– in the House of Commons at 11:17 am on 16th September 2021.
The business for the week commencing Monday
At the conclusion of business on Thursday
The provisional business for the week commencing
I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business. I am glad to see him still in his place. There were rumours that it might have been Gavin Williamson opposite me. He has been told to “shut up and go away,” and I am therefore relieved that I do not have to spend time today explaining that I am the Member for Bristol West and not Dr Huq. Perhaps I will not throw away my flashcards just yet; you never know.
This week inflation has leaped to 3.2%, the highest jump since records began in 1997. This comes in the same week as the Government rammed through their Tory tax rise, hitting hard-working families. Yesterday, they did not even bother to turn up to vote on their cruel and callous cut to universal credit, the biggest ever overnight cut to social security.
The Prime Minister seems to have deliberately used his reshuffle to distract from the fact that he will be taking more than £1,000 from 6 million households. Meanwhile, his sacked Ministers take home nearly £20,000 in severance pay. Nearly half of all people receiving universal credit are in work. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions thinks that people should just work harder to make up the difference, but from April the Government will be taking away more than 75p of every £1 that a full-time worker on universal credit earns.
One in six families cannot make ends meet already, and now key workers are facing a pay freeze, a personal allowance freeze, rising council tax and an unfair national insurance rise, and the price of bread and all the basics is going up. This Tory tax rise was not a plan last week to tackle social care or the NHS waiting list, and it is still not a plan this week. Working people know the Government are not on their side. They know the Government prioritise their friends over the British people. Could the Leader of the House please explain why the Government are pressing ahead with this?
Then there is the astronomical cost of childcare hitting working families. That is yet another broken promise from this Government, failing parents and children. A staggering third of all parents pay more for childcare than for their rent or mortgage. Just to let the Government know, as they often seem completely ignorant of the actual cost of living, a full-time childcare place costs £14,000 a year. The Government say they want to help people into work, but even before the pandemic nearly 1 million mothers wanted to work but could not afford to do so.
It is not just parents being squeezed but childminders, nursery workers and all the people working in childcare, 93% of whom are women. They are suffering on poverty pay after years of real-terms pay cuts under successive Tory Governments. The average wage in this sector is £7.42 an hour and, shamefully, one in 10 staff earns less than £5 an hour. The Government are not on the side of parents, they are not on the side of childcare workers and now they want to take even more money from them. This makes no sense educationally, socially or economically. We debated a petition on this crucial issue on Monday, but will the Leader of the House make Government time available for a full debate on the childcare sector?
The pandemic is still raging, and bereaved families are still waiting for a public inquiry so that lessons can be learned now to help now. I ask the Leader of the House again, when will the Government’s covid inquiry start?
Rob Roberts has had his Conservative party membership suspended, although for only 12 weeks. I wonder if this says something about the seriousness, or lack thereof, with which some people treat sexual harassment. Will the Leader of the House finally find time for this House to debate Labour’s motion, which we first tabled back in July, to close the recall loophole and to allow the people of Delyn to decide for themselves whether that Member should continue to represent them?
Finally, last week I took a tour of the basement and some of the most damaged parts of the Palace. I understand that the Leader of the House also recently took the tour so, like me, he must have seen the high-voltage electricity lines next to the gas pipes and the wiring that goes nobody knows where. Has he now revised his previous view that restoration and renewal of this place is just
“a little bit of banging and noise”?—[Official Report,
Does he now agree that we must press ahead with a full decant, which we have voted for, so that we can get on with protecting this magnificent symbol of British democracy that we are so proud of, not for us but for the British people we serve?
I think the hon. Lady was ungallant in relation to my right hon. Friend Gavin Williamson, who has been a very hard-working and diligent public servant over many years. It is inelegant not to thank people after a reshuffle for the service they have provided and to gloat instead; I am rather surprised at the hon. Lady behaving in that way.
The hon. Lady made some important points about inflation, but she will of course remember that monetary policy is run independently by the Bank of England, as a result of a decision taken by Gordon Brown when he was the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1997. The main control of inflation therefore rests with an independent body, but Her Majesty’s Government are doing their side of the bargain, although opposed by the Opposition, in ensuring that fiscal policy is responsible.
