covid. Many also survived but are now living with long covid and have lost their livelihoods. The Minister may be aware that advice from the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council that would give compensation to just some of those brave workers is currently with the Department for Work and Pensions. In a recent meeting with me, the Minister told me that it could take years for that to be taken up. What conversations has this Minister had with the DWP and, if it will take years, will her Department set up a compensation scheme so that those brave workers get the support they deserve?
As the hon. Lady says, care workers were among those on the frontline during the pandemic and they had some incredibly difficult experiences. They took the risk of catching covid and, very sadly, some care workers and NHS workers were among those who lost their lives. Others have long covid. The question of compensation is currently with the Department for Work and Pensions. The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), is in his place on the Front Bench: his Department is looking at this and will respond in due course.
I thank the Minister for her answers. Everyone’s thoughts and prayers are with those who lost loved ones. The impact of the covid lockdown on mental health was felt most keenly in care homes. To see what the elderly people were put through, and learn that the full protections were not in place and they could not see loved ones at the end of life, is totally unacceptable. What would the Minister offer to those who lost precious hours with those they loved and adored on hearing this tragic news today?
I reiterate to those living in care homes and their loved ones and families that the Government took every step throughout the pandemic to protect those we knew were vulnerable. For instance, we prioritised testing with more than 180 million tests going to care homes during the pandemic, and we prioritised vaccinations. I remember talking to residents in care homes at the time, and vaccination was a huge moment for them because it was the first time they had felt really protected from that cruel virus. I know how hard it was for families that they could not see loved ones in care homes, and that was one reason we put out guidance about visiting, saying that if someone was close to end of life they should be able to receive visitors. I will continue to do my utmost as Minister for Social Care to make sure that we do our very best for those living in care homes.
Independent Public Advocate
Today I can announce that we intend to legislate as soon as possible to introduce an independent public advocate; to put victims and the bereaved at the heart of our response to large-scale public disasters; to make sure they get the support they deserve through public inquests and inquiries; and to make sure they get the answers they need to move forward in their lives.
I know the whole House will recall that fateful day of 15 April 1989, when thousands of fans prepared to watch the FA cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Ninety-seven men, women and children lost their lives, unlawfully killed in our country’s worst ever sporting disaster. What happened at Hillsborough was a monumental and devastating tragedy. To this day, I remember watching the scenes in horror, and the impact is felt to this day, especially by the families and friends of the victims.
Of course, for Hillsborough’s survivors and the bereaved, that terrible day was just the beginning of a 34-year ordeal. It was followed by an appalling injustice. Fans were blamed for their own injuries. Survivors and the bereaved were blocked at every turn in their search for answers. We must learn the lessons of Hillsborough and we must make sure they never happen again.
In the wider context, major disasters involving significant loss of life are mercifully rare in this country. But, as Hillsborough, Grenfell and the Manchester bombings have shown, when they do happen, victims, families and communities have not received the answers to their questions, nor the support they need. We are duty bound, as a Government and as a House, to make sure that that never happens again and, positively, to ensure that those families and communities never again have to struggle in anguish against a system created to help them, in order to get the truth, and some measure of accountability.
The IPA will go some way to making good on the Government’s longstanding promise to ensure that the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough victims, and other victims, is never repeated. It will be passed into law, and made up of a panel of experts to guide survivors and the bereaved in the aftermath of major disasters. It will deliver in six important respects that I will outline for the House.
First, the IPA will provide practical support to the families of the deceased, and individuals, or their representatives, who have suffered a devastating or life-changing injury. That practical support will include helping them to understand their rights, such as their right to receive certain information at inquests or inquiries, and signposting them to support services, for example financial or mental health support. In particular, the IPA will help victims every step of the way, from the immediate aftermath of a tragic event, right through to the conclusion of investigations, inquiries or inquests. We will make IPA support available to the closest next of kin relative, both parents where they are separated or divorced, or to a close friend if there is no close family. That support will also be there for those whose loved ones die after the tragedy as a result of their injuries—a particular issue in relation to Grenfell, as I know from my experience as housing Minister. The IPA will also offer support to injured victims or their representatives.
