All 55 Parliamentary debates on 2nd Dec 2020

Wed 2nd Dec 2020
Wed 2nd Dec 2020
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Commons Chamber

1st reading & 1st reading & 1st reading & 1st reading: House of Commons
Wed 2nd Dec 2020
Wed 2nd Dec 2020
Wed 2nd Dec 2020
Prisons (Substance Testing) Bill
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage 2 December 2020 & Committee Debate 2 December 2020: House of Commons
Wed 2nd Dec 2020
Wed 2nd Dec 2020
United Kingdom Internal Market Bill
Lords Chamber

3rd reading (Hansard) & 3rd reading & 3rd reading (Hansard) & 3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords

House of Commons

Wednesday 2nd December 2020

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Wednesday 2 December 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

Wednesday 2nd December 2020

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Prayers mark the daily opening of Parliament. The occassion is used by MPs to reserve seats in the Commons Chamber with 'prayer cards'. Prayers are not televised on the official feed.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. I remind colleagues that a deferred Division will take place today. Members should be aware that the timings have reverted to between 11.30 am and 2 pm, though they continue to take place in the Members’ Library. Members will cast their votes by placing the completed Division slip in one of the ballot boxes provided. If a Member has a proxy vote in operation, they must not vote in person in the deferred Division; their nominated proxy should vote on their behalf. I also remind colleagues of the importance of social distancing during the deferred Division and ask them to pick up a Division slip from the Vote Office and fill it in before they reach the Library if possible. The result will be announced in the Chamber at a convenient moment after the Division is over.

Oral Answers to Questions

Wednesday 2nd December 2020

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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The Secretary of State was asked—
Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna (Belfast South) (SDLP)
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What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits of devolving spending in Northern Ireland of (a) structural and (b) investment funding after the end of the transition period to the Northern Ireland Executive.

Brandon Lewis Portrait The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Brandon Lewis)
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The UK shared prosperity fund will help to level up and create opportunities for people and places across the United Kingdom. The Government will co-ordinate funding on a UK-wide basis, working with the devolved Administrations and local communities to ensure that it is used most effectively. The Northern Ireland Executive and the other devolved Administrations will be represented in the fund’s governance structures to help target this funding to the people and places that are most in need.

Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna [V]
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The spending of the shared prosperity fund, according to clauses in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, would override devolution, with no duty to consult on spend in devolved areas. We know that the internal market Bill intends to breach international law, and yesterday it was indicated that a further breach of international law was likely to come in the taxation Bill. Far from being limited and specific, it seems that disregard for the Good Friday agreement is unlimited while people desperately want certainty and a deal. Can the Secretary of State give us any assurances that next week’s Bill will not further undermine the Northern Ireland protocol and the chances of a deal and the certainty and the stability that people so desperately want?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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If the hon. Lady looks at the clauses in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, she will see that they are about protecting and delivering on the Good Friday agreement to ensure that there are no borders. To deliver that, it is important that we have no border not just north to south, but east to west as well. On the UK shared prosperity fund, if she looks at my answer to the substantive question, she will see that I was very clear that the devolved authorities would be part of that, but of course this is money over and above; this is extra money that we will be looking to spend—in the same way that the EU has always been able to spend— once we have left the EU to ensure that those communities have the support that we have said they would have.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare (North Dorset) (Con) [V]
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Does my right hon. Friend agree that any spending requirements and demands made by and within Northern Ireland would be enhanced and likely to receive a more welcome ear in the Treasury and elsewhere were the Executive to crack ahead and create the independent fiscal council, which would act as a very convincing mouthpiece for those pleas?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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My hon. Friend makes a hugely important and very accurate point. I think we sometimes forget this but the fiscal council was actually first agreed back in the “Fresh Start” agreement of 2015 and recommitted to in the “New Decade, New Approach” deal of January this year. I have been talking to the Executive about this. I had hoped to see it up and running by the autumn. I think it is important that the Executive and the Department of Finance get on with this and deliver on it. It will help them for budgeting purposes and ensure that, in the same way that we have the Office for Budget responsibility and the Irish Government have an independent fiscal council, people can be clear about the transparency and understanding of the money being spent in Northern Ireland. I think it would be the right thing to do, and I am looking forward to seeing the Executive deliver it as quickly as possible.

John McNally Portrait John Mc Nally (Falkirk) (SNP)
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What assessment he has made of the effect on businesses in Northern Ireland of negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

Brandon Lewis Portrait The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Brandon Lewis)
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We want a relationship with the European Union that is based on friendly co-operation between sovereign equals and centred on free trade. We will have a relationship with our European friends—one that is inspired by our shared history and values. The whole of the United Kingdom, including, of course, Northern Ireland, stands to benefit from such a trading relationship with the European Union. In fact, Northern Ireland businesses have a huge potential under the Northern Ireland protocol, and of course Northern Ireland will continue to enjoy tariff-free access to the EU market, alongside unfettered access to the whole of the UK.

John McNally Portrait John Mc Nally [V]
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I hope you are well, Mr Speaker.

Scotland is the largest exporter of seed potatoes in the single market. It is a product on which a great many Northern Irish potato farmers rely. This has been placed under threat by the lack of equivalence between the UK and the EU after the transition period. When will the Minister confirm a date on our attaining equivalence on seed products? If he cannot give us a date, is that not more evidence that the Government do not care about Scotland’s farming communities?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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Actually, it is quite the contrary.  The hon. Gentleman can look at the delivery of money last week, for farmers particularly. That is evidence of the Government’s determination to deliver on our commitment to, and our understanding of the importance of, the agriculture and farming community across the United Kingdom, with £315 million going to Northern Ireland farmers. Through the Joint Committee, we are working with the European Union on some of these final issues to ensure that we do have that free flow. We have been saying to our partners and colleagues in the EU that they need to play their part in being pragmatic about ensuring that we continue to see that sensible free flow of trade across the United Kingdom, as a sovereign nation.

Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
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You look well, Mr Speaker.

The Secretary of State will recognise the importance to Northern Ireland businesses of getting agreement on the classification of qualifying goods and qualifying businesses as they relate to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland within the UK single market. What progress has been made on securing such agreement and on defining at-risk goods, and what measures will the Government bring forward in legislation to ensure that Northern Ireland businesses really do have unfettered access to the UK internal market?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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I should put it on record that I also think you look well, Mr Speaker.

On an equally serious note, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, this Government are committed to ensuring that Northern Ireland businesses have unfettered access to the rest of the United Kingdom. That is why we have taken the steps that we have taken in legislating for the first phase of unfettered access; that is what those clauses in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill are for. We are building on and learning from the discussions that we have had with businesses and the Northern Ireland Executive. We are pushing hard to secure agreement with the EU on a number of outstanding issues that relate to the protocol, including that of at-risk goods. We accept that tariffs should be paid on goods moving from Great Britain into the EU, but there should not be any tariffs on internal UK movements that begin in Great Britain and end in Northern Ireland; they are internal movements. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that I am not able to comment on the progress of the negotiations, although we are keen to move through them as quickly as possible. I reassure him that we are focused on those issues and are determined to deliver in full on our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland.

Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson
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I thank the Secretary of State for that helpful response. I am sure that he will agree that those who talk loudly about the Good Friday agreement are the people who are threatening the economic prosperity of Northern Ireland by insisting on measures that are completely unnecessary in terms of protecting the agreement. Will he therefore indicate what progress has been made in securing a commitment from the EU to a significant grace period to allow Northern Ireland businesses sufficient time to adjust to the new arrangements that will be introduced when the transition period ends on 31 December?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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The right hon. Gentleman identifies, quite rightly, the importance of ensuring that there is no border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We have accepted the sanitary and phytosanitary checks. We are working with the EU, and both the UK and EU have committed to that intensified process, as colleagues will have seen, and to resolving all outstanding issues with the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, including securing the flexibilities that we need for trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

As I said, the discussions are ongoing. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will continue to understand that I am limited in what I can say as I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of those discussions, but we continue to work closely with the Northern Ireland Executive around the practical implications and operational delivery. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been working with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland, and with industry, traders, representative bodies and local authorities to ensure that they are engaged, supported and ready for trading from January 2021. I encourage any business that has not already done so to sign up free with the Trader Support Service.

Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP) [V]
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The Secretary of State will know of the anger among Northern Irish businesspeople over the accusation by the ironically titled Minister for Efficiency and Transformation that they have their

“head stuck in the sand”

on Brexit. Only 30 days from the hard Brexit cliff edge, does the Secretary of State appreciate that most people will have far more sympathy with Northern Irish businessman, Stephen Kelly, who suggests that it is the Government who have their “head stuck somewhere else”? Is it not the case that Northern Ireland businesses have simply been an afterthought in his Government’s chaotic hard Brexit?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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If only the hon. Lady was talking to Northern Ireland businesses directly, as my team and I do regularly, most weeks. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), also engages with businesses in Northern Ireland, as we have been doing consistently throughout this process—including Stephen Kelly, who I do know. It is the information from businesses that fed into the Command Paper that we issued earlier in the year, as well as the guidance that we issued and the work that we are doing to ensure not just that we have unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to mainland Great Britain—I hope that she and other colleagues will support us in ensuring that it is in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill to deliver unfettered access, which she claims in her question to support—but also that we get a good free flow of access to ensure that the whole UK internal market can work together, including Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood (Foyle) (SDLP) [V]
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Given the fact that the Secretary of State has already admitted that the clauses removed by the Lords from the UK Internal Market Bill will break international law, and that the Irish Government, the new US President-elect and the people of Northern Ireland believe that those clauses breach the Northern Ireland protocol, will he commit today to not reinstating them in the Bill next week?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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Actually, what those clauses have been about is ensuring that we have unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to Great Britain. That is something inherent in the protocol. It plays a part in delivering on one of the key sentences in the first few paragraphs in the Northern Ireland protocol that says we will ensure that we do not disrupt the everyday lives of people in their communities. I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would support us in ensuring the Northern Ireland businesses can trade in mainland Great Britain as part of the United Kingdom. That is what those clauses are about, as an insurance policy, but obviously our main focus and aim is to secure the right agreement for a wider free trade agreement with the EU, and, indeed, to work with the specialist Joint Committee.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
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What steps his Department is taking to help ensure that businesses in Northern Ireland are prepared for the end of the transition period.