The two causes of inflation are widely believed to be the connection between monetary policy and fiscal policy. One of them is independently determined, but Her Majesty’s Government have taken steps to shore up the finances of this country. That must be correct, and the sensible and right thing to do, and universal credit is part of that; £9 billion of additional support has been provided to people on UC during the pandemic as exceptional support because of the circumstances that arose during the pandemic. As the pandemic is ending and as the furlough scheme is ending, it is right that we return to normal. What my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions so rightly pointed out was that those on UC who have children or limited capability to work, for example, through a disability, are able to earn up to £293 per month before the taper rate kicks in, rising to £515 for those who do not receive housing support. What she said is absolutely right and reasonable.
The hon. Lady then moved on to the issue of children in poverty, so I can point out to her that since 2010, a period of majority Conservative government, 100,000 fewer children are living in absolute poverty. That is one of the successes of which those on this side of the House are rightly proud. There is up to £2,000 per year per child of tax-free childcare, which was introduced by the Conservatives. We have given her an Opposition day next week if she wants a debate on that. She may have been listening when I read that out, but in case she was not, let me read it out again: the subject is to be announced. Perhaps she is hinting at what the subject may be, but it seems to me that when time is provided for an Opposition day and the hon. Lady raises pressing issues, one can fit a round peg in a round hole, and she can answer her own question.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that the covid inquiry will begin before the end of this parliamentary Session. This Session will run, as usual—since the reforms in 2010—until around May, so the date has already been set out.
The right hon. Lady—the hon. Lady; I am sorry to have promoted her inadvertently, though no doubt the Privy Council for her is merely a matter of time—raised the question of suspension from this House and recall. The Government did bring forward a motion, one that was agreed by the Commission and supported by the chairman of the independent expert panel, and it was a pity that the hon. Lady blocked it. If she decides not to block it, it will be back on the Order Paper straightaway. [Interruption.] She chunters, “Amended it.” She is an experienced parliamentarian and knows full well that amendments block when there is not time set aside for debate: so she blocked it.
As regards restoration and renewal, the hon. Lady’s oratory on my views was fundamentally inaccurate. It is well recognised that work needs to be carried out and that we need to re-plumb and re-wire. We have already done a huge amount of work ensuring that the fire safety systems are improved, and we had a successful fire safety test earlier this week to ensure that the structure of the building and the lives within the building are safe. The work is planned and I am supporting it enthusiastically.
That is a very helpful heckle. The right hon. Gentleman is a great expert on this issue and asbestos is one of the key parts of it.
What I have always been opposed to is spending very large amounts of taxpayers’ money. We had forecasts of £10 billion to £20 billion for trying to turn this place into Disneyland. That I am opposed to; that I will continue to be opposed to. We want rewiring, replumbing and the removal of asbestos, but we do not want Disneyland.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his reappointment. However, we have seen some Cabinet changes. One of the most important, for me, is the new Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Could we now have an early debate on the proposed planning Bill so that we can have our input, rather than having a Bill thrust upon us without pre-legislative scrutiny? That would allow Members across the House to give their views to the new Secretary of State.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s kind words. On the point he makes, I think he proves that that actually already happens, because nobody would ever dare stop him expressing his views on planning reform to everybody in the Government. The Government are, of course, listening to what people have to say, but the process that has been followed is the proper constitutional one. There has been a White Paper, which is a discussion document setting out the intentions of policy, to and about which there have been many responses and thoughts. That will lead to a Bill that will go through the House in the normal process. I think that I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Bill will be thoroughly discussed and that his views will be extremely welcome, particularly to my right hon. Friend Michael Gove.
What happened to the right hon. Gentleman yesterday? All afternoon, the nation was at one: “What about the Mogg? Surely a big office of state awaits—a promotion is more than due.” Well, maybe he should not have said “No more taxes” in the week that his Prime Minister hiked them through the roof. Anyway, we are glad that he is back with us, doing what he does best: announcing the business of the week.
This is now getting beyond a joke. The scenes from a packed Prime Minister’s questions yesterday were simply a disgrace, with barely a face mask on a Tory mush. The House staff are now getting increasingly nervous and anxious about what they are observing, and it seems as if the Tories have absolutely no regard whatever for the safety of their colleagues and the staff who are here to support and help us.