Secondly and critically, the IPA will give the victims a voice when they need it most. It will advocate on their behalf with public authorities and Government, for example, where they have concerns about the engagement and responsiveness of public authorities such as the police or local authorities, or where the victims and bereaved want an investigation or inquiry set up more swiftly, to ensure maximum transparency.
Thirdly, the IPA will give a voice to the wider communities, not just the directly affected victims and bereaved, that have been affected most by the tragedy in question. To achieve that, we will set up a register of advocates from a range of different professions, backgrounds and geographical areas, including doctors, social workers, emergency workers, clergy, people with media-handling experience—often that is another burden that victims will not have experienced—and others. Communities will be able to nominate an advocate to act on their behalf, in order to express their particular concerns and ensure that their voice is heard as a community.
Fourthly, the IPA will be supported by full-time, permanent staff so that it can act swiftly when a tragedy occurs to make sure that the support is there for the victims and the families from day one. Critically, the IPA will be there to consult with and represent victims and their families before any inquiry is set up, so it will be able to make representations on the type of inquiry, whether it is statutory or non-statutory, and other important functional issues, such as the data controller powers available to any inquiry and the relationship it may have with the IPA in the exercise of such functions.
Fifthly, the scope of the IPA will be extended to cover events in England and Wales, but of course we are mindful of the devolved settlements, so we will work with all the devolved Administrations to ensure that our plans are co-ordinated with the support offered outside England and Wales. Finally, although the IPA is first and foremost about doing better by the victims and survivors, it is worth acknowledging that it is also in the wider interests of the public. It will ensure that we achieve a better relationship between public bodies, the Government and the bereaved; that we get better, quicker answers; and that we can learn and act on the lessons from such tragedies more decisively.
I can tell the House that the preparatory work is well under way to establish the IPA, and we will place it on a statutory footing as soon as possible. I will say more about the legislative vehicle shortly.
Of course, there have been other important reforms in recent years to support and empower victims and their families. We have made inquests more sympathetic to the bereaved with a refreshed, accessible guide to coroner services, so the process, which can feel like a minefield to navigate, is easier to digest and understand. We have removed means testing for the exceptional case funding for legal representation at an inquest, which means that applying for legal aid is easier and less intrusive. People who have suffered a traumatic bereavement no longer have to submit the details of their personal finances to the Legal Aid Agency; if their case meets the exceptional case funding criteria, they will be entitled to legal aid whatever their means.
More broadly, we are putting victims at the heart of our justice system by quadrupling victims funding compared with 2010, and we are giving them a louder voice through the upcoming victims Bill. The creation of an independent public advocate to give greater voice to the victims and the bereaved of major tragedies is the next important step forward.
I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House will join me in paying tribute to the Hillsborough families for their courage and determination despite every setback and to their long-standing struggle to stop other families from enduring the same anguish in future. They have always maintained that their struggle for truth and justice for the 97 was of national significance, and I agree entirely. I also pay tribute to the families of those who died at Grenfell and the Manchester Arena bombing. Our hearts go out to them for their loss and I pay tribute to them for their dignified courage.
I also take the opportunity to pay tribute to hon. Members in this House and those in the other place who have campaigned tirelessly on the issue, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), Lord Wills, the Mayor of Liverpool and others, for their steadfast commitment to establishing an IPA. I will continue to work closely with all those hon. Members, the Hillsborough families, the Grenfell groups and the families of the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing to ensure that their experiences are taken into account and we get the detail of the IPA right as we establish it.
I pay particular tribute to the right reverend James Jones KBE for his work on Hillsborough and his important report. I met him last week and the Government will respond to the wider report this spring. We know in our heads and hearts that there is still much more to do to heal the wounds from that horrendous and heartbreaking tragedy, but this is an important step forward. The IPA will make a real difference. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. For decades, the Hillsborough families fought for justice and for the truth about how 97 innocent children, women and men were unlawfully killed in wholly avoidable circumstances. They faced a cover-up by public authorities that hid the truth and blamed the victims. Those brave families did more than seek justice for their loved ones; they sought to shine a light on what had gone so tragically wrong, because that is how we learn how not to make the same mistake again, but it should never have taken more than three decades.