Brandon Lewis Portrait The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Brandon Lewis)
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We have published guidance throughout the year and are providing extensive support to Northern Ireland businesses. For instance, as I mentioned, we have the Trader Support Service, which is backed by £200 million of funding from the UK Government, and has been well received—it has now had over 16,000 registrations. As we approach the end of the year, we will continue to provide detailed sectoral guidance and information on Government support, and we will step that up as we approach the conclusion of the negotiations to ensure that clear, accessible messages and guidance are provided as soon as possible.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry [V]
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With barely 700 hours to go until the end of the transition period, it is absurd that so many issues still need to be clarified. Does the Secretary of State recognise that Northern Ireland businesses require a clear legal framework in which to operate, and as such, any changes or mitigations have to be agreed with the EU under the protocol, including potentially any grace period, and that doing the opposite places Northern Ireland businesses in a very uncertain legal position going forward and will create long-term problems for them arising from such unilateral action by the Government?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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There is a range of things that businesses can be doing and should be doing now, regardless of what the outcome may be, such as signing up to the Trader Support Service. We are intensifying, and have intensified, our work with the specialist Joint Committee. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in supporting the clauses in the UK Internal Market Bill that will give businesses certainty by delivering unfettered access to the whole of the UK.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I have been contacted by a large number of my constituents who are involved in the agrifood sector and other businesses. With special reference to the packaging of products and the new labelling structure, I am ever mindful of the approach of 31 December, which has a cost factor for the labels as well. What information has been released for manufacturing companies to have certainty over their packaging?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that underlines why we are working with him to provide as much certainty as possible. On this particular matter, I am pleased to be able to tell him that we have recently updated our guidance on labelling changes that are required at the end of the transition period. That guidance is now available on gov.uk, and I will make sure that my office sends him the link so that he can send it on to any of those businesses that are inquiring already.

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (Con)
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What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on improving transport connections within the UK.

Jane Stevenson Portrait Jane Stevenson (Wolverhampton North East) (Con)
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What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on improving transport connections within the UK.

Robin Walker Portrait The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr Robin Walker)
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The Secretary of State and I have regular conversations with ministerial colleagues regarding transport connections, which are particularly important for Northern Ireland, given its unique geography. The recently announced independent Union connectivity review will consider how connectivity across the UK can support economic growth. Both the Secretary of State and I have met Sir Peter Hendy and look forward to hearing his recommendations in the summer.

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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Does the Minister agree that good transport links between all parts of the United Kingdom are vital, and it is therefore extremely disappointing that the Scottish Government are refusing to engage with the Union connectivity review, thereby depriving my constituents of good transport links in all parts of Scotland and better links with other parts of the United Kingdom?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. Every part of the United Kingdom can benefit from investment in our shared infrastructure and connectivity. Unwillingness to engage with the review risks Scotland missing out, and I would certainly urge the Scottish Government to rethink. They should follow the example of the Minister for Infrastructure in the Northern Ireland Executive, who has been engaging constructively with the review.

Jane Stevenson Portrait Jane Stevenson
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My father left Northern Ireland in the 1950s and settled in Wolverhampton, which has a large Northern Irish community. It is the same for many communities across Great Britain, including in Scotland. Does the Minister agree that excellent transport links to Northern Ireland are absolutely crucial, and will he make that clear to Sir Peter Hendy as part of the Union connectivity review?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I recognise, having many Irish and Northern Irish constituents myself, that it is vital that there are excellent transport links across the Irish Sea for trade, for tourism, for the Union and to bring families together. The review will make recommendations on how best to improve connectivity across the UK, including across the Irish Sea, and in the long term certainly we will be making that case to the review.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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The main threat to our connectivity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom over the winter is the unprofitability of airlines due to the covid restrictions. In the medium term, new routes need to be opened to business centres in Europe. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that he will discuss with the Treasury, first, the reduction or suspension of air passenger duty for a limited period of time and, secondly, what help can be given to opening new routes between Northern Ireland and business centres in Europe?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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The Secretary of State and I work closely with colleagues across Government and in the Executive to support the Northern Ireland economy and make the case on air connectivity. There have been discussions with the Department for Transport and, indeed, the Treasury on those matters. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Treasury is reviewing the air passenger duty issue.

Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire) (Con)
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What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on co-ordinating a UK-wide response to the covid-19 outbreak.

Robin Walker Portrait The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr Robin Walker)
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The Government and the devolved Administrations continue to work closely together to ensure a co-ordinated approach across the United Kingdom. As set out in our joint statement of 25 September, the UK Government and the devolved Administrations hold a

“shared commitment to suppressing the virus to the lowest possible level and keeping it there”.

Today’s news about a vaccine will be welcomed across every part of the United Kingdom. I was pleased we could agree a united approach to Christmas planning last week. Although each devolved Administration control their public health policy, we have been co-ordinating positively on our response to covid throughout the year.

Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
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Coronavirus knows no boundaries, and it is absolutely vital that the UK Government, the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly work together to deal with it. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely crucial that we have effective co-operation—north-south and east-west—and a co-ordinated approach to dealing with this pandemic?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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I strongly endorse the words of my hon. Friend. This Government are determined to work together with the Northern Irish Executive and the Irish Government to ensure that measures safeguard the health and wellbeing of UK and Irish citizens. There is an existing memorandum of understanding between the chief medical officers for Northern Ireland and for Ireland, which formalises co-ordination and co-operation between the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive in relation to covid-19. The Secretary of State continues to hold regular discussions with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as well as the Irish Government, to co-operate on covid issues.

Paul Girvan Portrait Paul Girvan (South Antrim) (DUP) [V]
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With the positive news that the UK will commence covid-19 vaccinations from 14 December, will the Secretary of State commit that if logistical support from Her Majesty’s armed forces is required in Northern Ireland, it will be provided speedily and with the same resources as the rest of our nation?

I would just like to take a little bit of a liberty, Mr Speaker, and take this opportunity to express my deep disappointment that once again the six-time world superbike champion and South Antrim native Jonathan Rea MBE was overlooked for the shortlist of the BBC’s sports personality of the year. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree with me on that.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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The Minister might, as well.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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I fear to tread in such a contentious area. The hon. Gentleman is right that the news on a vaccine is good news for the whole United Kingdom. We want to ensure that it is rolled out effectively across the whole United Kingdom, and we shall certainly make representations to ensure that that includes Northern Ireland.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)
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What assessment he has made of progress towards integrated education in Northern Ireland.

Robin Walker Portrait The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr Robin Walker)
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The Government continue to be committed to integrated education in Northern Ireland, which is why we provided £500 million of funding to the Northern Ireland Executive for the development of integrated and shared schools as part of the “Fresh Start” agreement. The Executive have confirmed that they have so far spent £31 million to the end of 2019-20, and the full £500 million of “Fresh Start” capital has been committed to the end of 2025-26. We want to see investment delivered quickly in Northern Ireland, and the establishment of an independent fiscal council would support the Assembly to hold the Executive to account on delivery, as well as on other fiscal and budgetary matters.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
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Who we learn with and live alongside could scarcely be more fundamental to how we see the world. Integrated education is one of the major unfulfilled legacies of the Good Friday agreement. Is it not time to seize the opportunity presented by the “New Decade, New Approach” deal and together drive real progress on shared education that will build a fairer society?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is yes.

Karin Smyth Portrait Karin Smyth (Bristol South) (Lab)
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Last March, I was pleased to host the Integrated Education Fund here in Westminster. We had a very positive cross-party discussion with the fund about how we all support our shared desire to ensure that every child in Northern Ireland gets a good education in a good school. Despite the pandemic, good progress is being made on the ground with the parties to support children. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister commit to doing all they can to support them in delivering this long overdue legacy work?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of this issue. As she knows, under the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement, the Executive agreed to establish a programme for government, including an

“Enhanced strategic focus and supporting actions on educating our children and young people together in the classroom, in order to build a shared and integrated society.”

I have met some of the Northern Irish parties to discuss progress on delivering shared and integrated education, and I share their ambition to speed up delivery. I believe that the establishment of an independent fiscal council would help to accelerate that delivery.

Virginia Crosbie Portrait Virginia Crosbie (Ynys Môn) (Con)
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What steps his Department is taking to help ensure that Northern Ireland businesses have unfettered access to trade with the rest of the UK after the transition period.

Robin Walker Portrait The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr Robin Walker)
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Our commitment to unfettered access for Northern Ireland goods to the rest of the UK, as outlined in NDNA and the 2019 manifesto, remains unequivocal. We have brought forward draft regulations that establish the definition of qualifying Northern Ireland goods, ensuring no changes in how Northern Ireland businesses move goods directly to the rest of the UK from 1 January 2021. The UKIM Bill will ensure that qualifying Northern Ireland goods will continue to be placed on the whole UK market, even where the protocol applies different rules in Northern Ireland. Our priority for a longer-term qualifying goods regime is to confer the benefits of unfettered access specifically on Northern Ireland businesses. That is being developed in close co-operation with Northern Ireland businesses and the Executive and will come into force in 2021.

Virginia Crosbie Portrait Virginia Crosbie
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More than 100,000 freight units destined to and from Northern Ireland transit through Holyhead port each year. Unfettered access is key to not only the Northern Ireland economy but the Anglesey and Welsh economy. Can the Minister confirm that at no stage will this Government allow a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and that that is just as important as avoiding a tariffs and customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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My hon. Friend is right, and I know that her constituency of Ynys Môn plays a vital part in the links between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The protocol was designed to address a particular set of problems in a way that upholds the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It is a practical solution to avoid a hard border with Ireland, while ensuring that the UK, including Northern Ireland, leaves the EU as a whole. The protocol is also clear that the UK must function as a single customs territory in practice, and that means fulfilling our commitment to delivering unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the rest of the Great Britain market as well.

Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab)
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What steps he is taking to help ensure the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement.

Brandon Lewis Portrait The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Brandon Lewis)
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The Government remain steadfast in our commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and we will continue to support the institutions in delivering peace and prosperity for the people of Northern Ireland. A key institution created as a result of the agreement is the Northern Ireland Assembly, which was restored this year following the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement in January. The best way forward for Northern Ireland lies in strong devolved institutions that support the Executive and Assembly to deliver on the issues that matter to the people of Northern Ireland.

Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern
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The Good Friday agreement comes of age today, as it became effective 21 years ago. It provided a platform for the development of excellent economic and social relationships between Northern Ireland and Merseyside. What conversations has the Secretary of State had to ensure that nothing that happens in the next month puts that progress at risk?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. That is exactly what the clauses in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill are about—ensuring that businesses in Northern Ireland continue to trade as part of the United Kingdom with unfettered access, which is of benefit to companies in Liverpool, so I hope she will support the Bill when it comes back to the House.

Louise Haigh Portrait Louise Haigh (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab)
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Last week alone, three journalists were issued with violent threats by loyalist paramilitaries. The BBC has seen evidence that loyalist paramilitary groups have over 12,500 members, and there are more dissident groups than during the troubles. Does the Secretary of State agree that a toxic combination of deprivation and a failure to deal with the legacy of the past has created a fertile breeding ground for paramilitary groups?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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I am sure the hon. Lady would agree with me that obviously there is no place for violence or threats of any description to anybody in Northern Ireland, including media and political players in Northern Ireland. It is completely unacceptable. There is no excuse for it, and actually arguing that it is in any way acceptable because of any other particular issue is, I think, a fallacy and the wrong position to take. I have to say that we are making huge investments. There has obviously been about £20 billion for the Northern Ireland Executive this year, between the block grant and the extra support that the UK Government have put in, on top of having what are financially the biggest city and growth deals in the United Kingdom to ensure that we are levelling up. That is something we are determined to do for the people of Northern Ireland, as we are for the rest of the United Kingdom.

