– in the House of Commons at 11:08 am on 5th November 2020.
Will the Leader of the House please give us the forthcoming business?
The business for the week commencing
The provisional business for the week commencing
I thank the Leader of the House for the business. I should like to start by thanking Parliament’s Education and Engagement team for all the excellent work they have done to support UK Parliament Week. They have enabled all our constituents to understand what it is to participate in a democracy so that we know that every vote counts and that they will all be counted equally.
Will the Leader of the House please tell us when this parliamentary Session is going to end? They usually last about 12 months, and it would be useful to know because we would quite like another Opposition day and, as he knows, we get them pro rata. The private Members’ Bills have now been moved to next year. My hon. Friend Luke Pollard, the shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has asked whether the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill could be looked at by the Government so that it can be taken forward earlier, rather than waiting until next year.
I am pleased that the Leader of the House has realised that voting in the way we vote at the moment is unsafe and that he has extended proxy voting, but I want to remind him that the Procedure Committee said in its fourth report that
“the system of remote voting used in May was a more effective means of handling divisions in the House under conditions where the division lobbies could not be used in the traditional way”.
I do not know whether he has seen the record, but even those hon. Members who are on the estate have a small p next to their name to indicate that they have cast their vote by proxy. This will give the impression that some hon. Members are not here when in fact they are, so we need to look at that.
I wonder whether the Leader of the House could explain how he thinks democracy works, when some hon. Members can take part only in urgent questions and statements, and Members who are being careful and responsible but cannot be here cannot take part in debates. Debates are the very stuff of what we do, ergo this is not a democratic process. I know that he will be aware that “Parliament” comes from the old French word “parlement”, which means “a place to speak”.
I do not know what it is about this Government, but they are obsessed with tiers, and we now have two tiers of hon. Members—we could say two classes of hon. Members—which is not right and not fair. I want to remind the Leader of the House what he said on Monday:
“We have to ensure that these new coronavirus regulations…are properly debated and that the Government are held to account.”—[Official Report,
I should point out that although the time was extended to three hours, it was not sufficient to hold the Government to account because hon. Friends were unable to take part if they could not be here. They could not do so remotely. That is why this has to change.
Those hon. Members cannot hold the Government to account, but we need to find ways to hold the Government to account because they seem to be bypassing the normal procurement process and helping the VIPs to win lucrative Government contracts for personal protective equipment. How do we hold PPE Medpro to account? It was incorporated in May this year with share capital of just £100, yet it was awarded contracts of £200 million. It was set up by a former business associate of a Conservative peer. How do we hold SG Recruitment to account? It is a staffing agency, and it won two PPE contracts worth over £50 million, despite auditors raising concerns about its solvency. A Tory peer sits on the board of its parent company. How do we hold P14 Medical Ltd to account, which is controlled by a former Conservative councillor and has been awarded three contracts worth £276 million, despite having negative assets?
Parliament is giving the Government unprecedented powers, so could the Government prove to us that they are not misusing public money? Decisions so far have been characterised by cronyism and incompetence—and I have not even got on to Randox yet. I ask again, could we have a list of all the contracts that have been awarded under the coronavirus regulations and any declarations of interests? The shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has asked for an inquiry. It would be very simple to publish every single contract.
We need an urgent ministerial statement on what the head of the Vaccine Taskforce has said. If it is an official, sensitive Government document, why was it disclosed to people who spent $200 to hear that inside information? If it is not, why do we not all know about it? Could we have an urgent statement on who the head of the Vaccine Taskforce is accountable to?
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting an urgent question to my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq on Nazanin. That was the sixth urgent question about her. The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa said nothing about Anousheh, although he accepted that the debt is 40 years old—that is older than Nazanin. We also have to remember Kylie and Luke Symons. I look forward to receiving the letter from the Foreign Secretary that the Leader of the House has kindly facilitated.
Finally, Sergeant Matt Ratana’s funeral was held yesterday. We remember all those police officers and frontline staff who have given their lives in the line of duty. I know that Remembrance Sunday will be slightly different this year, but nevertheless, we will remember everyone in the same way. It will be more poignant because of those who have given their lives to save us. I think the Kohima epitaph will apply to everyone, which says:
“When you go home
Tell them of us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today.”
We will remember them. We will remember them.
The right hon. Lady is so right and puts it so well. We will remember them. I am very glad that there will be a chance on
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for once again raising the case of Nazanin, Kylie, Anousheh and Luke. As always, the proper processes of this House are being used, and the Government are being held to account with urgent questions. I will say one thing: it is very important not to conflate any question of money with the proper treatment of people who are held improperly. The British Government have a very clear policy of not connecting the two, and it would be open season on British citizens if we were ever to be in a position of paying for people’s releases. It is fundamental that those two are not conflated.