I was in Sheffield on that fateful day in 1989, just a mile or so from Hillsborough, with a junior doctor friend who was called back to the hospital to treat the victims and deal with the aftermath, so I vividly remember the horror of what we heard unfolding from the football stadium. I pay tribute to those families for their long struggle for justice and to those who have spoken up for them, notably: my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle); my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne); the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May); Lord Wills; and the Mayor of Manchester.
Today is a chance to balance the scales of justice and give those victims the voice that they need and the power to make it heard, but it is a chance that the Government have missed. Their proposals do not go far enough and will be too weak, as they stand, to prevent future cover-ups. The public advocate needs to be a fully independent, permanent figure that is accountable to the families, not a panel of advisers appointed as a signposting service by the Government if they see fit.
It is critical that the public advocate has the full power of data controller, not just the power to make representations, as we heard from the Secretary of State. That means having the power to access all data, communications, documents and other information to torpedo cover-ups before they even happen. We know from the Hillsborough Independent Panel that the existence of such powers would be a massive deterrent to future cover-ups.
Will the Secretary of State reconsider and establish a fully independent public advocate? Will he agree to give it the full power of data controller from the start? That matters immensely because without control over the data that can expose the truth, there can be no transparency, and without transparency, there can be no justice. How many more tragedies will it take to wake the Government up? How many more lives need to be lost?
Labour is committed to real change. In government, we will establish a fully independent public advocate that is accountable to survivors and victims’ families. We will arm it with the power it needs to access documents and data to expose the truth about what went wrong, and, importantly, to stop cover-ups before they happen. That will be part of a Hillsborough law with teeth that will also give victims’ families access to legal aid and impose a duty of candour on public officials. We will do that because we believe that victims must be at the heart of the justice system and that they must have a voice and the power to make it heard, and because we understand that a system that fails to learn from its mistakes is doomed to repeat them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his partial welcome of the announcement. I listened carefully to what he said. We share, and I personally share with him, the commitment and desire to set up the most credible advocacy for the bereaved, the victims and the families. I am very happy to work with him and hon. Members on both sides of the House on the detail, but I do not accept his characterisation.
The hon. Gentleman said that the IPA was not independent, but in fact it will be decided on the basis of consultations with the victims and the bereaved. That must be right to make sure that we have the right range of experts to deal with the particular circumstances of the tragedy in question. It would act on their behalf; it would not act on behalf of the Government.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to data controller powers. I understand exactly the point he makes, and as I said in my statement, it is important that there will be consultation with the families. The IPA will be able to consult with a putative independent inquiry, but the hon. Gentleman has to recognise that the independent inquiry will have many of those powers itself. Therefore, how would he reconcile that with duplicated powers in the IPA? However, this is something that we should talk about—I know it is an issue that has been raised by the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood. We want to get this right, but what we risk is a conflict of functions, which is something we would all want to avoid.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned other measures, such as the duty of candour. That is a broader issue for the Government’s response to the wider Hillsborough report, which is expected in the spring. I know it has been a long time coming, but it is right to deal with those broader issues. Although the IPA is only part of the redress and the accountability, I felt that we were in a position to not just bring forward the policy announcement but in due course, very shortly, to be able to say something about the legislative vehicle. Because this is such an important issue for the bereaved, the victims and the families, I felt it was right to do that now, not wait any longer.
I thank my right hon. Friend for bringing this statement to the House today and welcome the decision to introduce an independent public advocate, which was of course a commitment in our 2017 manifesto. However, as I am sure my right hon. Friend will understand, I want to ensure that this body will meet the ambition of the commitment that we made in that manifesto. I am happy to work with him to do that.
For today, though, could my right hon. Friend please just go back to two particular issues? One is the question of whether the families, victims and survivors will be able themselves to initiate the independent public advocate, so that they are not relying on the Government to do that for them. Certainly, in the case of Hillsborough, it was the fact that the state and state authorities shut their doors to people that led to the 34 years’ wait for any answers for the families. Also, in line with that, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the IPA is able to compel the provision of information and evidence to the families? He is assuming that an inquiry will always take place, but that might not be the case. It is essential that the families have answers to their perfectly reasonable questions.