Louise Haigh Portrait Louise Haigh
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On Monday, the Secretary of State told the House that he had ceased engaging on legacy issues at the request of victims groups, but he knows that the largest cross-community victims group in Northern Ireland, the WAVE Trauma Centre, has expressed serious concerns at his lack of engagement and, indeed, has described him as “dangerously deluded”. Can he confirm to the House exactly when he will meet those at the WAVE Trauma Centre and when he will present an update on legacy proposals to this House?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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I am a little bit surprised by what the hon. Lady just outlined, as it was actually the WAVE group that, back in March, asked us to pause on engagement as it and its members were focused on covid, which I think was a reasonable position. I think it was right, as people were focused on covid. However, as I have said a few times to the hon. Lady and to this House, I think that action on legacy, which is such a sensitive and important issue, to make sure we can help Northern Ireland move forward and put the troubles in the past is an important thing to do. It is also important to get that information for the victims and the families of victims who have been looking for that information now for far too long. We are determined to do that by engaging with the people of Northern Ireland, as well as our partners in the Irish Government and the United States and the political parties in Northern Ireland, and when we have done that, I will come back to this House. However, this has to be something that is done with the support of and engagement with the people of Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister was asked—
Chris Green Portrait Chris Green (Bolton West) (Con)
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If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 2 December.

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister (Boris Johnson)
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Today, I am proudly wearing purple to celebrate the International Day for Disabled People, which is of course tomorrow. Next year, we will publish our national strategy for disabled people, which will be the most ambitious intervention in this area for a generation, putting fairness at the heart of the Government’s work and levelling up so that everybody has the opportunity fully to participate in the life of this country.

I know that the whole House will want to join me in welcoming the fantastic news that the MHRA—the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency—has formally authorised the Pfizer vaccine for covid-19. The vaccine will begin to be made available across the UK from next week. I would like to pay tribute to and to thank all those who have made this possible. It is the protection of vaccines that will ultimately allow us to reclaim our lives and get our economy moving again.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Chris Green Portrait Chris Green
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I would like to share in the congratulations of the Prime Minister on the creation of this new vaccine and the speed with which it has been got out, and to give those congratulations especially to the engineers, technicians and scientists who have delivered it. I believe that we should support the widest distribution and take-up of safe and effective medicines, but does my right hon Friend agree with me that it should always be taken on a wholly voluntary basis by individuals and families?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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Absolutely. I strongly urge people to take up the vaccine, but it is no part of our culture or our ambition in this country to make vaccines mandatory. That is not how we do things.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab)
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May I join the Prime Minister in his comments on disabled people?

Like the Prime Minister, can I start with the fantastic news about the licensing of a vaccine? This pandemic has caused so much grief and so much loss, but we are now a big step closer to the end of the tunnel. Like the Prime Minister, can I express my thanks and the thanks of everyone on these Benches and across the House to all the scientists who have worked on this and to everybody who has taken part in the trials. Delivering a vaccine fairly, quickly and safely will now be the next major challenge facing the country, and whatever our differences across this House, we have all a duty to play our part in this national effort and to reassure the public about the safety of the vaccine.

This morning, a priority list has been published for the first phase of the roll-out. We understand that around 800,000 doses will soon be available, and that is good news. Because of the two doses that will be required, that means 400,000 people can be vaccinated in the first batch. So can the Prime Minister tell the House: who does he expect to receive the vaccine next week?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his point about the roll-out, and I will perhaps update the House on what the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has concluded so far. The priority list will be: residents in a care home for older adults, and their carers, in order to stop transmission; those of 80 years of age or older; front-line health care and social care workers; all those of 75 years of age and over; all those of 70 years of age and over; and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals. There is then a list that I am sure the House will want to study closely, but that I believe represents common sense.

It is important at this stage for us all to recognise that this is unquestionably good news—it is very, very good news—but it is by no means the end of the story; it is not the end of our national struggle against coronavirus. That is why it is important that the package of moderately tough measures that the House voted for last night—the tiering system—is followed across the country, because that is how we will continue to beat the virus.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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The Prime Minister has referenced the priorities for the first phase, and as he said, the top two priority groups are residents in care homes for older adults and their carers, all those of 80 years of age and over, and front-line health and social care workers. I am not criticising that list in the slightest, but it is obvious that that is more than 400,000 people. The Prime Minister will understand how anxious people in those particular groups are, after having sacrificed so much. Will he give the House the answer to the question that they will be asking this morning, which is: by when does he expect that all people in those two top groups can expect to be vaccinated?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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At this stage it is very important that people do not get their hopes up too soon about the speed with which we will be able to roll out this vaccine. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said, it is beginning from next week, and we are expecting several million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine before the end of the year. We will then be rolling it out as fast as we possibly can. That is why I put so much emphasis on the continuing importance of the tiering system and of mass community testing, at the same time as we go forward through these tough winter months. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to ask about timetables, but at the same time as we roll out the vaccine over the next few weeks, we will need to keep that tough tiering and testing regime in place.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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May I press the Prime Minister a bit further about the plan for care homes? I do so because we all want this to work. The top category is residents in care homes, and this will obviously be a huge concern for many people. This morning the Welsh Government have already raised some serious practical problems about the delivery of vaccines into care homes, bearing in mind the temperatures at which the vaccines have to be stored. The Prime Minister must know that this is going to be a four-nation problem, and he must be aware that this problem will arise. We all want to overcome that problem, and in that spirit I ask the Prime Minister what plans he has put in place to address the particular problems of getting the vaccine safely and quickly into care homes, given the practical difficulties of doing so, and the anxiety that those in care homes will have about getting it quickly?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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The right hon. and learned Gentleman is entirely right to raise the issue of care homes and our ability to distribute this particular type of vaccine rapidly into care homes, because it does need to be kept at minus 70°, as I think the House understands, so there are logistical challenges to be overcome to get vulnerable people the access to the vaccine that they need. We are working on it with all the devolved Administrations in order to ensure that the NHS across the country—it is the NHS that will be in the lead—is able to distribute it as fast and as sensibly as possible to the most vulnerable groups.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to raise that particular logistical difficulty. That is why it is also important that we get the AstraZeneca vaccine, which we hope will also come on stream. While he is paying tribute to those who have been involved in the vaccines, perhaps he could also pay tribute to the work of the vaccine taskforce, which secured the deal with Pfizer and which he, I think, criticised only a few weeks ago.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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I pay tribute to everybody who has got us this far, and we will work with all of them to get us where we need to go next. This has to be something that we all pull together to deliver as quickly and safely as possible over the next few months. I have made that offer to the Prime Minister before, and I do it again.

It is in that vein that I turn to the next question, which is about public confidence in the vaccine. That is a real cause for concern, because it is going to be crucial to the success of getting this rolled out across the country and getting our economy back up and running. As the Prime Minister knows, we have the highest regulatory and medical safety standards in the world, but it is really important that we do everything possible to counter dangerous, frankly life-threatening disinformation about vaccines. The Opposition have called for legislation to be introduced to clamp down on this, with financial penalties for companies that fail to act. Will the Prime Minister work with us on this and bring forward emergency legislation in the coming days, which I think the whole House would support?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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We are, of course, working to tackle all kinds of disinformation across the internet. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to single out the anti-vaxxers and those who I think are totally wrong in their approach, and he is right to encourage take-up of vaccines across the country. We will be publishing a paper very shortly on online harms designed to tackle the very disinformation that he speaks of.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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May I also urge the Prime Minister, once the Government have a communications plan for the vaccine, to share it with the House so that we can all say the same thing in the same way to the country and thus encourage as many people as possible to take up the vaccine?

The arrival of the vaccine is obviously wonderful news, but it will come too late for many who have lost their jobs already. I want to turn to the collapse of the Arcadia Group and Debenhams in the last 48 hours. That has put 25,000 jobs at risk and obviously caused huge anxiety to many families at the worst possible time, and it threatens to rip the heart out of many high streets in our towns and cities. Can the Prime Minister tell the House what he is going to do now to protect the jobs and pensions of all those affected by these closures?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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We are looking at what we can do to protect all the jobs that are being lost currently across the country. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has written to the Insolvency Service to look at the conduct of the Arcadia directors, and we will be doing everything we can to restore the high streets of this country with our £1 billion high streets fund and the levelling-up fund. But I must say that I think it is a bit much that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should attack the economic consequences of the fight against coronavirus when last night neither he nor his troops could be bothered to vote for measures—sensible, balanced measures—that would open up the economy and allow businesses to trade. How can he attack the economic consequences of our battle against coronavirus when he will not even support measures to open up the economy?

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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When I abstain, I come to the House and explain. When the Prime Minister abstains, he runs away to Afghanistan and gives the taxpayer a £20,000 bill.

On the question of jobs, there are serious questions that need to be answered about the collapse of these businesses. I do not want the Prime Minister to deflect from that and what it means for these many families. This is not an isolated incident; over 200,000 retail jobs have been lost this year—that is 200,000 individuals and their families—and 20,000 stores have been closed on our high street, and that is before the latest restrictions. I suspect that if we had seen that scale of job losses in any other sector, there would have been much greater action already.

I urge the Prime Minister to take this seriously; do not deflect. As well as providing emergency support, will he work with us, the trade unions and the sector to finally bring forward a comprehensive plan to save retail jobs and to provide the sector with the much greater support it needs through this crisis? These are real people, Prime Minister, with real jobs and families, who are facing the sack. They really need to hear from you.

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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We are, of course, supporting every job we possibly can, as well as supporting every life and every livelihood, with a £200 billion programme. I would take the right hon. and learned Gentleman more seriously, frankly, if he actually could be bothered to vote for a moderate programme to keep the virus down and open up the economy. We are getting on with our programme of rolling out the vaccine and sensible tiering measures, in addition to which we are delivering 40 more hospitals and 20,000 more police officers. He talks about abstention. When it came to protecting our veterans from unfair prosecution, he chose to abstain. When it came to protecting the people of this country from coronavirus at this critical moment, he told his troops to abstain. Captain Hindsight is rising rapidly up the ranks and has become General Indecision. That is what is happening, I am afraid, to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He dithers; we get on with the job.

Imran Ahmad Khan Portrait Imran Ahmad Khan (Wakefield) (Con)
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Next week marks one year since the Prime Minister won a mighty majority. His bold vision turned the red wall blue, ensuring our communities would no longer be neglected. As part of the Prime Minister’s plan to level up, a new infrastructure bank has been promised. Mr Speaker, you know Wakefield as the crossroads of the kingdom—our cathedral spire the tallest in God’s own county; historically, the principal city of West Yorkshire; and the pulsating, oxygenating heart of the red wall. All make it the perfect city for the new bank’s home. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister commit to establish the new infrastructure bank in Wakefield and restore my city’s glory?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend is a magnificent and doughty campaigner for Wakefield. I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will listen very closely to his call for the national infrastructure bank to be established in Wakefield. My hon. Friend should wait on events.