May I echo the right hon. Lady’s comments on UK Parliament Week? It is a fantastic week, and we would have done much more had we been able to go out and about. Mr Speaker and I would have been up and down the country making speeches and receiving plaudits for Parliament and all the work it does.
And the shadow Leader of the House too. We would have shared a charabanc as we went around the country praising Parliament. It is none the less a very important week, and we should be really proud of our democracy and proud that Parliament is here doing its duty. That, I am afraid, is where the right hon. Lady and I fall into a level of disagreement. It is so important that we are here to do our job—that we are here to debate and to challenge. She says that some Members cannot be here for debates. I recognise that, and I sympathise with them, but they are debates; that is the point. We have seen how many times somebody comes on to complain that they cannot come here, and the connection goes down. We have seen in the House of Lords remote voting fail, so business does not happen.
Once and we lose a day’s business and have to do it all again, whereas we have a system that is tried and tested, works and means that we are leading by example. We expect teachers to be teaching; we expect MPs to be voting. We expect people to do their job at their place of work when they cannot do it from home, and we cannot be a proper scrutinising legislature without being here in person; that is of fundamental importance.
I note the right hon. Lady’s appeal on the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill. It is on the list for private Members’ Bills. It is very difficult to find extra time. There was a suggestion that the sitting Fridays be moved, which the Government listened to and accepted. That is the situation that we are in. Changing the PMB Fridays does allow a few more people to work from home one day a week, which slightly helps with the overall balance of risk. I therefore think that we will have to come back to all private Members’ Bills in the new year.
The right hon. Lady asked a question on procurement that is important and a crucial act of parliamentary scrutiny, but which is also misplaced. The two positions are not contradictory. It is the job of this House—and has been for centuries—to ensure that public money is well spent. That is why the Public Accounts Committee is so highly respected. In defence of what the Government have done, when we go from a standing start to try to ensure that the country deals with a pandemic, we have to act quickly. Our usual processes for procurement assume that there is plenty of time. In this instance, there was not.
Let me give the House some of the facts. There is now capacity for 519,000 tests a day. We have delivered over 10 million testing kits to 14 million care homes. This type of work has had to be done extraordinarily quickly. On vaccines, we have secured early access to over 350 million vaccine doses through a portfolio of promising new vaccines, to ensure that we are best placed to get the vaccine when one is tested and turns out to be workable. The increase in personal protective equipment delivery has been phenomenal. To do this, things have had to be done quickly. Yes, of course, they must be scrutinised—that is absolutely right—and when they are scrutinised, the Government will have turned out to have behaved with impeccable propriety.
Throughout the pandemic, places of worship have helped to maintain social cohesion. They have mitigated the impact on the mental health of worshippers, and, more importantly, have been a sign of hope. Churches, Islamic centres and synagogues across Radcliffe, Whitefield and Prestwich have gone above and beyond to become covid-safe environments. Will my right hon. Friend, as a man of faith himself, join me in commending their efforts to protect the health and wellbeing of worshippers, and will he look to undertake an urgent review of places of worship so that they can continue to provide these most vital of services during these difficult times?
The relationship between Church and state is one that sometimes proves rather difficult. Who can forget
And I always thought that the Templars were too powerful, and that is why their power was taken away.
It has been five days since the Prime Minister announced an England-wide lockdown and the major U-turn regarding the furlough scheme, and all week we have been trying to clarify whether furlough support will be in place just when England is locked down, or whether it will be available beyond
Following the rather shambolic way in which the lockdown in England was leaked last weekend, the Government have much to learn about how they communicate. Can I raise the specific matter of how they communicate with Members of Parliament? There is an increasing tendency for Ministers to provide online briefings to Members, and this is welcome, but often the notice of such briefings is insufficient to allow Members to participate. Will the Leader of the House ensure that Ministers improve their communication with Members, including using Parliamentary Private Secretaries to reach out to their Opposition counterparts?
Finally, I return again to the question of remote voting. The latest changes to proxy voting are welcome, and they can only have come about because the Government accept the logic of not requiring Members to queue up physically to vote. If that is the case, why not complete the circle and simply switch the remote voting system back on? That way, MPs can exercise their own discretion on behalf of their constituents, rather than have to delegate their vote to others.
I do apologise that no picture was put up of the SNP spokesperson when the line went down—the sound quality was good, although the screen is just a blank at the moment—but I will ask the Leader of the House to respond.
It is a great pity that we could not see the hon. Gentleman’s cheerful countenance, cheering us all up and bringing sweetness and light to this Chamber, as he does on a weekly basis.
The point the hon. Gentleman raises on the furlough scheme has been responded to by the Prime Minister any number of times with considerable clarity—that it is a UK-wide scheme. That is how it is operating and has operated. It continued until
On communication, I think the hon. Gentleman is advocating a counsel of perfection. Of course it is important to try to give notice, but it is also important to try to ensure that briefings are provided quickly, and getting that balance right is something the Government strive to do. I think, by and large, that right hon. and hon. Members appreciate the opportunity to have briefings, and that we should not delay briefings because of the risk of some people missing the relevant notification.