The Government’s own advice states:
“Wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed settings where you come into contact with people you do not normally meet.”
Now, I do not normally meet any of you lot—I am quite happy with that situation; I have no desire to meet you on a regular basis—and yesterday at PMQs this place must have been about the most crowded enclosed space in the whole UK. The Health Secretary even excused the Tory “no face mask” policy, suggesting that people cannot catch covid from friends. Is this House not sending the worst possible message to the country and contributing to all sorts of confusion? Will the Leader of the House now be a leader? For goodness’ sake, put a face mask on!
We know that the Leader of the House likes his obscure historical battle references—he will probably quote one to me again, as if I am in any way interested in what he has to say—but there is a battle for Scotland going on just now and it is being fought with ideas, with democracy at its core and with a vision for what a nation can be, free from this place. So he can stuff his battles of Flodden and Falkirk where his top hat don’t shine, because this battle of Scotland will be won by its people.
In the cheerfulness and bonhomie that the hon. Gentleman brings to this House, he is competing with Countess Mona Lott herself. If that is the battle for ideas, they are ideas of gloom, doom and lugubriousness that I think are not particularly welcome in this House.
As regards face masks, the policy is extremely straightforward: face coverings are not mandatory for Members in the House of Commons Chamber, voting Lobbies, the Members’ Lobby and Westminster Hall. The advice of Her Majesty’s Government on face coverings is that they are not required by law in the workplace. The Government removed the legal requirement to wear face coverings in public places in indoor spaces. If someone is in a crowded indoor space where they come into contact with people they do not normally meet, wearing a face covering can help to reduce the spread of covid.
Is it not interesting that the hon. Gentleman—and perhaps this applies to the nationalists generally—does not normally meet other MPs? Perhaps that is because they are not very assiduous in their attendance in the House of Commons, but Members on my side of the House, who are rigorous and regular attendants, meet one another regularly and therefore are completely in accordance with the guidance of Her Majesty’s Government. Is it not a pity that some people do not like to come to Parliament? If they came a bit more, worked a bit harder and put their elbow to the grindstone, or wherever one puts one’s elbow—if they put their elbow to the wheel—they might not need to wear face coverings either, because they would meet Members of Parliament more regularly.
First, in Hitchin and Harpenden, we are fortunate to benefit from beautiful countryside, including parts of the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty. Will the Leader of the House confirm what mechanisms are in place to enable me to secure the extension of the area of outstanding natural beauty towards Hitchin?
Secondly, there are many good house builders in this country, but there are some poor ones. Will the Leader of the House consider providing time for a debate on how to deal with poor house builders—such as Crest Nicholson, which is badly mistreating leaseholders at Allwoods Place in Hitchin in my constituency—that mistreat leaseholders?
I am glad to say that legislation is coming forward that will deal with the issue of poor house builders and set up an ombudsman who will have the ability to ensure that house builders are held to account. People have the right to expect that a new build house is built to a proper standard. As constituency MPs, we have all dealt with house builders that have let constituents down and been relatively unaccountable and unhelpful in their approach to residents with genuine complaints.
As regards the natural beauty of my hon. Friend’s constituency, part of North East Somerset is in an area of outstanding natural beauty; I do not really mind about these bureaucratic definitions because the truth is that the whole of North East Somerset is stunningly beautiful. It is one of the most beautiful parts of not only our great country but anywhere in the world. Wera Hobhouse is sitting in her usual place, and I include Bath in that description—the whole of Bath and North East Somerset. We can view our areas as being of the greatest natural beauty without necessarily having a bureaucrat telling us so.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week, and particularly for the Backbench Business on Thursday when, as Members will have noted from the business statement, there will be a debate on Baby Loss Awareness Week. Of course, Baby Loss Awareness Week actually takes place during the conference recess, so we cannot have it in the week when it should be heard. With that in mind, if Members throughout the House intend to make an application for a debate on a specific date or commemorative event, will they please make their applications to the Backbench Business Committee as early as possible? We cannot always guarantee that debates will occur exactly when Members want, as we depend on the Executive to allow us the time and on the parliamentary calendar, but the sooner we know, the sooner we can put the wheels in motion to facilitate Members’ requests.