Ian Blackford Portrait Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP) [V]
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This morning, for the first time in months, people have woken up with a genuine sense of hope. The news on the vaccine approval is the news we have all been waiting for. For many, however, that hope on the horizon remains far too distant. There are millions who still have not had a single penny of support from this UK Government. As others rightly received help, they received none. Prime Minister, yesterday I met ExcludedUK, which represents many of those 3 million citizens. For the past nine months, the excluded have been living without any help and without any hope. It is now, tragically, costing lives. Prime Minister, they told me something genuinely shocking. They are aware of eight people who have taken their lives in the past 10 days—eight people in 10 days. Prime Minister, we are now a little over three weeks from Christmas. These people need help. Will the Prime Minister commit to looking again at the support package for the excluded, to ensure that no one, but no one, is left behind?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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I obviously sympathise very much with those who have taken their lives and their families. This has been a very tough time for the country. We are investing massively in mental health support across the country, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, which flows through, in Barnett consequentials, to Scotland. We have put in a huge package of support. He knows this, but I must repeat this for self-employed people across the country. I know there are hard-to-reach people, but they are also supported with the increases in universal credit and the many other means of support that are currently on offer. When we look at the overall level of support this Government have given the people across the country, it compares favourably with any other Government around the world.

Ian Blackford Portrait Ian Blackford
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I have to say, and I do this with regret, that that simply is not good enough. These people need help, and I am asking the Prime Minister to think very carefully about this. This has been an abject failure by this UK Government, and the Prime Minister has been missing in action. The Government have U-turned on almost everything else, so why cannot the Prime Minister and the Chancellor change their minds on their support for these 3 million people? These are people working in construction, creative industries, events, education, hospitality, retail and healthcare. They have not just been left behind; they have been ignored for nine months. The Chancellor has repeatedly dodged this issue. ExcludedUK has not been offered one formal meeting with a Government Minister. Will the Prime Minister commit today to a meeting and working with ExcludedUK on a meaningful package of support, or is he simply going to abandon these people three weeks from Christmas?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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We have abandoned nobody and we are continuing to support people. In addition to the support I have already mentioned, we have announced nearly £400 million to support vulnerable children and their families through the winter. We have increased universal credit, as I just mentioned to the House, increased the local housing allowance and provided billions more to local authorities to help those who are hardest to reach. I may say to the right hon. Gentleman that the best way to help the self-employed, and to help the economy of this whole country, is to get us moving again with the package of measures that the House voted for last night to allow retail to start up again and to allow business to start up again—

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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The hon. Gentleman says it is shameful. We on the Government side of the House do not think retail is shameful. We want businesses to open up again, and that is the nature of the package that was voted for last night, which I think was quite right. It is a great, great shame that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) could not bring himself to support it.

Tom Tugendhat Portrait Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)
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At this time of enormous pressure on our healthcare, I welcome the Government’s and the NHS’s continued commitment to the new combined medical facility in Edenbridge. Will the Prime Minister confirm to me that the sale of the existing Edenbridge and District War Memorial Hospital, which was built by public donation about a century ago, will now help to fund the new building? He is investing £20 million in the medicines and diagnostic manufacturing transformation fund to benefit Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland, so will he join me in welcoming the skill of all those in the NHS and, indeed, the Health Secretary in making historical donations work for our communities today?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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Yes, I can, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaign. Any decision to allow for the sale of the hospital is, of course, a matter for the local clinical commissioning group, but I know that he fully supports the £12 million that we put in for the development of a new health and wellbeing centre for Edenbridge.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call Liz Saville Roberts.

Liz Saville Roberts Portrait Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC) [V]
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Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Llefarydd. I would like to add my voice to those welcoming the licensing of the vaccine; this really is a ray of light in dark times.

Last week, the Prime Minister’s Government published their statement of funding, showing a reduction in the amount that Wales receives from transport spend in England, from 80.9% to 36.6%. This reveals in black and white the iniquity of the rail betrayal being inflicted on Wales. Welsh taxpayers are paying for English transport and HS2, but we do not get a fair return. Will he inform the House how much investment he is funnelling away from Wales due to his Government’s decision to label this white elephant an England and Wales scheme, despite not a single inch of the railway being in Wales?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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I simply fail to recognise the characterisation that the right hon. Lady makes of investment across the whole of the UK. The Welsh Government will receive an additional £1.3 billion next year. We are providing £240 million more to support Welsh farmers and £2.1 million to support fisheries in Wales. The last time I looked at transport in Wales, the Welsh Labour Government spent £144 million on plans for an M4 bypass, which they then junked.

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar (Aberconwy) (Con)
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The people of Aberconwy would like to thank the Prime Minister for his early Christmas present in this vaccine. Like many presents, we might not have made it, but this Government—this Union—could afford to buy it for this country. I was in Llanrwst this Saturday, talking with small businesses that have had to deal with flooding in February and the pandemic since March. All they want to do is trade. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking Y Siop Flodau, Siop Sioned and Emma James Cakes for battling through a really difficult 2020? Does he agree that this news of a vaccine and its licensing gives real hope to these three women, these three entrepreneurs, and thousands like them—hope for a better 2021?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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Yes, indeed. I congratulate the three female entrepreneurs whom my hon. Friend mentioned. They will be helped by the vaccine, they will be allowed to do business again, and what a shame it is that our programme, which was sensibly and safely to open up the economy, was not supported by the Leader of the Opposition.

Mark Hendrick Portrait Sir Mark Hendrick  (Preston)  (Lab/Co-op) [V]
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The Prime Minister has put at risk the Good Friday agreement and peace in Northern Ireland after promising the people of this country that he would not. He promised the country a world-beating test, track and trace system, but conveniently forgot to provide the track and trace part of the promise. He promised an oven-ready deal with the EU to win the 2019 general election, but we look like having no deal. When will the Prime Minister follow through and deliver on his promises, instead of behaving like a second-hand car salesman?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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If the hon. Gentleman wants to keep this country in the EU, which I think was the gist of what he was saying, he will be sorely disappointed and so will the Labour party.

Matt Vickers Portrait Matt Vickers (Stockton South) (Con)
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It is said that Britain is a nation of shopkeepers, and in Stockton we are proud to have some of the best retailers in the country. They have had a tough year. They are grateful for the support that they have received from the Government, but remain concerned about the future of business rates. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government remain committed to a fundamental review of business rates, and will he join me in encouraging people to get down the local high street and shop local this Christmas?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend reminds me that it is Small Business Saturday this Saturday. Everybody should be shopping local. I can also tell him that the Treasury is considering the responses to the call for evidence on business rates ahead of the review’s conclusion in the spring.

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones (Pontypridd) (Lab)
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We all know that it will take a long time for many industries to recover from the impact of coronavirus. The aviation sector and its supply chain, which support almost a quarter of a million jobs, have been uniquely impacted. Many workers and their families at GE Aviation in Pontypridd have been financially ruined. Sadly, that is a familiar scenario for families up and down the country. The Prime Minister urgently needs to wake up to the situation. Will he therefore commit to a sector-specific support deal to save our aviation industry before it is too late?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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We are doing a huge amount to support our aviation industry, but I appreciate the stress and difficulties that many families are in at the moment because of the threats to that sector, which are global, alas, because people are just not flying in the way that they were before the pandemic. I have every hope that it will bounce back very strongly, particularly in this country, which is a world leader in aviation, once we get the economy moving again, as I hope we can.

Liam Fox Portrait Dr Liam Fox  (North Somerset)  (Con)
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In North Somerset, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, small businesses are the lifeblood of the economy, providing over 60% of all our jobs. Post covid, we will require a private sector, small business-led recovery. Will the Prime Minister consider a new discipline within the Government in the form of a small business test, so that every tax, regulation and bit of legislation is measured against whether it will provide support for that sector, which will be vital to our post-covid recovery?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his excellent suggestion. He is a great champion of small business. Every measure that the Government produce is judged by the effect or impact it will have on businesses large and small. As he knows, we are also providing for these particularly difficult circumstances about £100 billion in business support—the bounce back loans and many other forms of support—but the best thing for businesses large and small is for us to shop local, as I said earlier, and to allow the economy cautiously and prudently to reopen.

Emma Lewell-Buck Portrait Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab)
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I want to congratulate the Prime Minister, as I think next week marks his first year in post. However, in that time: over 71,000 covid deaths, the highest rate in Europe; over £2 trillion in debt, with the worst-performing economy in the G7; failing Brexit negotiations; and at least £1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money spent on contracts for Tory friends and donors. At the same time, he has whipped his MPs to vote against meals for hungry children. Which one of these achievements is he most proud of?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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I would take the hon. Lady’s point more seriously if she and her party could be bothered to vote for measures—[Interruption.]

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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I am sorry—she defied the Labour Whip. Forgive me, Mr Speaker. She defied the injunction to dither from the ditherer-in-chief. She did not obey his instruction to dither. I would take her more seriously if her party leader would vote for measures that would open up the economy while protecting lives across the UK.

Karl McCartney Portrait Karl MᶜCartney (Lincoln) (Con) [V]
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I would like to thank my right hon. Friend and his Cabinet colleagues for last week granting my request to fund the North Hykeham relief road, the final part of the eastern bypass around my constituency of Lincoln. I look forward to seeing internal combustion engine vehicles gliding over its smooth tarmac surface for many decades to come. As the Prime Minister will know, my constituents have made their views clear to me on the recent decisions on lockdown and the new tier system, as they normally and refreshingly do. Lincolnshire is a very big space, so although my county colleagues succumbed to the wily charms of the Secretary of State for Health last night, will my right hon. Friend seriously consider allowing local decision makers the chance to set the tier systems locally? After all, local decision makers know their patches far better than any Whitehall official. Local businesses in Lincoln, including some ExcludedUK members who have yet to receive any support, are desperate to get back to work and to fire up our UK economy.

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I repeat what I said to the House several times yesterday afternoon. Of course we want to reflect local conditions as closely and accurately as we can in taking our decisions about tiering, but we must look at the entire national picture. On his point about internal combustion engines, I would just remind him that a hydrogen engine can also be an internal combustion engine.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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My constituent was diagnosed with ME in 2019, and earlier this year her employer agreed that she was no longer able to work and to do the job she loved. She applied for the personal independence payment, but the Department for Work and Pensions has ruled that she is fit to work. It has not engaged with her previous employer, who has a wealth of evidence to the contrary, and has reached its own decision. Her life has been devastated by this diagnosis. She told me: “The PIP process is predicated on being able to stand up for yourself, and as a disabled person I cannot do this.” Will the Prime Minister meet me to ensure that our benefits system works for sufferers of chronic fatigue and does not limit decisions to single points of evidence?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. She is raising an important issue. I know that many people suffer from the syndrome that she describes, and I will ensure that she gets a proper meeting with the relevant Minister to discuss her objectives.