As regards voting in person, people need to be here—they need to be here to speak in debates, they need to be here for legislative procedures—and people are still free to go through the Division Lobbies. They have the opportunity to use a proxy if that is what they choose to do. We are a party that believes in choice, liberty and freedom.
The Leader of the House may have seen the sad news this morning that hundreds of Argos stores will close, including the one in Alfreton in my constituency, which is a terrible blow for the employees and for the high street. Could he find time for a debate on how we can reinvigorate our high streets once this covid crisis is over?
Yes, I had indeed heard that sad news. It is a real problem, and high streets are facing enormous challenges, mainly from developments that were taking place before the coronavirus, but exacerbated and made faster because of the coronavirus. The Government have of course got the £3.6 billion towns fund that is helping high streets, and I think there is more work to be done on that. As regards a debate, I think that is a question for the Backbench Business Committee.
Let us head up to Gateshead and the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, Ian Mearns.
Of course, Nigel Mills is a member of the Backbench Business Committee, so he would be asking himself for a debate.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and for announcing the Back-Bench business for next Thursday. The first debate will be on a motion on the effect of the covid-19 pandemic on refugee communities, led by my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali. The second debate will be on achieving the ambition of a smoke-free England by 2030, in light of the covid-19 pandemic and public health reorganisation, the lead Member for which is my hon. Friend Mary Kelly Foy.
The Home Office had a huge backlog of cases and processing applications by refugees and asylum seekers prior to the pandemic. The Home Office has now contacted my office to ask my staff whether they would accept verbal updates on individual cases, as it says it does not have the capacity to do it in writing. That would mean we would have to take note of what was being said and relate that to the constituent concerned, which is most unsatisfactory. The system was a mess before the pandemic and it is now a mess that is getting worse, leaving constituents completely in a void. May we have a statement from the Home Secretary about what is happening in the Home Office and its immigration management system?
First, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the work he does as Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee and for bringing forward important debates that have support across the House. The point he mentions is clearly not one that Members must feel under any obligation to go along with. We expect responses from Departments to be proper responses. It is not for us to take notes of conversations and pass them on, because that is likely to lead to misunderstanding, error and imprecision. I will certainly take this up with the Home Office afterwards, but I would make the general point that the Government have been absolutely clear in all their guidance that people should work from home if they can do their job. If there are people in any sector who cannot do their job at home, and are therefore failing to answer MPs’ correspondence because they are all working remotely, they ought in fact to be going into work. That is what the guidance says.
For over 50 years, the Mottram bypass has been endlessly promised, delayed, cancelled, argued over and consulted on. I am delighted that the Government have finally committed to build the bypass, but, today, yet another formal and legally required consultation has been launched. After that is completed there has to be a development consent order, a process that lasts a minimum of a further 17 months. May we have a debate on the process around how we build key infrastructure projects, and how we can make it more efficient and faster? The people of Glossop and Hadfield have waited long enough.
My hon. Friend makes such a powerful point. It is deeply unsatisfactory that it has taken 50 years to deal with this issue and that there will be further delays. The Government do have plans to improve the planning system and to speed up infrastructure projects. Let us hope he does not find any newts, because they are often an absolute nuisance—a newtsance, one might even say, Mr Speaker—when it comes to building projects. I will pass on my hon. Friend’s comments to my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary, who will be answering questions in a month’s time, on
The new Government guidance on care home visits requires them to take place outside, at a window, or with a floor-to-ceiling Perspex screen separating people. For many of the cases I have had raised with me, that is not a solution as their loved ones have dementia or are bed-bound, or the care home lacks the resources to make the adaptations required. I would like to apply for an Adjournment debate to raise those cases with the relevant Minister, but because I am participating virtually I cannot do so, even though the Chamber is already set up for virtual participation and, as we know, Adjournment debates are primarily for the hon. Member and the Minister. Will the Leader of the House consider changing Standing Orders so that Members can apply for and lead an Adjournment debate virtually, and enable them to do their jobs?
The hon. Lady is proving that she can do her job by raising this important issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has made regular statements where he can be questioned. Adjournment debates do allow other hon. Members to intervene. Jim Shannon, who is sitting in his usual place, regularly intervenes very helpfully in Adjournment debates. It is important that the debates in this House are with people who are physically here, but the hon. Lady has proved that she can raise her point in these interrogative sessions.
Mr Speaker, you quite rightly have held the Government to account for releasing statements to the media before they have been announced to this House. Last weekend, when the funding deal to bail out Transport for London was negotiated and embargoed until Monday, I was outraged and horrified that the Mayor of London broke the embargo and released a press release on Sunday, setting out the details, incorrectly, of that press release. Can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport to the House on exactly the terms of the bail-out for Transport for London, so that we MPs can hold him to account and ensure that the record is set straight in terms of what the deal is?