I have dozens, if not hundreds, of constituents who are refugees and asylum seekers in a state of limbo, if not purgatory, plaintively waiting in vain for the Home Office to determine their status. May we have a debate in Government time on the Home Office’s handling of such cases and how refugees and asylum seekers are left in this awful state, not knowing their future?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments about the business next week. He asked for that debate last week and I am glad we have been able to facilitate it. His point about early application is one well made, and I hope that Members were listening.
As regards a debate in Government time in relation to questions on asylum and Afghanistan, there are Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office questions on Tuesday
Parents who have prematurely born children who require time in neonatal intensive care can go through a whole range of different emotions, from worry to pride to guilt, and they require all different types of support, from practical to financial and emotional as well. Can we have a debate in Government time about what support the Government provide to parents with children in neonatal intensive care?
May I thank my hon. Friend for his public service as a Minister of the Crown, which he carried out with great distinction and for which his constituents and the country can be very grateful?
I am also grateful to my hon. Friend for coming straight to this House to raise an important issue for his own constituents and for others. I know that he has had personal experience of how difficult it can be for parents in this situation. It is important to make it clear what support is available and what can be done. I will make sure that his comments are passed on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, but I also suggest that a Westminster Hall debate would be a very good starting point on this crucial subject.
My young constituent Sara Walbyoff from Calidcot lives with a rare form of spina bifida and this week has been meeting with Olympians and Paralympians at Great Ormond Street Hospital to talk about her experience of living with the condition. Sara’s family supports the campaign of Shine, the spina bifida charity, to fortify flour products with folic acid, which the Government have been consulting on now for two years. So please can the Government announce that they will do it?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this important issue and I wish Sara well. The campaign is an important one. I will pass on the hon. Lady’s comments to the Health Secretary. The question of compulsory medication is always a difficult and sensitive one, so it is not an issue that is easy to answer straightforwardly.
Britain’s greatest king is spinning in his grave at the moment due to the appalling abuse of democracy when the unitary announcement came. It has been an absolute bombshell in Somerset, as my right hon. Friend knows. Paul Rowsell, the civil servant, has now agreed that we will get only about 80 councillors. Apparently, part of the reason, according to people, is that the leader of the council wishes to be paid the same as a Member of Parliament and he wants the councillors to be paid between £55,000 and £60,000 a year. Can we please have a debate in this place on local government? I know that there are changes in the Cabinet. It is a good time to do that and it is right that we should do so.
We do have regular debates on local authorities and matters relating to them. I am a great advocate of economy within the public service and of ensuring that the expenses paid to councillors are reasonable and proportionate. Essentially, it is a voluntary job where people should not be out of pocket, rather than a professional career where people should be getting the sort of salaries that they might get if they were employed by the state, rather than having put themselves forward.
The Leader of the House will be aware that our hospitality industry has suffered primarily as a result of the pandemic, so will he join me in congratulating Janet’s Authentic Northern Chinese Kitchen, based in Pontypridd market, on its recent success at the British Street Food Awards? Will he commit to a debate in Government time to support our fantastic hospitality industry throughout the United Kingdom?
I heartily congratulate Janet in Pontypridd market on winning the award. I might even volunteer to come and visit her. I recently had the great pleasure of having one of the vanilla slices made by Margaret in Stoke-on-Trent, who was also mentioned in this House. I may be able to go round the whole country visiting the sellers of delicious food. Absolutely, the hospitality industry has suffered. It is getting back on its feet. People are working stunningly hard, and it is really encouraging to hear of the entrepreneurial attitude being taken by the hon. Lady’s own constituents.
While trying to mask my disappointment at not being made Minister with responsibility for granting city status to Southend, but being put in charge of paperclips instead, may I ask my right hon. Friend to find time for a debate on discretionary increases in pensions for Ford employees pre-1997? These women and men gave a great deal of their time to the company and they deserve better treatment than they seem to be afforded at the moment.
I think the whole country shares my hon. Friend’s disappointment that he has not been put in charge of making Southend a city; his campaign for that is boundless in its energy.