Scott Mann Portrait Scott Mann (North Cornwall) (Con) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Some in the media discuss levelling up only through the prism of the north-south divide. However, Cornwall has pockets of deprivation, and many communities in my constituency also need investment and support. I welcome the Government’s announcement of the £4 billion levelling-up fund and the decision to review the Green Book so that projects outside London and the south-east are more likely to benefit from Government investment. However, in the light of the new spending commitments, can my right hon. Friend confirm that the shared prosperity fund is separate to the levelling-up fund, that there will be an announcement on that soon, and that the fund will be simpler and less time consuming for small businesses to access than the onerous EU schemes it is replacing?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend is completely right about the importance of the new UK shared prosperity fund. It will be different from the levelling-up fund and we are going to work closely with him and with people in Cornwall to ensure that we use the additional funding best for the needs of people and communities in Cornwall.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This week, the Scottish Government announced a £500 bonus scheme for our health and social care heroes who have helped to care for us through the pandemic. The Scottish Conservatives have been trying to claim some reflected credit for that policy over the past few hours. The Prime Minister is not responsible for health in Scotland, but he is responsible for it in England, so will he put his Government’s money where his Scottish colleagues’ mouths clearly are and match that bonus initiative for health and social care workers in England? Will he instruct the Chancellor to ensure that, whenever a bonus scheme like that is introduced, the Treasury will not try to snaffle back the tax from it, but let it be paid tax-free?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On the last point, that is a matter for the Scottish Government, who have the fiscal freedom to do that. I thank health and social care workers in Scotland and across the whole country, and I am proud of the increases we have been able to put in—12.8% over the past three years, and a pay rise for 1 million people in the NHS, as part of the biggest ever investment in the NHS, even before covid began. This investment will continue under this Government.

Philip Dunne Portrait Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

In 10 days’ time, the Government are hosting the United Nations climate summit, ahead of COP26 next year. I urge the Prime Minister not to curb his enthusiasm for the environment. Will he show international leadership by setting out an ambitious but achievable target for emissions in 2030 as the UK’s nationally determined contribution on the path to net zero Britain?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am proud that the UK led the way in instituting a target of net zero by 2050; of all the developed nations, we were the first. We are looking at our nationally determined contribution, which will be extremely ambitious and will be published around the time of the climate summit on 12 December this year.

Drew Hendry Portrait Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Prime Minister mentioned universal credit earlier. His and the Chancellor’s decision to increase UC by £20 a week during the pandemic was an admission of what my constituents have known for years: UC simply is not enough to live on. In January, his Government will cap the benefits of thousands of UC claimants; the average losses will be £250 a month, mainly to families with children. He already knows that UC is not enough to live on, so will he now commit to scrap the cap and guarantee to continue the £20 a week uplift? Or is he going to throw these families to the wolves, too, just like the 3 million excluded?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I just repeat the point I made earlier about the huge sums the Government have invested in looking after families’ lives and livelihoods across the whole of the UK—this is well north of £200 billion now. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, there has been a UC uplift of £1,000. We will continue to support families across this country throughout the pandemic, but the objective must be, as I hope he would agree, to get the economy moving again and get people back into work in the way that everybody would want. It is a fact that under this Government, despite all the difficulties we have faced, the unemployment rate is lower than that in France, Spain, Italy, Canada and the United States. We will continue to work to look after every job that we can.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

12:38
Sitting suspended.

Binley Woods local pharmacy

Wednesday 2nd December 2020

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Mark Pawsey Portrait Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con)
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I rise to present a petition on behalf of residents in my constituency of Rugby regarding the decision by NHS England to remove the local pharmaceutical services contract from MW Phillips Chemist in the village of Binley Woods, which is where I grew up. The petition has run alongside an online petition on the same issue. Together, the two petitions have been signed by 849 people.

The petition states:

The petition of residents of the constituency of Rugby,

Declares that the local pharmacy in Binley Woods is a lifeline and hub to more than 3,000 residents; and further that it is deplorable that NHS England and NHS Improvement, Midlands Region, have decided to remove the Local Pharmaceutical Services (LPS) Contract from the Pharmacy.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to work with NHS England and reverse this decision, and to ensure that the pharmacy can continue to provide medical, wellbeing and social care for both the young and elderly population within Binley Woods and the adjacent villages.

And the petitioners remain, etc.

[P002631]

Independent Review of Dyfed-Powys Police

Wednesday 2nd December 2020

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Nia Griffith Portrait Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab)
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My constituents and their daughter Carina were put through months and years of anguish on the basis of evidence collected against National Policing Improvement Agency guidance for which the police have never apologised, so I rise to present to the House the petition of Julia and Robin Burn.

The petition states:

The petition of Julia and Robin Burn,

Declares that, in 2010, in conducting their investigations into allegations made against the petitioners, Dyfed-Powys Police did not proceed in accordance with the appropriate National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) guidance; further declares that these allegations were later found to be groundless and without merit; further that this resulted in the petitioners’ mute autistic daughter being taken into local authority care for six months; and further that, after no further action was taken, no attempt was made to return her.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to instigate an independent review of Dyfed-Powys Police’s handling of this case.

And the petitioners remain, etc.

[P002633]

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I now suspend the House for three minutes in order to allow the safe exit of Members participating in the previous item of business and the safe arrival of those who anticipate with great delight the next item of business.

Sitting suspended.

Arcadia and Debenhams: Business Support and Job Retention

Wednesday 2nd December 2020

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Urgent Questions are proposed each morning by backbench MPs, and up to two may be selected each day by the Speaker. Chosen Urgent Questions are announced 30 minutes before Parliament sits each day.

Each Urgent Question requires a Government Minister to give a response on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

12:41
Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to make a statement on support for business and the retention of jobs on the high street in light of the announcement of Arcadia entering administration and Debenhams going into liquidation.

Paul Scully Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Paul Scully)
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Speaking as the retail Minister, let me say that I hope the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) realises that although the Secretary of State is not here, we take this incredibly seriously. That is why I want to focus on the detail, because it is a worrying time for the retail sector, particularly for those affected by the announcements this week.

On Monday, Arcadia Group Ltd, which employs approximately 13,000 people, appointed administrators, who are assessing all options available to the group. They will honour orders made over the black Friday weekend. No redundancies have yet been announced and existing sales channels will continue to operate while administrators evaluate options. The Secretary of State has written to the Insolvency Service asking that it expedites consideration of the administrators’ report. Yesterday, Debenhams, which employs approximately 12,000 people, announced the decision of administrators to wind down the company. No redundancies have been announced and existing sales channels will continue to operate while administrators evaluate options. We know that this will be a worrying time for employees and their families, and we stand ready to support them. I pay a particular tribute to the hard-working staff, who have kept these well recognised businesses going in difficult times for so long.

Although the Government have no role in the strategic direction or management of private retail companies, we are in regular contact with both companies and the administrators in order to understand fully the situation they are facing. The coronavirus crisis has made life difficult for retailers such as Arcadia and Debenhams, particularly those that were already facing challenging trading conditions before the pandemic. We acted quickly at the start of the pandemic to deliver one of the most generous and comprehensive economic packages in the world. It included: the coronavirus job retention scheme, which up to 30 September had provided £7.7 billion-worth of support to companies in the retail and wholesale sector; removing all eligible properties in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors from business rates for 12 months—that is worth more than £10 billion; cash grants of up to £25,000 for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses with a rateable value of between £15,000 and £51,000; more than £50 billion in business loans, which supported 9.6 million jobs and provided flexibility; and legislation to protect commercial tenants from eviction.

Through the plan for jobs, we have also announced a series of measures to protect, support and create jobs, including our £2 billion kickstart scheme and a doubling of the number of frontline work coaches, which will be important in this situation in particular. The Government have committed to supporting the retail sector, and we are working closely with industry through these unprecedented times, particularly to ensure the safe reopening of non-essential retail today. On Monday, my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary encouraged local authorities to allow shops to open for extended hours, to accommodate more shoppers safely in the lead-up to Christmas. I will continue to work with the sector to meet future challenges. Indeed, I will co-chair the next meeting of the Retail Sector Council tomorrow to discuss our strategic approach to the sector. I have regular retail calls, including one last week, with representatives from Arcadia among the retailers on that call. We are confident that the sector has the skills, knowledge and drive to bounce back.

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband
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Let me join the Minister in expressing deep sympathy for those who are at risk of losing their jobs. The test of Government, and indeed the House, is whether that sympathy translates into action, so I have four specific questions for him.

First, Philip Green owes workers at Arcadia a moral duty. His family took from the company a dividend worth £1.2 billion, the largest in UK history, more than three times the size of the pension deficit. Workers at Arcadia should not pay the price of Philip Green’s greed, so will the Minister now publicly call for Philip Green to make good any shortfall in the pension scheme, and will he ensure that the Pensions Regulator takes all possible steps to make sure that that happens?

Secondly, we need to learn lessons. In the summer, Labour tabled amendments to the Corporate Governance and Insolvency Bill to make pension fund holders priority creditors when businesses went bust. The Minister said it was not necessary. Does he now agree that that was a mistake, that that change would have better protected the pensions at Arcadia and that this should be put right through legislation in the future?

Thirdly, on the workers at Debenhams and Arcadia facing redundancy, given the scale of redundancies and the grim economic backdrop, will the Minister look at providing specific and targeted help for them to get back into work? Fourthly, we have an emergency on our high streets, with an estimated 20,000 shops closing and 200,000 workers losing their jobs since the economic crisis began. While we welcome the support that has been provided, will he recognise that the Government must do more: extend the rent evictions moratorium beyond December, when it is due to expire; increase support for hospitality businesses, which was called for across the House yesterday; and address the massive disadvantage that high street businesses face around business rates compared with online retailers?

Today is a day of great news on the vaccine, but the Government have a massive responsibility to preserve the businesses and jobs we will need on the other side of this crisis. They are still not acting on a scale that meets the economic emergency our country faces. They need to do so.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising some really important points. On pension schemes and support for those facing redundancy, the majority of defined pension schemes are run effectively. We are fortunate to have a robust and flexible system of pension protection in the UK. The independent Pensions Regulator has a range of powers to protect pension schemes, and it works closely with those involved. For schemes where the employer goes insolvent, the Pension Protection Fund is there to help protect the members. Anybody already in receipt of a pension will continue to be paid, and other members will receive at least Pension Protection Fund compensation levels. The Pension Protection Fund is confident that its funding plan investment approach positions it well to weather the current market volatility and future challenges.