The record is something that we must set very straight, which is that the Mayor of London is incompetent and that he has run Transport for London hopelessly. That is what we get when we have socialists in Government. The London transport network has been run very poorly and its finances are in a bad state because of a political refusal to increase any ticket fees over four years. Anyone who thinks that TfL is any good needs look only at Hammersmith bridge, which remains unrepaired, inconveniencing tens of thousands of people and causing great inconvenience without Transport for London managing to lift a finger and saying, I think, that it will do 7 feet a month and that it will take it so long to do it. Moreover, Crossrail continues to be delayed. It is an extraordinary record of failure, and it is a record of failure that should be put straight. We should have a Conservative Mayor next year and then it will be broad sunlit uplands.
Hull Trains, the open access providers of direct rail services between east Yorkshire and London for the past 20 years, today ceases its services in this second lockdown. Open access has been one of the most successful aspects of the 1990s rail industry reforms and the Transport Secretary claims to be as keen as mustard on open access, so, given the Government’s support to the rail industry and Transport for London, I am perplexed as to why Hull Trains has not been given the relatively modest Government support, beyond just the furlough scheme, that would secure its future post-covid. Can we please have a statement about how we can ensure a post-covid recovery for all rail operators, including open access?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. The Government have taken huge steps to support as many industries as possible, while recognising that not everything can be supported. I will certainly take up her point with the Secretary of State because, as she rightly says, open access has been one of the real advantages of railway privatisation.
As the University of Oxford is regularly rated the finest in the world, may we have a statement from the Government ensuring that what passes for statistical analysis by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies should in future be checked and confirmed by the Oxford Centre for Evidence Based Medicine before it is inflicted on our sceptical and suffering constituents?
I fear that I should declare an interest, because some years ago I was at that university.
Yes, I thought that the right hon. Gentleman might have been, too, though he is a much greater scholar than I am, if I may place that firmly on the record. It is only right that all statistics provided by the Government and by their advisers are challenged. That is one of the reasons for this place’s existence and for the ability to hold the Government to account. I am sure that he will use the resources that are available to him to challenge all statistics. We remember what Disraeli supposedly said about statistics when discussing this matter, don’t we, Mr Speaker?
Many Angus constituents have contacted me concerned that Scotland’s high teaching standards will be diluted as a result of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, with the potential for creating a UK-wide bureau of teaching standards, as the Bill, as currently set out, seeks to do. That risks imposing lower standards in Scotland that threaten the very fabric of Scotland’s separate and independent education system, which, as the Leader of the House will know, was provided for in the 1707 Act of Union. Teachers regularly come and teach in Scotland from other jurisdictions and are highly valued, but in every case their professional standards under the requirements of the General Teaching Council for Scotland must be met. Can we have a debate in Government time regarding the need to protect the Scottish education system from the UK Internal Market Bill?
The hon. Gentleman knows that the UK Internal Market Bill involves a great deal of powers—I think 70—that were with Europe now coming back to the United Kingdom and going to the devolved authorities. If we were to have a debate on standards in Scottish education, it would be about why the SNP has been running them into the ground in its period of running the Scottish Government, because the record of the SNP is absolutely appalling, as the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends know only too well. Scotland, as he rightly says, used to have one of the best records, and it is the SNP that has undermined that while it has been in government.
Back on Boxing day 2015, my constituency was terribly affected by flooding. Since that time, the same homes and streets have repeatedly suffered from flooding, which once again reared its ugly head earlier this week. It is bad enough that the same people are repeatedly flooded, but the trauma for those people is worse. Every time it rains heavily, fearing the worst is a torture that is hard to imagine. Will my right hon. Friend therefore ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to come to the House to make a statement to let my constituents know when he will implement the flood prevention measures for my constituency proposed by the Environment Agency?
The difficulties families face when they are flooded and the worry that they must have when the rain beats down again is something with which every Member of this House would have sympathy. A great deal of taxpayers’ money is being spent, and Yorkshire is receiving more than any other region—£496 million has been spent since 2015, protecting 66,000 properties. Across England as a whole, £2.6 billion is being spent on flood and coastal defences between 2015 and 2021. In March, there was a commitment of £5.2 billion to build 2,000 new flood and coastal defence schemes across England by 2027. I appreciate that that does not necessarily give my hon. Friend’s constituents the comfort that they desire, but he will have the opportunity to raise the matter with the Secretary of State on
Last week, the Home Secretary ended the exemption in relation to the numbers of people who can take part in a protest, meaning that for the duration of lockdown the maximum number of people who will be able to demonstrate is now two. Why did the Leader of the House allow that to happen without the Home Secretary coming to this House to explain why? Why was there not a statement as to why this most egregious and draconian restriction on our liberties would be necessary?