Let me turn to my hon. Friend’s actual question. This is a difficult matter, because whether or not discretionary increases are applied to pre-1997 pensions is a matter for the scheme, the sponsoring employer and the scheme members, as they are not required by law and they potentially have a large impact on the financing of the scheme. It would not therefore be right for a Minister to intervene in the running of an individual pension scheme, as the Government cannot force pension scheme trustees or sponsoring companies to exercise their discretion in a particular way. Keeping pensions affordable is very important and increases do, as I say, have a long-term consequence and very high costs. It is therefore right that it is left to the sponsors to see what they can afford.
In a written parliamentary question to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on
I would be very concerned if anyone thought that it were the policy of the Government to ignore Members. We are held to account by Members and, in the normal course of events, Ministers do make themselves available for meetings when they are specifically requested by individual MPs or, indeed, often by individual groups of MPs. I will therefore pass on the request to the Secretary of State and see what can be done. If the worst comes to the worst, the hon. Lady can come to see me.
Members across the House will be familiar with road safety issues around school entrances, which cause considerable risk to children going to and from school. A recent incident in North East Lincolnshire has brought this subject to the headlines again. Could we have a debate in which we can explore whether councils have sufficient powers to deal with these road safety issues?
My hon. Friend, as always, raises an issue that is important not only in his constituency, but in many of our constituencies. Everybody wants to see improved road safety around schools. I have always thought that 20 mph limits that apply around schools at opening and closing times are much more effective for road safety than blanket 20 mph signs, which are not always taken as seriously by motorists as they ought to be. When such limits serve the specific purpose of applying near a school at specific times of days, I think they are much better respected.
I congratulate my constituency neighbour on his reappointment as Leader of the House; I would not want to miss our robust exchanges on a Thursday morning.
When I asked the Prime Minister yesterday whether he believed that burning fossil fuels would not be a source of energy in the future, he said yes. However, he then went on to talk only about coal. The Leader of the House will know that oil and natural gas need to be phased out, but there is no plan from the Government on the detail of how this will be done. For example, when will the national grid cease to use natural gas? Can we have a debate on this vital subject so that Parliament can fully scrutinise the Government’s plans? The climate emergency is not going to wait. Time is running out.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind words. I, too, enjoy our exchanges very much.
Since 1990, we have driven down emissions by 44%—the fastest reduction in a G7 country—and grown the economy by 78%. This is always going to be the key: we have to ensure that there is economic growth, but that it is cleaner growth. Therefore, things have to be done in a phased and affordable way. As the hon. Lady will know, gas prices have been going up, which is a burden on households and hard-pressed constituents in all of our constituencies. It is therefore important to get a balance. Since 1990, we have got the balance about right and we still have the economic growth, and it is that economic growth that will allow us to pay to green the economy.
The fire at the Bilsdale mast has left thousands people across Harrogate, and more broadly across North Yorkshire and beyond, without a TV and radio signal for some weeks now. The industry is working to recover services and it has made progress this week. My right hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale, who is no longer in post, has been very helpful with this matter. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport updates the House on progress, perhaps via a written ministerial statement? The people who are most seriously affected by the lack of TV and radio are the more vulnerable and elderly, so I want services to be restored as quickly as possible.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it will be the elderly who are less likely to have satellite channels and other means of accessing television entertainment, and they will therefore be the ones who most miss having the ordinary television signal that is not coming because of the damage done to the transmitter. I am grateful for his kind comments about our right hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale, who is a very distinguished Member of this House and a very effective individual, and I will pass on his concerns to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
I am looking for some advice from the Leader of the House. A number of Members have been diligently submitting questions for departmental answer in oral questions sessions, only to find that as a result of yesterday’s reshuffle a number of questions have now been deemed out of scope. What advice can he give to Members who have so rightly put questions in, only to suddenly find that it is now not possible to ask them?
Members have a right to hold the Government to account and to ask written questions and oral questions. I would suggest that hon. Members who find that this is happening resubmit the questions. The Table Office is always extremely helpful in ensuring that questions go to the right Department. But Departments, as a rule, should not simply say that a question is out of scope; they should pass it on to the Department that has the responsibility for answering it. If there are specific problems with this, I would be grateful if they were taken up directly with my office and with the Procedure Committee.