I thank my right hon. Friend and pay tribute again to her for her campaigning and advocacy on this issue. On the right of initiative, the Government will ultimately have to decide the shape of any IPA that is set up. The right of consultation is clearly set out, but of course, one of the challenges will be where different views are expressed as to how the IPA should be configured for a particular inquiry. Ultimately, where there are differences, the Government will have to try to reconcile those, so in committing to an IPA, I think it is right to allow the Government to engage and to allow the victims, the bereaved and the families the power of initiative to call for an IPA and make their representations, but to allow the Government to decide the precise configuration of that IPA.
I listened very carefully to what my right hon. Friend said about the compulsion of evidence. As I said before, I am very happy to engage with her and with other hon. Members as this policy comes forward. I take her point that an inquiry may not be set up, but where one is set up, the piece that we need to reconcile is making sure that we do not have conflicting powers. But again, I am very happy to work with my right hon. Friend on the detail of this policy and, in due course, on the clauses.
I welcome the fact that the Government want to legislate for a public advocate, five years after the consultation that they undertook closed, but I am very disappointed with the provisions as the Secretary of State has set them out. His proposed public advocate would not be independent, would not be a data controller, and would not be able to act only at the behest of families. It would be directed by the Secretary of State. It would not have the power to appoint independent panels such as the Hillsborough independent panel—but at a much earlier stage following a disaster than the 23 years it took us to get that report out—and it would not have the power to use transparency to get at the truth at an early stage and torpedo the cover-ups that public authorities set about undertaking in the aftermath of disasters. This must be something that the families themselves can initiate and use to get at the truth at an early stage.
The public advocate having the power to compel—to produce documentation and shine the light of transparency on what public authorities have done in the immediate aftermath of a disaster—would stop cover-ups. It would mean people not still having to fight to get at the truth 34 years later. That prize is within our grasp if we set this up right, so does the Secretary of State accept that if he does not beef up his proposals significantly, he will be missing an important opportunity to stop things going wrong for families? For what it is worth, I am perfectly willing to indicate to him in detail quite how those proposals ought to be improved.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. She has worked tirelessly on this issue, and we have very good engagement on it; I am happy for that to continue. I take her point about the power of initiative. The families of the bereaved will have a power of initiative through consultation, but if there are conflicting views—something that I have seen before at first hand—the Government will have to reconcile those views in the last analysis.
Secondly, on the point about data, I am happy to keep listening and working on this issue, but if we have an inquiry that has powers to compel evidence of its own, the problem will be how we reconcile those powers where they are competing in a process. But as I have said, it is important that we bring this policy forward. There will be full scrutiny of it, and as we develop the clauses, I am very happy to keep working with the right hon. Lady.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), a fellow member of the Justice Committee, for the work she has done, and to the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May).
The former Prime Minister’s point about the risk of cover-ups by those in authority is an important one. That is why, while I very much welcome what the Secretary of State has said—it is an important step—I hope that when engaging on how best to refine and advance these proposals, he looks again at the Justice Committee’s recommendation that there should be an extension of legal aid availability. Although the situation has already improved, we should be extending non-means-tested legal aid to all cases where there are mass fatalities, or where public bodies are potentially at fault. It is not fair—there is no equality of arms—when those public bodies are represented by teams of lawyers, but the bereaved families have to rely on sometimes getting legal aid and sometimes not, or on pro bono representation. Equality of arms would surely mean representation as a matter of right in those cases.
I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee. I think that this policy will create stronger advocacy on behalf of the bereaved, the victims and the families, and having panels with the right expertise, range and status will go a long way towards getting the answers.
Again, I understand the point about compulsion of evidence. There is not a theological objection to it, certainly as far as I am concerned: it is a question of reconciling competing powers when an inquiry is set up. I will, of course, look at the Justice Committee’s report and recommendations on that issue. In general, of course, inquiries are not supposed to be adversarial, which is why the rules in relation to legal aid are as they are, but we will look at this and work with colleagues in all parts of the House as we introduce these important clauses.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s acknowledgement that we need to legislate for an independent public advocate, but I am sorry to say that today’s announcement is a pale imitation of what Hillsborough families and survivors spent years campaigning on. The Government’s proposal feels like a weak signposting service. It does not have any of the powers that a truly independent public advocate would require—it feels so weak.