The Prime Minister himself came and made a statement, and the Prime Minister himself opened yesterday’s debate on the new regulations. He is senior to the Home Secretary, so it was done at the highest level. A large number of restrictions are being imposed which nobody wishes to impose. Nobody wishes to restrict the freedoms of the British people. It is being done, with the support of Opposition Members, in response to the coronavirus crisis. The person to whom the Home Secretary reports came to make the statement. As the Queen is not allowed to come into this House, there is no more senior authority who could have come.
Despite the various national restrictions, can the Leader of the House confirm that this House, and indeed the other place, will continue operating whatever the situation, so that Parliament can continue to hold the Government to account for decisions being made in this global coronavirus pandemic?
Yes. I actually think this follows on from the question by Mr Carmichael, because the House is ensuring that the Government are held to account when other means of doing it have been curtailed. People cannot protest, but we can be here—and we must be here, because if we are not, how are we going to check that the rules that are being introduced are debated, are considered; that anomalies within them are sought out; that people make representations about people in care homes or complain about the limitation of protest? We must be here; it is our duty to be here. We have a legislative programme to get through; we have to ensure that that happens. We have to hold the Government to account and seek redress of grievance; it is our historic duty. We do it in this Chamber, we do it in Westminster Hall and we do it in Committees, and that must carry on.
Concerns have been raised about the accuracy and efficiency of some of the new tests being used to increase testing capacity. Mass testing is essential if we are to control the virus, and the Liverpool mass testing pilot must be a success. So may we have a debate to enable us to scrutinise the effectiveness and accuracy of the new tests being proposed?
Next week, on Wednesday
I am sure that the Leader of the House will be as disappointed as I am that services of remembrance in Warrington and across the UK will not be happening this year because of the restrictions that we introduced yesterday. Those restrictions also mean that poppy sellers—many themselves veterans—will not be able to stand on the streets and raise funds for the Royal British Legion. I want him to join me in encouraging everyone to log on to the Royal British Legion website, download a poppy and donate, so that the work of the Royal British Legion may continue to support veterans and their families.
My hon. Friend should tell his local authority that it can organise a remembrance service, provided that it is outside and that social distancing can be maintained. I would encourage him to have a word with Warrington Borough Council and ask it to crack on with it, because there is not a lot of time left.
Poppy sellers are such a wonderful part of the fabric of our nation—they are such a varied group of people, who have such commitment to remembering those who gave their life to ensure that we could live in freedom. Therefore my hon. Friend is right to say that people should go to the website and donate that way, if they cannot do what they would usually do and allow some coins, or preferably notes, to clink—although notes obviously do not clink—into a poppy collector’s tin; it is not a tin but a plastic container, but I think everyone in the House knows what I mean.
While foster care is a devolved matter, employment law is not. Foster carers do not set their own working hours or rates of pay, cannot subcontract their work and are highly supervised, with regular performance reviews and training, and they are limited to working exclusively for one local authority or an agency at a time. It is clearly employment in all bar name. May we have a debate in Government time to address their lack of employment status?
The hon. Gentleman raises a point that has been considered and debated, and I think has even been taken to a tribunal. It is obviously a matter that he feels strongly about, and I think in the first instance a letter to you, Mr Speaker, asking for an Adjournment debate may well be in order.
Unfortunately, there are many vulnerable young people within Don Valley who are likely to fall victim to county lines drug gangs. Usually, grassroots sports clubs are a fantastic way to keep children off the street while ensuring that they are fit and healthy. As a result of the renewed lockdown, however, that will no longer be the case. As a firm believer that the devil makes work for idle hands, will my right hon. Friend inform the House whether the Government will allow grassroots sports clubs to reopen as soon as possible, so that children can remain on the right path, keep healthy and achieve their goals?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. The devastation that drugs cause is shocking and saddening, both to individual lives and to communities. Keeping young people active is important. People may have limitless outdoor activity and recreation, as long as it takes place alone, with a household or with one other person socially distanced. Children under school age may join a parent, a carer or a nanny even when seeing one other child of under school age with one other person, and they are allowed then to exercise. I appreciate that that is not fully the answer that he would want, so let me suggest that children may enjoy telmatopedesis, a word provided to me by The Times.
Fertility treatment on the NHS is subject to age restrictions and people are losing out because of coronavirus delays. I asked in a parliamentary question 30 days ago whether the Department would stop the clock. It is not ready to respond yet, but more people are losing out while we wait. Could the Leader of the House arrange a clear answer, a statement or perhaps even a leak so that we do not unnecessarily create another group of covid victims?
It is always important that Departments respond punctually to letters and queries raised by Members of this House. I have said a number of times from this Dispatch Box that if Members are not receiving replies, my office will do everything it can to facilitate a swift reply.