It would not be appropriate at this stage for Ministers to comment on individual cases, which are a matter for the regulator. However, in respect of staff facing possible redundancy, the Department for Work and Pensions’ rapid response service has been in ongoing conversations with Debenhams and has now been in contact with Arcadia. Both have been offered support by the rapid response service, including connecting people to jobs in the labour market, helping with job search—including CV writing, interview skills, where to find jobs and how to apply for them—helping to identify transferable skills and skills gaps linked to the local labour market and what benefits they may get and how to claim. I talked about the fact that we have doubled the number of workplace support staff in Jobcentre Plus. Clearly, knowing where the big stores are, for Debenhams in particular, we will be able to offer that sort of targeted support.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about his proposed changes to the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill. This was a matter of balance, because elevating pension debts, which can often be quite large, will by its very nature dilute the amount available to trade and credit suppliers, but also to other suppliers, including people with unpaid wages. It is trying to get that complexity and balance right.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman talks about hospitality and support for other sectors. Clearly, the high street is an ecosystem—it is not only about shops and retail. We need to make sure that we do as much as we can to continue to wrap our arms around the economy at this particularly challenging time. As he acknowledges, there is light at the end of the tunnel, but we must not take our foot off the gas. We must remain alert, in terms of our own behaviours, as community members going up and down the high street, shopping local where we can to support retailers as they remain open, but also as a Government, making sure that we support the retail and hospitality sectors through both the support that I mentioned but also through encouraging them to be able to trade and remain open in all three tiers as best we can.

Suzanne Webb Portrait Suzanne Webb (Stourbridge) (Con)
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I am sure the thoughts of the whole House will be with employees of Debenhams and Arcadia, who face huge uncertainty this week, particularly in the run-up to Christmas. These are long-standing bastions of the high street. However, both organisations have been struggling for quite some time; indeed, Debenhams has been in administration since January. While no redundancies have yet been announced, many of my constituents will be affected. Can my hon. Friend assure me that, if the worst were to happen, the Government are ready to support anyone affected, whether through jobcentres or universal credit?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know her constituents will be concerned about this. We are prepared to step up concentration within Jobcentre Plus. We will make sure there is support for people in finding jobs and for retaining as many jobs as possible on our high streets.

Drew Hendry Portrait Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP) [V]
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I am sure the Minister agrees that there is a great deal of public affection for the Arcadia brands and in particular for Debenhams. While we must hope that redundancies can be avoided wherever possible, this is a sad day for our embattled high streets. All our thoughts are with the thousands of workers, including those in my constituency, many of whom have given years, or even decades, of service in retail, who will be devastated by this news. They must be given all the help they can get to ensure that all their pension rights are retained. Will the Minister ensure that Sir Philip Green’s obligations to pensions are met, and will his Department work with trade unions to make sure that the workers are treated fairly and adequately supported through the process?

Like others, many of the workers will face difficulty in putting food on the table and finding a new job or retraining in a crowded market. They will need the safety net of universal credit to make ends meet. I urge the Minister to use his best efforts and to work with colleagues to retain the £20 a week uplift and to scrap the planned benefit cap that will cost an average of £250 a month. Universal credit is already not enough; taking away the uplift is taking food from people’s tables.

We need to remember that many small businesses in local supply chains will be affected by the news. Some of them will not survive without support, while the owners of others will be joining the 3 million people who have been excluded from support. The Government cannot continue to ignore them. I urge the Minister again to finally get support to this group, who are becoming increasingly desperate.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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The existing commitments made to the Pensions Regulator do indeed need to be kept—it is important to say that.

The hon. Gentleman talks about support for employees. If people need financial support quickly, they may be able to claim universal credit and/or employment and support allowance. Our plan for jobs includes a series of measures to protect, support and create jobs, because it is important to get the people affected back into work as soon as possible. We have our £238 million job entry targeted support programme to support that.

The hon. Gentleman also talks about the possibility of suppliers losing out. Administrators will take over the company and seek to establish the position regarding suppliers. The trade credit reinsurance scheme is designed to support businesses coping with the economic impacts of covid-19 and to ensure that there is adequate confidence and credit in supply chains.

Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie Aiken (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con) [V]
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As my hon. Friend is aware, the Arcadia Group is headquartered in my constituency and its brands, including Debenhams and Topshop, have their flagship stores on Oxford Street. Covid has the potential to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for bricks-and-mortar retailers. The New West End Company and I welcome the continuing support of my hon. Friend and his Department for the retail sector. I note the Government’s announcement this week on extending shopping trading hours for Monday to Saturday until January but, particularly in the short term, an extension of Sunday trading hours would be of huge benefit to retailers. Will my hon. Friend support me, The Sun on Sunday newspaper, retailers such as Marks & Spencer and others who are campaigning to extend Sunday trading?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I look forward to joining the New West End Company and, I assume, my hon. Friend on Saturday to celebrate not only Small Business Saturday but traffic-free shopping in the west end. The west end accounts for 3% of the entire UK economy and many, many jobs. We do not propose to extend Sunday trading at this stage, but we are extending shopping hours throughout the weekdays. We want to work with local authorities to make sure that they can support the safe return of shoppers to high streets up and down the country, including in the west end.

Darren Jones Portrait Darren Jones (Bristol North West) (Lab)
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The collapse of Arcadia and Debenhams are two big examples of the broader challenge of survival in the high street-based retail sector. Every job lost and every store closed is devastating for families and communities across the entire country. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee has today written to the Secretary of State, and I know we will have full answers in due course, but may I ask the Minister one specific question about support for small businesses in the retail supply chain? I wish to push him a bit further on whether there will be specific support—perhaps a taskforce—for small retail businesses, to help with the hundreds of millions of pounds of orders that could go unpaid.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I cannot give specifics on a taskforce or any other group, but we will look acutely at what we can do for supply chains and the future of the high street. When flagship stores like the 200-odd-year-old Debenhams leave our high streets, it is so important to make sure that we have a co-ordinated response. I will happily work with the hon. Gentleman on that.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con) [V]
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My hon. Friend, and the whole House, is concerned about the numbers of jobs potentially lost in the Arcadia Group, but we also have to be concerned about those employed by microbusinesses, perhaps without premises, who have so far not benefited from Government schemes to support them. Will he think again about those who so far have not had Government support and may well be adversely impacted by the news we have heard about Arcadia if they work in the retail supply chain?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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My right hon. Friend raises a really important point. We have wrapped our arms around the economy, but clearly it is very difficult to do things at pace to cover everybody. We will always make sure that we reflect on what happens, to help as many people as we can and try to fill the cracks as best we can.

Sarah Olney Portrait Sarah Olney (Richmond Park) (LD)
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I, too, express my sympathies to all those employees of Debenhams and the Arcadia Group who find themselves out of work so close to Christmas and in such an uncertain time. Will the Minister’s Department work with local authorities to support them to offer more flexible rates terms to new businesses that want to come in and set up in the large voids that a lot of town centres will be experiencing in their retail spaces? Those voids affect town centres and communities. What can the Department do to work with local authorities to lower the barriers to new entrants into the retail sector?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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There are plenty of things on which we can work together with the sector and, indeed, the whole gamut of British high street businesses, including by talking about getting the rent balance right between landlords and tenants, as well as rates, as the hon. Lady says. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury is joining me on tomorrow’s Retail Sector Council call that I mentioned, to talk about the fundamental business rates review. I hope we will be able to work with local authorities to get that flexibility.

Marco Longhi Portrait Marco Longhi (Dudley North) (Con)
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Does my hon. Friend agree that Dudley Council and other local leaders in my constituency will play an instrumental role in rebuilding and revitalising the high street? Will he confirm that the high streets taskforce will stand ready to provide whatever advice may be needed in this endeavour?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I know that my hon. Friend works tirelessly for his constituency and local economy. It is so important that we get together to look at the high street, because many of these conversations were about what the high street will look like in 10 or 15 years’ time, but now they are about what the high street will look like next year and maybe only the year after. We have to get a speedy but holistic response.

Clive Betts Portrait Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab) [V]
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The business rate relief for retailers this year has been welcome, but it was obviously not sufficient for Debenhams and Arcadia and all their employees, who will tragically lose their jobs just before Christmas. There is a fundamental unfairness in the fact that Amazon pays only 0.7% of its turnover in business rates and high street retailers pay 2% or more. Last year, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee suggested that the Government look at bringing in a digital sales tax and use the money to provide long-term business rate relief for retailers on the high street. Given that the Government promised to look at business rate reform in 2015, will they now get on with it and give that certainty of reduced business rates to the high street as a matter of urgency?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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That is an important question, and it is exactly why we are doing fundamental business rates reform. The first stage of the consultation has ended, and we will respond in the new year, but we need to have a comprehensive approach to tackle this both online and offline.

Greg Smith Portrait Greg Smith (Buckingham) (Con)
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The Risborough basket is an innovative scheme founded by Princes Risborough Town Council in my constituency, with a mission to keep the pound in the town, enabling local shoppers to buy from small independent retailers and have their purchases personally delivered. It is a real boost to those high street businesses, but in setting up the scheme, they have come across a number of regulatory burdens. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating everyone who set up the Risborough basket and commit to working with them, so that we can get rid of those regulatory burdens and ensure that such schemes can help high streets up and down the land?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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The Risborough basket is one of those brutally simple schemes that are from the grassroots up. It is fantastic to hear about that innovation, and I would love to see what we can do to spread it across the country, never mind working with the council to get rid of some of the burdens in bureaucracy and regulation to help it prosper.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op) [V]
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Mr Speaker, thank you so much for the opportunity to ask this young Minister to take a message back to No. 10 and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As someone who worked in retail as a young man, and as a Co-op Member of Parliament, I know about retail. We have a workforce facing redundancy and hardship at Christmas. What we want from this Government is a strategy and leadership, not crocodile tears. A fifth of young people have lost their jobs. With 20,000 jobs, the kickstart programme has hardly touched young people’s lives. Will he get on with it and take that message back to No. 10?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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The hon. Gentleman talks about me being young, which he can do many times over, but as he says, retail is largely staffed by young people and those on comparatively low pay, so there is so much we can do. The strategy comes not just from Government but from working with the sector. The Retail Sector Council can take a long-term view, but we can also work with retailers on the short-term covid response. This is something for all of us to tackle.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris (Newbury) (Con)
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Not many of my constituents will shed a tear for Philip Green, but we should be profoundly concerned about the 25,000 jobs at risk of redundancy. The high street has been under unprecedented pressure. I welcome the remarks that my hon. Friend made about the business rates review, but will he commit this afternoon to an extension of another six to 12 months in which rates are either reduced or reprieved, to give the high street the best chance of recovery?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I know that those in the Treasury will have listened to that, and they are very aware, particularly in relation to retail and hospitality, of the cliff edge that comes when business rates are due to return at the end of April. We will certainly look at that, and an announcement will be forthcoming.