For me, the key question is whether this proposal would have stopped the state cover-ups of Hillsborough, the contaminated blood scandal and so many other cover-ups over the ages, and whether it will prevent further cover-ups. Unfortunately, I have to say that the answer is no, so will the Secretary of State instead adopt the Bill tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood, which is ready to go, and work with us to bring the Hillsborough law—including a fully independent public advocate—into legislation?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for all his efforts. I am afraid I do not accept the characterisation; calling it a signposting service is quite wrong. By the way, the signposting is important, but that is the start, not the end of the role of the IPA. It will be set up as a statutory advocate for all those who have been affected, whether individual victims or on behalf of the community as a whole. As of its own status, it will be impossible to ignore.
On the specific functions beyond those I set out in my statement, I am very happy to keep engaging, but I think that Members need to think about the practicalities, for example with data compulsion, and how we make sure that they can be reconciled. I hope that we will be able to continue working together to make sure that victims and the bereaved, particularly of pre-existing tragedies, such as Hillsborough, but also those in the future feel they are better equipped to get the answers and accountability that they need.
I join other Members in welcoming today’s statement and the important step that it takes, as well as recognising that the legislative process to follow will provide opportunities to strengthen the role and ensure that it delivers what we set out all the way back in 2017, not least trying to ensure that we can safeguard the independence of the IPA from Government. Can I ask my right hon. Friend how “survivors” will be defined? Will it simply be those who have had a life-changing injury, or will it also include those who may have been physically or mentally changed by their experience of a disaster they have been involved with and their need to have support and advice through that inquiry process?
We will work very closely with my hon. and learned Friend and colleagues on the definition. It is important to get that right. It will be an independent advocate once it is established, with the full force of expression and advocacy to get the answers that are required. As I have said before, I am happy to work with colleagues to make sure that we get the right balance and, in particular, to get the IPA to be as effective as possible, whether in relation to an inquiry, statutory or otherwise, or indeed when an inquiry is not established.
I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House today and the willingness to legislate in this area. As he has heard already today, nothing less than an independent public advocate acting at the behest of families, not directed by the Secretary of State, and with specific powers, will do. How is he engaging with Members in this place, others who have campaigned on these issues for years and, most important, the Hillsborough families? My constituent Deanna Matthews wrote to me—her uncle Brian was unlawfully killed at Hillsborough—to share her dismay about the lack of engagement with bereaved families ahead of this announcement. Can he tell me how he is engaging with those concerned?
Just to be clear, the advocate will be entirely independent once it is established, so the characterisation is not accurate. In terms of engagement, I am caught a little bit in terms of the detail by the strictures of Mr Speaker in making announcements to this place first, but I wrote to the families, the bereaved and the various groups from Hillsborough, Grenfell and the Manchester bombings, so they have had advance sight. One of the concerns now is the lack of detail, which I could not provide in advance of the statement. I did consult Bishop James Jones, and I saw him over the last week. I am committed to working with all those families—I know Grenfell United and some of those well from my time as Housing Minister—to make sure that we get this right and, above all, get them the most effective means of giving them the transparency and accountability they need.
I warmly welcome this announcement by the Government of the establishment of an independent public advocate, and I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), with whom I have sat on the Justice Committee and who I know has worked tirelessly on this for many years. I was at university at the time of the Hillsborough disaster in Sheffield, and sadly a friend of mine died in that tragedy, so I know all too well the frustration that the bereaved families have felt ever since. Can my right hon. Friend tell us in more detail how he will ensure that the families of the bereaved of the Hillsborough disaster will be fully involved in the practicalities of the establishment of the advocate?
I am very sorry for my hon. Friend’s loss in relation to Hillsborough. I mentioned some of the engagement there has been. I have offered to meet the families and their groups, in relation to not just Hillsborough but Grenfell and the Manchester Arena bombing. I have always found in these cases, when facing the bereaved or survivors of such dire tragedies, that the most important thing is that they feel they have access, and I am very happy to meet any of them.