As an ex-coal miner, I am very proud of my mining roots in Ashfield and believe we should do everything we can to remind ourselves of our industrial past. I am currently working with ex-Silverhill colliery miner Alan Batterham and Craig Gould at Make Consulting to get the old headstock wheels renovated and sited around the old colliery. Will my right hon. Friend agree to a debate on our industrial heritage, and will he say a big thank you to Alan Batterham, Craig Gould and all the ex-Silverhill colliery miners for working on this project?
My hon. Friend knows my weakness: debating our heritage is something I am always tempted to agree to. However, the Chief Whip might think I had gone slightly rogue if I did that in the midst of a session. I would like to thank Alan Batterham and Craig Gould, and recognise that Ashfield is an important area for both our industrial and cultural heritage. Silverhill colliery, which sits above Ashfield, is now a monument to Britain’s industrial revolution and mining past. On top of that hill stands an evocative statue of a miner testing for gas, commemorating the miners of Nottinghamshire, who worked the coalfields for nearly 200 years. My hon. Friend makes the right tribute, and I sympathise with it because mining plays an important role in my constituency’s history and heritage, with the town of Radstock boasting a long mining history and wonderful local museum. Although I know that many Members would enjoy a debate on this, I do not think I can promise it in Government time. With a bit of luck, the Backbench Business Committee will look favourably upon a request.
Does the Leader of the House think it reasonable that named day questions asked of Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care six weeks ago are not answered even when the Department clearly has the information sought or that letters written to that Department in May are replied to by civil servants, not Ministers, in October—in at least one case, after five months, the answer was to refer it to another Department? We know that that Department is under particular stress but this is an abuse of the rights of Members. Will the Leader of the House interrogate his colleagues and try to get better response rates than that?
Although it is
I am sure my right hon. Friend will be fully aware of the parlous state of the UK inbound tourist industry, which is losing circa £557 million a week due to the drop in international visitors to the United Kingdom. He has been to my constituency, albeit briefly last year, to see Her Majesty at Balmoral, so he is aware of the importance of tourism to my constituency, because it has some of the most visited locations in Scotland. Will he consider a debate in Government time on the importance of the industry to Scotland? Will he consider commending to his colleagues in Government the fantastic report published by UKinbound this week on how we might support this industry, which is very important to vast areas of our country?
The tourism industry is indeed fundamental to our national economy, and I had two trips to Aberdeenshire last year. The first was campaigning for my right hon. Friend Boris Johnson to become leader of the Conservative party. The second was, as my hon. Friend quite rightly says, for a Privy Council to be holden at Her Majesty’s castle of Balmoral, which was a very interesting occasion about which, fortunately, I am sworn to secrecy under the Privy Counsellor’s oath.
My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the Government are supporting our tourism industry throughout the pandemic with a range of measures, including £10 million of grants to small businesses in the tourism sector, as well as £50 million delivered this autumn to support infrastructure projects, which will boost visitor numbers and help access to tourist destinations as we recover, but it is a fundamentally important industry. It has to be said that Aberdeenshire is an extraordinarily beautiful part of our United Kingdom.
All of us from across the House will appreciate the importance of children being back at school and learning, especially those from more disadvantaged or poorer sections of our community, since it is they who would otherwise be most detrimentally impacted and fall further behind. However, despite ministerial statements that transmission in schools is very low, hundreds of individuals in my Slough constituency have contacted me or signed a petition to request that they be given the right to withdraw their children from school, if they so wish, in the midst of a pandemic. Given that I have thus far not been able to acquire that data, will the Leader of the House please arrange to furnish me with constituency data, so that I can forward that to my constituents to help allay their concerns?
The hon. Gentleman makes such an important point when he says that education is of the greatest importance to those from the most deprived backgrounds. That is why it is so fundamental that schools remain open. The figures on transmission by children seem to be extraordinarily good. There was a report in the newspaper only yesterday. I am not in a position to promise him constituency-level data—I do not know that they exist—but I will certainly look into that, because it is important to reassure parents that is not only important for their children to go to school, but safe, and I am very grateful to him for his question.
In recent months, I have had a number of constituents contact me because they have been waiting significant periods of time for responses from agencies such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and in particular the probate office. Those delays are attributed to covid, and we understand the challenges that provides, but emails and calls are going unanswered for weeks and months, and that is very distressing for my constituents. Can we have a debate on how those agencies can maintain an acceptable standard of service in this time?
Yes. It is of fundamental importance that our constituents can access the Government services they need, particularly during a pandemic. Government agencies, as I mentioned earlier, are covered by the “work from home if possible” instruction and ought to be continuing with their routine work. If they cannot do it from home, they ought to be going into work to do it. There are some areas where that is not possible because of social distancing—for example, driving tests are problematic—but the service delivery by Government agencies ought to be continuing in most cases. I cannot promise him a debate in Government time, but he has raised the issue and if there are any specific agencies he wants me to follow up with, I will be more than happy to do so.