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab)
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In 1791, Susannah Towsey, a draper and haberdasher, moved to more commodious premises on Eastgate Street in Chester. She became Susannah Brown, and Browns of Chester still trades today at the retail heart of Chester, as part of Debenhams. As with other retail premises, it has been undermined by dodgy sale and leaseback property deals led by private equity firms, which has not helped the situation. Browns is one of Debenhams’s stores that trades well, at a profit. Will the Minister speak to administrators and support them, so that where there is potential for shops to continue as a going concern, that is explored and supported?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I agree that it is so important that we continue a viable business where it is possible, and I know that the administrators will have that at heart.

Simon Fell Portrait Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness) (Con)
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The news about Debenhams and Arcadia will cause many concerns as we head into Christmas. Can my hon. Friend reiterate the support that the Government will make available to the employees who face an uncertain future? Further to that, this year alone in Barrow, we have lost M&S and Topshop, so Debenhams will be another heavy blow. What support will the Government provide to offer hope to the high street in future?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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In terms of employees, as well as universal credit and access to other support through Jobcentre Plus, we will connect people to jobs in the labour market, help with their employment skills, such as CV writing, interview skills and so on, and identify transferable skills. It is, though, so important that we do more than that for our high streets to create the opportunities for those people to take up, through the future high streets fund and the work that we are doing with the Retail Sector Council and others at every level of government.

Chris Elmore Portrait Chris Elmore (Ogmore) (Lab)
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The Minister will be aware that a third of all retail jobs are held by people under the age of 25, and that a huge number of retail workers are women, because it allows flexible working and part-time hours. He will also be aware that many jobs in retail are highly skilled. It is a complete misconception that working in retail is not skilled and that, in years gone by, it was not a job or a profession for life. What specific support will the Minister put in place to offer to young people and to women, who will be more disproportionately affected by this and who have also been more disproportionately affected by the covid pandemic, to ensure that we do not have a lost generation of young people when it comes to finding their first job?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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Essentially, it is about creating those jobs and opportunities on the high street to ensure that we can keep retail and expand the offering on our high streets. Clearly, though, we need to ensure that we have that skills transfer work at jobcentre level and elsewhere to encourage our young people to take up those opportunities.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. Before we go to Bob Blackman, let me try to help, because I know how important it is to everybody to get on with the Order Paper, by saying that we need to speed up the answers and speed up the questions. I do not want to miss out people, but we may have to if we do not speed up. I am sure that Bob Blackman will provide us with a good example of speed.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con) [V]
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Debenhams in Harrow town centre is an anchor store to the town centre. When Debenhams went into administration, 20 stores across its network were due to close. Fortunately, Harrow was not one of them. However, this has a long-term effect on the entirety of Harrow town centre, so will my hon. Friend—[Inaudible.]

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Minister, can you pick out the best of that?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I think my hon. Friend was talking about anchor stores and the effect on the high street. I know him very well, so I can predict his question. Yes, if we take out an anchor store, we hollow out a high street, so it is so important that we look at this holistically, work together with local government, national Government and with retailers themselves to build up our high streets and shape them anew.

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
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Ellesmere Port, like many places, has seen an exodus from the high street over the past decade, which has been accelerated in the past year. Of course, it is no coincidence that, at the same time, online retail is booming, but my constituents do not judge the vibrancy of an area by the number of delivery drivers up their street; they judge it by the number of boarded-up shops in their town centres. Therefore, we need a consistent funded plan for the high street, but, just as importantly, we need a level playing field so that high street shops have a chance of competing. Can the Minister assure us that we will get that?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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Indeed, high streets will certainly change, but we need to get the balance right between online and bricks and mortar as well, because both have a really important position to play in our retail offering.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Portrait Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con)
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In just three towns in my constituency, 27 shops have either closed or are about to close because of the pandemic. Will my hon. Friend commit today to use the Government’s very generous package of measures to retail businesses at all levels of Government—from central Government to local government to local enterprise partnerships—to follow the Prime Minister’s lead to encourage a massive return to the high streets now that we are allowed to do so under the guidance?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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It is really important that, as we extend hours for retailers to be able to open up for Christmas, we rip up and peel back on our bureaucracy as well. We must also encourage local authorities to do more such as offering free parking and other such things.

Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
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The high street is facing utter devastation in the next few months, unless drastic action is taken.  Will the Minister undertake, in conjunction with the Treasury, to discuss a proposal that I put to the Chancellor three months ago? The banks and building societies are currently sitting on almost £200 billion in current accounts and deposit accounts, paying 0% interest. A 1% voucher would release £2 billion to be spent on the high street only, at no cost to the taxpayer, and would bring a benefit equivalent to that which was seen in Jersey in the summer and which hopefully will be seen in Northern Ireland next month, as a similar voucher scheme is going to be discussed and released there.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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It is certainly something that I will ask the Treasury to look at and discuss with me.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)
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As my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend will be aware that many Carshalton and Wallington residents work in Debenhams and Arcadia stores, particularly the flagship store at the St Nicholas Centre in Sutton. Will he join me in meeting the affected workers should the worst happen at that flagship store in Sutton, and reassure them that the Government are doing all they can to support them?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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Indeed. As well as being a Minister, I am clearly a constituency MP, and Debenhams is also at the heart of my high street. I will certainly continue to meet constituents affected by this and other issues around the high street.

Julie Marson Portrait Julie Marson (Hertford and Stortford) (Con)
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The Government’s support for business has been unprecedented and unparalleled, particularly in the retail sector. The Minister is right to call it an ecosystem, because it does have a far-reaching effect on the economy. Does he agree that we have seen incredible creativity and resilience in our local communities and on our high streets, including from residents and retailers in Hertford, who have formed the Hertford hub and the Bishop’s Stortford business improvement district; and that, while we should look at business rates and so on, it is working with and supporting those communities that will let the sector create, thrive and survive?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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It is so much about a “grassroots up” approach. It is great to hear about the Hertford hub and the Bishop’s Stortford BID. There are some brilliant examples of BIDs and initiatives; I would like to hear more.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP) [V]
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Retail trade union, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, has said that it is seeking urgent meetings with Arcadia’s administrators in a bid to preserve jobs. It is crucial that the voice of staff is heard over the future of business in all circumstances. What reassurance can the Minister give that this request will be met?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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Clearly, the administrators will do their work under their own purview, but I encourage them to ensure that they look at the whole issue to keep as many viable jobs going and as many viable parts of the business going as possible, so as not to hollow out our high streets.

Gerald Jones Portrait Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab) [V]
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This is an awful situation for every high street and retail park across the country, and even more so for the 25,000 people at Arcadia and Debenhams who are at risk of losing their jobs just before Christmas. In outlining what action the Government are taking to support the people affected, will the Minister specifically highlight any discussions that the Government are having with the Welsh Government, so that any support packages from both Governments can be co-ordinated?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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Given that these businesses are big brand names, this is clearly an issue for the whole UK. We will continue to work with and listen to the devolved Administrations, and to speak to them about what support we can look at across the UK as a whole.

Darren Henry Portrait Darren Henry (Broxtowe) (Con)
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Hospitality businesses are a vital part of our high streets. Winter is the time that these businesses, like many others, make their plans for the next season. They are currently planning in the dark, having been singled out for restrictions and excluded from the Christmas bubble proposals. Therefore, many will have no option but to make some very difficult decisions this Christmas. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to consider a longer-term recovery for this vital component of the high street, and that there is a case to make the 5% VAT rate more permanent—extending it to the end of the financial year—which might help to address the issues of rent, debt and an uncertain cash flow going into 2021?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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My hon. Friend is working hard for his hospitality sector offering in Broxtowe. I will be leaving this place to speak to hospitality sector representatives immediately after this urgent question, and they will have a number of those asks. I look at this sympathetically because, as I have said, the high street is an ecosystem; we must all work together to support the business community as a whole.

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab) [V]
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It is a very worrying time for those employed by Debenhams and Arcadia stores in Denton, Stockport and Manchester, and indeed right across the country. Greater Manchester’s independent prosperity review identified structural changes in the retail sector due to the rise of e-commerce, and sadly we are seeing a rapid acceleration in these changes due to the pandemic. What are the Government doing to put in place a strategic plan for the sector, including retraining and reskilling into digital roles in the sector and in adjacent industries?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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We are working with the retail sector itself, including online businesses like Amazon and Asos, and bricks and mortar businesses providing the retail brands that we all know and love, to make sure that we can get the whole gamut of retail together as one and look at the long-term prospects, including digitisation and increasing the skills of retailers and those wanting to go into the sector.

Mike Wood Portrait Mike Wood (Dudley South) (Con)
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Workers at Debenhams, Dorothy Perkins, Evans, Miss Selfridge, Burton, Top Man and Top Shop in Dudley South face a really worrying time, but the challenges facing retail go much wider. Can my hon. Friend therefore confirm that the £1 billion future high streets fund will be accelerated, and will he join me on a visit to Brierley Hill so that he can see for himself how much our bid will transform the town centre and help to support retail jobs in my constituency?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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Owing to the restrictions it is nice to be offered a trip anywhere, so I will be more than happy to take that up. Yes indeed—the future high streets fund is a really important initiative along the way of tackling the issues in retail and our high streets as a whole. I wish my hon. Friend well in his bid. The results will be announced shortly.

Kate Hollern Portrait Kate Hollern (Blackburn) (Lab) [V]
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There is a Debenhams in my constituency and my thoughts are with the staff at this time, but sadly it is not the only business going to the wall. Yesterday I spoke to Barry, who runs the Bee Hive pub in Blackburn, and he described the Prime Minister’s announcement of £1,000 for pubs as a slap in the face. Barry has spent thousands on making sure that his pub was covid-secure, and with no evidence of spread of the virus in the pub sector, he will now have to throw away thousands more in stock. He is now wondering whether he can survive. So I ask the Minister: did he pluck the figure out of the air, and does his Department think that £1,000 will really be able to save our pubs and, in turn, our high streets?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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Wet-led pubs have a particular issue where they are not offering food, and £1,000 does not go far enough in itself, but it does go alongside the other payments such as the forbearance on rent, the moratorium that is still in place until the end of the year, business rates relief, and VAT relief on certain areas of food—although not necessarily in that pub. I will continue to work with the hospitality sector. It is important to say, as the hon. Lady said, that those in hospitality should not be scapegoated, because they have done so much work to make sure that they can offer a covid 19-secure and warm welcome to their customers.

Angela Richardson Portrait Angela Richardson (Guildford) (Con)
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Guildford High Street is not only picturesque but is home to one of the finest retail offerings in the south-east, including Debenhams and Arcadia brands. We acknowledge not only the difficult uncertainty for employees today but the significant square footage that these businesses occupy and the gaps that they will leave behind. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government must actively work to help the high street to recover from coronavirus and also adapt to the long-term changes that will make our town centres sustainable for the future?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I know Guildford very well. It is a destination for residents around Surrey and further afield. Yes, we must all work together to get the balance right so that we do not hollow out our town centres, including Guildford.