I share the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), and I just wonder whether the Secretary of State has actually read previous debates on this issue in Hansard, because 12 years and five months ago my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood and many other Members of this House and I stood here seeking the power to compel the Government to release papers on Hillsborough and to get transparency over that information, yet all this time later, here we are again, still debating who has the power to compel information—in other words, how we as citizens can have the power to get to the truth.
I also want to ask the Secretary of State about extending the duty of candour to public servants so that they have to proactively tell the truth, because without this information we will, as my right hon. Friend has said, always be liable to these cover-ups. I saw it through all of the process with Hillsborough, with Lakanal House, with Grenfell and with the covid inquiry—again and again. I want the Secretary of State to understand this issue properly; it is about the truth. Will he explain what he is going to do on the duty of candour?
I know the hon. Lady cares deeply about this subject. I am familiar with these challenges from my time as Housing Minister, aside from the issue of Hillsborough, which I followed closely.
I totally understand the importance of the duty of candour. I have never said that the IPA is the whole picture; I said that it is a partial but important step that we are taking. It is better to get on with it, because after so long, one thing that I get from the communities, victims and survivors is the need to get on with tangible action—that is the way we will restore confidence. Thy duty of candour was included in the report by Bishop James Jones, and therefore it is right that is part of the Home Office response. As has been set out previously, the Home Office will publish that response in the spring, and of course it will cover that issue.
Will my right hon. Friend explain in a little more detail at what point and under what circumstances the availability of the advocate will be triggered? I see that he or she could be involved in not just inquiries but inquests, so how large a tragedy does it have to be before the victims and the bereaved can call upon his or her services?
I thank the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, who raises a very good point. The principle is that the advocate is there for major tragedies. This is a specific institution set up with a range of expertise designed to deal with that. It is not dealing with one loss of life or a smaller event like that. We will need to work closely with Members on the definition to get that right.
There are many good things in the right hon. Lady’s private Member’s Bill, but there is more we can do than just that, and there are some areas where, as she knows from her engagement with me—we talked about this at some length, and I am always happy to continue engaging—we take a different view. The most important thing, and I think my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) made this point well, is to make the advocate as effective as possible. I am committed to that, and I am committed to working with Members in all parts of the House.
As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I was at the Hillsborough disaster. Along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), I worked closely with the families, particularly in the lead-up to the decision of the independent panel, so we know quite a bit about the impact on families and what families and victims want. I came to this statement today when I saw its heading, about an independent public advocate, but I am going away not sure what “independent” means, because the Government have not set out clearly how independent it will be. It appears to me, from what the Secretary of State has said, that it will not be totally independent. I am surprised, given that there has been so much discussion in this Chamber, including with my right hon. Friend, that the Secretary of State has come here today and it is still a bit muddled. What does “independent” mean? If it is truly independent, it means that Ministers have no role in it whatever.
To be clear, on the right of initiative, which I know the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) has raised and included in her Bill, there could be different views as to its shape or scope, so that is something the Government will ultimately have the last word on. Frankly, what the hon. Gentleman said about the IPA not being independent is wholly wrong. We ought to be clear that, from the point of establishment in relation to a tragedy, the IPA will be wholly and entirely independent to serve the victims, the bereaved and the survivors, and only them. I could not be clearer on the subject.
A lot of the statement is welcome and will hopefully rebalance the position for families and victims, not least since they have had the unedifying experience of facing phalanxes of lawyers, knowing they were being paid for by their own taxes and by public funds to sometimes cover up the impact on their relatives. However, I do not find myself particularly persuaded on the points made by the Secretary of State around the compulsion of evidence, which strikes me as something that needs to be part of this. In his preparation work, which he referred to, what timeline has he set for this institution being up and ready, pending the legislation coming through the House?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The policy work is quite far developed, but of course we have not foreclosed options so that we can have maximum transparency and proper engagement. I will need to identify the right legislative vehicle and it will then take as long as the House takes to enact it, but I hope to say more on the legislative vehicle shortly.