The Leader of the House expressed enthusiasm for our heritage, and as well as being the anniversary of the gunpowder plot, yesterday was also the anniversary of the Newport rising. That took place in 1839, and 22 protesters were shot dead by troops because they were campaigning simply for the right to vote. With the current spectacle of mobs being organised by the so-called leader of the free world to try to stop votes being counted in the United States, would this be a timely moment for us to debate the history of people’s struggle to achieve the vote, and to consider how we can protect our democracy from that kind of toxic politics in the future?
It would be a great pleasure to debate the way that the glorious American constitution grew out of our wonderful constitution, and how we have two of the most beautifully formed constitutions in the world—two really beautiful constitutions that work enormously effectively and protect democracy. That has worked effectively both in their country, and in ours, and all I can say is: God bless America, but the United Kingdom first.
May I follow up on the question from my hon. Friend Nigel Mills about help for local high streets, because I think we need a debate about that? The Leader of the House spoke about the Towns Fund, which is doing great work, but it does not cover every local high street. We perhaps need a return to the grants that were available during the first lockdown, because small businesses on our local high streets that were just getting back on their feet before this lockdown are now being hit once again. We need time in the House to debate the future of our local high streets.
There is a great deal of discussion about local high streets, and it is worth reiterating what the Government have done in terms of economic support that has helped large and small businesses. That support adds up to about £200 billion, including £40 billion on the furlough scheme that supported 9.6 million jobs, many of which will have been high street jobs. Three million self-employed individuals have been supported to a value of over £13.5 billion, and £21 billion has gone to coronavirus business interruption loans for small and medium-sized enterprises and large businesses. Some £40 billion has gone to over 1.3 million bounce back loans, £11 billion in business grants, and £10 billion in business rates relief, which will particularly have helped smaller businesses. There has been £27 billion in VAT deferrals—again, helping high streets and nearly 500,000 businesses—and nearly £33 billion in the summer economic update. That important support is helping high streets and businesses across the country, and the Towns Fund on top of that will help high streets to be rejuvenated once the pandemic has ended.
I thank the Leader of the House for his previous answer. Owners and directors of SMEs, and freelancers, are a group of voters that the Conservative Government have tried to attract in the past, yet those are the people who are being let down and excluded from the Chancellor’s support measures. Now is not the time to leave hard-working people behind, or to leave those with a get-up-and-go spirit excluded from support. This is a matter of great concern for the House and for our constituents, so will the Leader of the House agree to a debate in Government time on that crucial issue as a matter of urgency?
I agree that this is a crucial issue, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be making a statement and answering questions immediately after the business statement.
Last weekend the details of the national lockdown were leaked to the media, and instead of the Prime Minister being able to announce it first in the House of Commons, it was announced in newspapers. I know the Prime Minister was furious about that, and has started a leak inquiry. May we have a statement next week about how that inquiry is progressing, who is in charge of it, and whether the mobile phones of the people at the meetings have been checked? Or, is this leak inquiry like the one in “Yes Minister”, where there is no intention of finding out who leaked the information?
This is a leak inquiry that wants to find out what happened, and I know that the Prime Minister was far from gruntled over what happened last week. He had intended that the announcement should be made in the House first, and it needs to be looked into thoroughly. I would say there is something deeply distasteful about this culture of leaking. We want the House to hear first, we want a proper process and that is what was intended. It then came to the House and we had a vote yesterday, I would say that is also important: the commitment to have votes on important issues of national significance has been maintained and the rights of the House are therefore being protected.
I did ask for the House to be updated as well.
Please can we have an update on when the Government will respond to the review of access to benefits for the terminally ill? I know the Minister at the DWP has been receptive to the issues raised by the Motor Neurone Disease Association, Marie Curie and others, but we need action to change this unfair system as soon as possible.
That is an important issue with which the House will have every sympathy. I will take it up with the Department and get an answer to the hon. Lady.
I recently met a Harlow beauty salon owner who was in real distress because of the devastation of her business due to covid, even with the Government grants. Small businesses in Harlow such as beauty salons and gyms are really struggling because of the coronavirus lockdown and despite being covid-secure, particularly gyms, they are not allowed to open, yet estate agents are. Although I reluctantly accept the new need for the lockdown because of the rise in covid, may we have an urgent statement to address these anomalies and do everything possible to ensure that these small businesses in Harlow survive and thrive?