My constituent’s son Dylan has an incurable and progressive disease that causes his blood to attack his kidneys. To counter this, every week Dylan travels with his mum Rachel to London for a particular type of dialysis treatment called Liposorber. Yet Dylan’s mother has told me that complications relating to medical imports from Germany have meant that the hospital can no longer import the amount of fluid that is needed to conduct Liposorber. The issue can be resolved if the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency nominates a UK company to handle Liposorber so that it does not need to be imported from Germany, yet the agency has yet to respond to my office on whether it will look at this case and nominate a UK-based company. Will the Leader of the House therefore raise this issue with Health Ministers so that Dylan can continue to have access to this life-saving treatment?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this question. I am very sorry to hear about Dylan and his incurable condition, and I feel very greatly for him and his family. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue of this kind on the Floor of this House, as that that sometimes helps to force bureaucracies to work faster than they otherwise might be willing to do. I will therefore take this up with the relevant Ministers immediately after this session of business questions.
Over the summer I conducted a poll of my constituents about crime and antisocial behaviour, and the number of responses I received to that survey was the largest I have ever had in 16 years as an MP. Ninety-five per cent. of people who responded said they had been subject to antisocial behaviour, and 90% said things had got worse over the past few years. This is affecting so many people. Might the Leader of the House arrange for the House to have a debate to look at issues around policing, treatment services for people with drug and alcohol problems, and the siting of supported housing in communities, because all these factors play a part in why we have seen this spike in antisocial behaviour?
The Government are doing a great deal to tackle crime. The right hon. Lady will be aware that we are recruiting 20,000 additional police officers, and 9,800 additional officers have been recruited as of June 2021. A lot is being done to tackle violent crime as well: £105.5 million has been spent to develop 18 violence reduction units and £136.5 million to support and enhance police response. It is a question of dealing with this with the extra police resources. I have noted in my own constituency that when antisocial behaviour arises, if there is a targeted police response it is very effective in dealing with it. So I would urge her, in the first instance, to speak to her local chief constable to see what can be done to focus the police resources in the right way, because certainly Avon and Somerset has been very successful at dealing with these problems at an early stage.
It was a pleasure at the beginning of this month to welcome my right hon. Friend and take him on a tour of Stoke-on-Trent’s rich history and heritage, from the pits of Chatterley Whitfield to the pots of Middleport Pottery, where we enjoyed learning what a saggar maker’s bottom knocker does. But Stoke-on-Trent’s history does not end there. Yesterday was Battle of Britain Day, which is important to the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, because we remember the man who invented the Spitfire, Reginald J. Mitchell, a Butt Lane lad. Yesterday, Stoke-on-Trent City Council unveiled a restored Spitfire in the new designer glass gallery of the Potteries Museum, which was opened by veteran Norman Lewis, who is 102 years old. Will my right hon. Friend use this opportunity to talk about how fantastic the history of Stoke-on-Trent is from his personal experience? Can we make time to have an opportunity to celebrate the history and heritage of our entire United Kingdom?
I had an absolutely fantastic visit to Stoke-on-Trent, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right: we were shown a saggar maker’s bottom knocker’s work, which is essential to the manufacture of pottery. It was very impressive to see that history. I also agree that the development of the Spitfire is one of the most crucial events in our modern history, ensuring that the battle of Britain went the right way. Celebrating the glories of our nation is something that I think we can try to shoehorn into every comment we ever make in this House. I will not promise him a specific debate, but an Adjournment debate on the virtues of Stoke-on-Trent would be time very well spent.
We have had the priority lane, which is a list of companies bidding for billions of pounds-worth of covid contracts. We know not how they get on that list, although being a Tory donor or a friend of a Minister seems to assist. I have raised previously with the Leader of the House the matter of the Health Minister, Lord Bethell, who had 27 meetings in one week with companies wanting to bid for more than a billion pounds-worth of contracts, but sadly his office failed to record those meetings in his diary for that week. He seems a very unlucky chap, because he has conducted a negotiation for an £87 million contract over his personal mobile phone. When asked to produce it, he said he had lost it, then he said it was broken, and now he has said he has given it to one of his family members. This behaviour by Ministers is a disgrace, so can we have a statement in the House on the ministerial code as we go through this reshuffle, so that we can ask questions from the Opposition Benches of the Government and ensure that people behave better in future and abide by that code?
It is a particularly silly line of questioning. In the midst of a pandemic, it was fundamental that the Government acted with speed. Personal protective equipment was needed, vaccines were needed and we thought ventilators were needed. The hon. Gentleman would have sat on his hands and thought that we must go through some bureaucratic procedure and tick some boxes. Perhaps we should have gone off to the European Union and asked for its permission. This is typical of the socialist. The socialist always puts the process over the result. What my noble Friend Lord Bethell did was ensure results and save lives. I think these cheap accusations degrade Parliament.
This House has not yet been given the opportunity to debate the UK Government’s disability strategy. I have been talking to disability groups, and they have said the strategy is underwhelming and falls well short of what was expected. Given that the UK Government think it a revolutionary strategy, can we have a debate in Government time to put forward the views of people with disabilities?
The disability strategy was published in July, as the Government had promised to do. It is very important in showing how seriously the Government take matters of disability and how they are being considered across all that the Government do. Obviously the Backbench Business Committee will have time available, and I think if the hon. Lady wishes to have a specific debate on the strategy, that would be a very good place to go, but the Government are very proud of the disability strategy and the continuing work we are doing to help disabled people.
Bearing in mind the shortage of hauliers—a 30% shortfall in Northern Ireland—will the Leader of the House allocate time for a debate on a special method to accelerate massively the turnaround on training and testing applications for new heavy goods vehicle drivers, and on the Chancellor offering incentives to attract more drivers for the long haul?
The hon. Gentleman is saying what the Government are doing. A number of steps have been taken to speed up tests and to increase by 50% the amount of testing that there was pre-covid. Car drivers will no longer need to take another test to tow a trailer or caravan—those of us who passed our test before 1997 can tow a caravan but those who did afterwards had to take a special test; that is going. Tests will be made shorter by removing the reversing exercise element and, for vehicles with trailers, the uncoupling and recoupling exercise can be tested separately by a third party. We will also make it quicker to get a licence to drive an articulated vehicle—without first having to get a licence for a smaller vehicle—making about 20,000 HGV driving tests available every year. The Government are well aware of the problem and steps are being taken.
Our planet is in crisis, COP26 commences in just 46 days, and yet the Climate Change Committee has highlighted how far we are from not just our sixth but our fifth carbon budget. I have raised many times in the House the opportunity that BioYorkshire will bring to cut our carbon emissions as well as create 4,000 jobs, upskill 25,000 people and create new businesses. The Government have committed to that but have not provided funding. Can we have a debate about BioYorkshire and the opportunity it provides not only for our planet but to produce £5 billion in revenue for the Government?
I point out what I said earlier: we have been able to get the economy to grow and emissions down. That is at the heart of what is being done. COP26 is a matter of building out from the G7 presidency, using international moments to encourage other countries to join in the efforts that we have been making. The Government are doing well in this regard, and COP26 will be an opportunity to encourage others in the same direction. I am encouraged that the hon. Lady is looking for developments and forms of investment, because that is the way in which we manage the balancing act of cutting emissions and growing the economy.
My constituents living in Austen Apartments face bills for tens of thousands of pounds to remove dangerous cladding and pay for a waking watch. The building is less than 18 metres high, so they do not qualify for the building safety fund, and we still do not know the details of the loan scheme. Will it apply to all buildings of less than 18 metres? Will it cover the waking watch? Will it cover remedial work beyond cladding? My constituents are unsurprisingly anxious. Please can we urgently have a statement from the new Housing Secretary setting out exactly what he will do to fix this?
I reiterate what the Government are doing. For lower-risk buildings that are up to 59 feet high, we are bringing in a new finance scheme to pay for remediation with a cap of £50 on monthly payments. That is the policy, and a scheme will be introduced to ensure that the policy is operational. On higher buildings, £5.1 billion has already been spent to fund the cost of remediating unsafe cladding for leaseholders, so the taxpayer’s contribution has already been significant. I also remind the hon. Lady of what the Prime Minister said yesterday: not all cladding is dangerous. It is therefore important that we focus on what is dangerous rather than all cladding.