I certainly understand the frustration of my hon. Friend and the disappointment for all business owners affected by the re-imposition of restrictions. I would like to quote the Prime Minister himself, who said:
“I am truly sorry for the anguish these measures will impose, particularly for businesses that had just got back on their feet—businesses across the country that have gone to such trouble to make themselves covid-secure, to install Perspex screens and to do the right thing.”—[Official Report,
No one wants to impose these kinds of measures, but we cannot ignore the evidence in front of us of rising hospitalisations from covid, which is why the decisions have been taken. They are decisive but temporary and they should reduce the spread of the virus. The Government will continue to do everything possible to support jobs and livelihoods for the next four weeks. May I thank the people in my hon. Friend’s constituency and across the country who run beauty salons, gyms and other outlets that are being closed for their perseverance in the face of adversity?
May I raise with the Leader of the House the question of access to pension credit and the fact that more than 1 million older people who are entitled to it do not take it up, for many different reasons? It would lift 400,000 pensioners out of poverty, meaning that we would have the lowest levels of pensioner poverty in this country ever. Will he request that DWP Ministers make a statement on how they intend to advertise pension credit take-up or, indeed, grant a debate on access to pension credit so that pensioners can get the credit that they are allowed and deserve, and that they should feel no shame in taking up?
The Government always make efforts to ensure that people have access to the benefits to which they are entitled. They are there for people to claim and not to be hidden away. I would say that we all have a role in that. We have a role as constituency MPs to highlight them to pensioners who get in touch with us when they are facing difficulties, or to use the newspaper columns that most of us have to remind people of what is available. I must confess that the hon. Gentleman has in fact given me the topic for my next article for the Somerset Guardian, because I think that particularly in winter it is really important to emphasise to people that there is help available, that it is there for them and that it is not anything to be ashamed about.
May I thank the shadow Leader of the House for mentioning my private Member’s Bill a little earlier? I would like to re-emphasise, if I may, to the Leader of the House that it is a Bill of great importance to me. However, as we have gone through Second Reading, we are in Committee, and the lockdown should not delay the Bill unless there are further restrictions at the Government’s behest. I hope that the Committee stage can continue and that the Leader of the House will support that. May I briefly say as well that yesterday in this House we had one of the most difficult votes that we have to take? I am very grateful to the Leader of the House for extending the debate to three hours, but I hope if there are further such debates on matters of national significance, we may be afforded a longer debate still.
Mr Speaker, is it indiscreet of me to say that it was your lobbying that got the debate extended to three hours? If it is indiscreet, it is too late now, but thank you very much. It is always important that proper time is provided, but one of the great difficulties of organising Government business is that there are so many pressures for time, including for my hon. Friend’s important private Member’s Bill, which I think is popular across the House.
Early on the morning of
The UK remains deeply concerned about the severity and scale of violations and abuses of freedom of religion or belief in many parts of the world. We are committed to defending these freedoms for all and promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. Once again, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman. He is one of the House’s most diligent campaigners for the rights of Christians suffering persecution around the world. The Government regularly communicate with the Cuban Government about a range of human rights issues, in both London and Havana, and also address these issues through multilateral human rights forums, including the UN universal periodic review. While we welcome the new protections that underpin freedom of religion or belief in the 2019 constitution, we call on the Cuban authorities to confer in practice those rights that the constitution enshrines. As regards a debate, I think an Adjournment debate or Backbench Business debate would be suitable. We had a debate in Government time earlier in the year.
Many gyms, fitness spaces and leisure centres in Redcar and Cleveland have gone above and beyond to become covid-secure and prevent transmission of the virus. We know the benefits of exercise for both mental and physical health, but in winter it is difficult for many to exercise outside in the dark, cold and wet. May we have a statement from the Government on the importance of indoor exercise facilities in society, and will the Leader of the House confirm that the Government will not keep gyms closed beyond
Yes, but I caveat that by saying so long as I do not have to do it myself. I gave up exercise as a schoolboy and always tried to avoid it, even then, but I absolutely accept my hon. Friend’s point that exercise is important for some people’s mental health and obviously for dealing with obesity and things like that. Endless outdoor activity is allowed—he is right that the weather is obviously not as nice as it was in the first lockdown—but it has to take place alone, with a member of the household or with one other person, socially distanced. It is obviously the plan that these restrictions end on
My constituent’s savings are invested in buy-to-let mortgages in flatted properties. The block height is less than 18 metres, so post-Grenfell regulations on cladding inspection and local authority certification do not apply. Despite that, surveyors are zero-valuing the properties, lawyers will not handle sales and replacement mortgages are impossible, so properties in that specific height range are currently worthless. May I get a Government statement on how they will address this issue?
Yes. The issue of cladding and its effect on people trying to sell properties has been problematic. The Government have been spending a great deal of taxpayers’ money to remove unsafe cladding on bigger buildings, but I accept that for buildings of a lower height the problem may not always have been addressed, or they may not be in a programme to be addressed. I think it will be best if I take this up with the relevant Secretary of State and get a fuller answer for the hon. Gentleman.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.