The post office in Treharris in my constituency has been closed for 2.5 years, depriving the local community of a much-needed service. There is interest from a number of people who would like to take over the business, but I understand that all applications are currently on hold and there is no idea when they will be looked at. Can we have a debate or a statement from the Government on what the Post Office will do to support our communities as they adjust to a post-covid world?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue, because I was unaware that post office reopenings were on hold. The post office network is recognised to be extremely important, and it is encouraging to report that 99% of the UK population are within three miles of their nearest post office branch. At the 2020 spending review, the Government announced that they would commit £227 million of taxpayers’ money to the Post Office in 2021-22. There is that Government commitment, but, if the Post Office is not making decisions, I will take up his point with it after this session.
Two young children in Rutherglen in my constituency were hospitalised recently after finding and eating a packet of sweets laced with strong psychoactive cannabis. The sweets had been packaged to look like the popular American kids’ sweets Nerds. Will the Leader of the House join me in condemning this, and will he schedule a debate in Government time on the dangers of these drug-laced sweets being packaged misleadingly and made attractive to children?
The hon. Lady brings to the attention of the House something of great importance. It is really outrageous behaviour by drug people, who need to have the full force of the law bear down upon them. To try to trick children into eating cannabis sweets seems to me despicable, and I am glad the hon. Lady has brought it to wider attention. I would encourage the police to act forcefully with anybody who is behaving in this way.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Following on from my question to the Leader of the House, I seek your guidance on, and wonder if you have been made aware of, changes to ministerial responsibilities. This morning, the amazing team at the Table Office informed me that the Cabinet Office has shifted questions related to the Union, elections and levelling up to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which significantly impacts a number of Members in trying to submit questions by the deadline. The shift was blamed on the reshuffle, but I am at a loss to understand why the Cabinet Office is ill prepared to deal with questions on the Elections Bill, which started in July, but was fine with responding to questions about business. May I seek your guidance on how I can ask for a Minister to come to the House to clarify the Cabinet Office’s ministerial responsibilities?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. It is up to the Government rather than the Chair to determine ministerial responsibilities, thank goodness. However, it is extremely important that the House is made aware of those responsibilities in a timely manner, not least so that right hon. and hon. Members may table questions to the appropriate Departments. Ministers will have heard what I have said, and I hope they will very soon set out the new departmental responsibilities following the ongoing reshuffle. In any event, given that Members have had to table questions for the Cabinet Office by the deadline of 12.30 pm today with a lack of clarity about new responsibilities, I hope that the Government will do all they can to answer those questions next week wherever possible, rather than just seek to transfer them.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance on a very serious matter. On Tuesday, the Health Secretary, in a response to my question about the cancellation of the vaccine contract with Valneva in my constituency, stated:
“There are commercial reasons why we have cancelled the contract, but I can tell her that it was also clear to us that the vaccine in question that the company was developing would not get approval by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency here in the UK”.—[Official Report,
However, yesterday, Adam Finn, chief investigator of Valneva’s phase 3 trial, said:
“The Valneva COVID19 vaccine research programme towards MHRA authorisation is on track and moving forwards. The key results from phase 3 expected early Q4 and no one…has yet seen them. Study subjects and investigators should be reassured.”
Today, Clive Dix, the former chair of the UK Government’s vaccine taskforce has said:
“Since when did a politician assume the role of the independent regulator”—
I could not agree more—
“The phase 3 data is not yet available and the MHRA haven’t carried out their assessment. In my opinion Sajid Javid should resign for such a statement.”
Given this revelation, what can I do to get the Health Secretary to set the record straight and retract his misleading comments, which are causing serious confusion and worry to those taking part in the trial, as well as huge commercial damage to Valneva and, as others have said, undermining the independence of the regulator? I seek your guidance.
I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order and for giving me notice in advance of what she was going to raise in it, which is clearly a very serious matter for a lot of people involved. I also know that she has given notice of the point of order to the Secretary of State for Health. The contents of an answer to questions are not, as she knows, a matter for the Chair, but she has put her points on the record. I note that the Government’s own ministerial code requires Ministers to correct any inadvertent errors at the earliest opportunity, and I hope that that will be followed. We will leave it there for now.