Charlotte Nichols Portrait Charlotte Nichols (Warrington North) (Lab)
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The Debenhams liquidation is a tragedy not only for the thousands of Debenhams employees but for all retailers in shopping centres like Warrington’s Golden Square, where Debenhams is the anchor department store driving footfall for the whole centre. With Arcadia brand stores in Golden Square also at risk, and confidence in the wider retail sector waning, what specific support will shopping centres like Golden Square get to protect all its retailers, their employees, and the vibrancy of our town centres?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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In terms of shopping centres it is really important that we get the balance right between landlords and tenants. The moratorium helps tenants but clearly does not help landlords, so we have to get the balance right. We will work with the retail sector to try to achieve that balance in the weeks and months to come.

Aaron Bell Portrait Aaron Bell (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Con)
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The Dorothy Perkins in Newcastle-under-Lyme was already closed earlier during the pandemic, and we have also lost major tenants such as Laura Ashley and Edinburgh Woollen Mill during this pandemic, so I welcome what we are doing with the future high streets fund. We have a bid in with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Can the Minister confirm that it will be accelerated? We need to hear about that bid as soon as we can so we can get our towns fund bid in as well.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I wish my hon. Friend every success in that bid—the announcement will be forthcoming. It is important that we have small business Saturday coming up this Saturday, and we must make sure independent stores thrive. However, the brands he talks about that are going do drag footfall towards those smaller businesses, which is why we need to look at the high street as a whole.

Hywel Williams Portrait Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC) [V]
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Debenhams is a cornerstone employer in Bangor city centre. Its closure will be a severe blow to the staff who have worked there loyally for many years, and even more so now, I am afraid, because North Wales Mersey Dee Business Council reports that, across the region, 17% of businesses in retail and hospitality have already made redundancies. Thinking creatively, what consideration has the Minister given to material Government support specifically for repurposing large retail spaces into smaller, short-term, start-up units?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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We always work with local authorities to see what initiatives can come up. We work closely with them because it is typically the local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and other business groupings in each local area that know their local economy, and we are always happy to look at any initiatives.

Peter Gibson Portrait Peter Gibson (Darlington) (Con)
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As a student, I worked for the then Burton Group, and I know how vital retail jobs are, especially for students and young people. Can my hon. Friend confirm for my constituents in Darlington who worked at Topshop, Burton and Dorothy Perkins the steps he is taking to provide support, advice and assistance to them?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I thank my hon. Friend, and I commend his work in retail before; many others around the House have done such work. Yes, as well as offering them support through universal credit and other benefits, we will work with them through the Jobcentre Plus and its frontline workers to help them with CV writing, creating opportunities for and sharing opportunities with them, and ensuring that transferable skills have a massive role to play in that.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op)
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Up and down high streets in Nottingham, businesses big and small are really worried about their viability in the early parts of next year. They look at us talking about Debenhams and Arcadia today, and they think we will be back in January, February and March talking about them unless something changes. I ask the Minister the same question they are asking me: beyond reviews and promises of reform in the future, what support is coming now to keep our high streets viable?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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We are keeping our high streets viable by giving people business rates relief and giving businesses a moratorium to make sure they cannot be evicted and cannot be chased for rent debts, but, most importantly, by keeping retail open in all three tiers so that they can actually trade their way out of this. What they want is not handouts, ideally, although they do need the support; they want customers. They want customers for long- term support.

Kieran Mullan Portrait Dr Kieran Mullan (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con)
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But our high streets need all the help that they can get, and the towns of Crewe and Nantwich are facing the highest parking charges in the region, while other towns in the area face none. Would the Minister agree that the local authority should at least ensure there is a level playing field, and perhaps reconsider its decision to reject some initiatives for December to introduce free parking to encourage people back on to the high street?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I thank my hon. Friend, and he is absolutely right. When people are bringing back their heavy bags—after a long evening’s shopping, hopefully, in the lead-up to Christmas—just a simple token like free parking or cheaper parking can really help drive footfall and support our local high streets.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab) [V]
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Debenhams workers have expressed concern about the performance of the administrators. There has been a lack of communication and delays in registering redundancies with the redundancy payments service, which in turn has led to delayed payments to the workers themselves. What can the Minister do to ensure that the rights of workers are protected in these situations?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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Clearly, as I have said, there are measures in place that govern the administrators, but we will keep on top of this. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already written to the administrators to expedite the report. We will also follow up to make sure we keep an eye on them to support workers not only through the administrators and redundancy phase, but back into good work.

Gagan Mohindra Portrait Mr Gagan Mohindra (South West Hertfordshire) (Con)
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As my hon. Friend will know, I was a furniture retailer for many years prior to arriving in this place. This year has been hugely challenging for our high streets, and my thoughts are first and foremost with the employees of Arcadia and Debenhams. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the Government must continue to actively work to help high streets both recover from coronavirus and, more importantly, adapt to the more long-term challenges that our town centres are facing at the moment?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I know that my hon. Friend’s experience as a retailer, and his other work, will be massive in the months to come. Yes, we must ensure that we shape the change of high streets. We must allow businesses to pivot to allow for that change, so that our high streets can survive and thrive.

Christine Jardine Portrait Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West) (LD)
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Like many others, I am concerned about the many workers across Edinburgh and in my constituency who will today be worried about their jobs with Arcadia. My constituency also contains a number of independent shops that are struggling and need a level playing field with the online behemoths of this world, such as Amazon. I have a suggestion and plan to offer postage support for those independent businesses, in the same way as the Government helped the hospitality sector. Would the Minister be prepared to meet me to discuss that?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I will happily meet the hon. Lady. She mentioned independent retailers, and it is important to realise that big anchor stores have a massive effect on smaller businesses if they hollow out the high streets. It is important to look at both sectors alike.

Matt Vickers Portrait Matt Vickers (Stockton South) (Con)
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I too earned my spurs in retail at Woolworths and Home Bargains. This year has been incredibly challenging for high street retailers, and my thoughts are with the employees of Arcadia and Debenhams. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must not only work actively to help high streets recover from the pandemic, but also consider all the other long-term issues they face, from car parking charges to businesses rates? I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on the future of retail, and we would very much like to see the Minister at its next meeting to discuss those issues.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I thank my hon. Friend—his experience will be valuable, and I would be happy to join him at the APPG. It is important not just to consider the immediacy of this, but the fact that with the new normal there is a new reality—a behaviour change that is baked into people’s approach to the high street. It is important to get right that long-term strategic view.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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I am deeply concerned by the situation facing Debenhams, which is a key part of Glasgow city centre, as well as the stores operated by Arcadia. My thoughts are with the staff, and I know that the Scottish Government stand ready with a pay scheme if it is required. Has the Minister established whether HMRC’s Crown preference rules, which came into force yesterday, had any bearing on the decision by Arcadia to go into administration on Monday? Has he calculated how much HMRC stands to lose as a result?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I have not had any information or consideration of that issue as yet.

Nigel Mills Portrait Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con) [V]
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Does the Minster agree that the best way to save these businesses is for people to keep shopping at them? Can he assure people that their rights are protected if they buy vouchers, shop online, or want to return items after Christmas?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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That is a really important issue, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that these businesses want people to trade. At the moment, both Arcadia and Debenhams have said that they will accept vouchers, and I encourage anybody who is shopping at either store to use their credit card if they are spending more than £100, because then the Consumer Credit Act 1974 kicks in. At this moment, vouchers are accepted.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)
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Will the Minister accept that although Putney high street is very much loved and the centre of our local community, people are concerned about the fact that covid is accelerating the number of shops that are going? Will he consider a reform of the business rates, and of the meanwhile use rules, so that we can have more community activities in our shops on the high street?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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There is a really good community in Putney—I was there a few months ago at the business improvement district—and the more we can strip away through encouraging innovation through meanwhile use provisions, the better. I have spoken about the fundamental review of business rates, and it is important that we look at the whole thing.

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con) [V]
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In Harlow, we have an excellent Topshop that has done very well, and clearly the staff are worried about their pensions and their jobs. Surely, the time has come for legislation to stop these robber barons who own these big companies, who plunder the assets, with the taxpayer left to foot the bill and anxious employees losing their jobs and pensions. We should make sure that we seize the assets of those big vulture capitalists and get the money that the hard-working employees deserve.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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My right hon. Friend raises some important points. There is already legislation and regulation in place to look at this. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to the administrators to make sure that they can expedite the report looking at directors’ behaviour, not just in the immediate weeks but looking back to see if anything untoward has happened.

Ian Byrne Portrait Ian Byrne (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab) [V]
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The job losses resulting from what is happening at Arcadia and Debenhams are on top of a series of devastating job losses across the north-west. Vacancies are scarce and people have few places left to turn. In Liverpool, West Derby, we have had increases of over 100% in both youth unemployment and universal credit claimants since March. Will the Government now commit to cancelling their heartless plan to cut universal credit, which will take £20 a week from struggling families in my constituency?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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To flip the question slightly, I know that a number of people up and down the country have been appreciative of the Government’s increase in universal credit to make sure that we can help them through this particularly acute time. Clearly, as I say, we will continue to work not only to support people who are out of a job but to make sure that we can create jobs and opportunities for them to get back into good work.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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Retail is at the heart of our local high streets, and the Government’s huge programme of support has been vital in keeping it going. Will my hon. Friend join me in encouraging my constituents to back Barnet and to come out and shop local on small business Saturday?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My right hon. Friend absolutely nails it, as usual, in supporting her independent retailers—her small businesses. They are the backbone; 99.7% of businesses in this country are small and medium-sized enterprises. She is absolutely right, and I encourage everybody, both in Barnet and across the country, to shop local and get out there and spend money where possible to make sure that there is a high street to enjoy for years to come.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
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Arcadia entering administration and Debenhams going into liquidation is devastating news, with thousands facing the risk of losing their jobs, but this is also an issue of greed, with Philip Green having paid his family a tax-free dividend almost three and a half times more than Arcadia’s current pension pot deficit. Does the Minister agree that while Philip Green retains his fortune, employees should not end up paying the price with their pensions?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Clearly, as I say, the Pensions Regulator has significant powers here, and we will make sure that it has the space and ability to do its job.

Mark Jenkinson Portrait Mark Jenkinson (Workington) (Con)
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My heart goes out to all those affected by the collapse of Arcadia and Debenhams, both of which affect my Workington constituency—particularly Workington town centre, which has a Debenhams anchor. Alongside the stronger towns fund, the Government’s future high streets fund will be crucial to helping town centres not only recover but adapt in the future. In the light of unprecedented challenges this year, can my hon. Friend confirm that future high streets fund decisions are imminent and that the Government will get the cash out of the door quickly so that it can have a positive impact as soon as possible?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I thank my hon. Friend for his work to support Workington. The stronger towns fund and the future high streets fund are two really important instruments in making sure that we have high streets up and down the country that can survive and thrive and that we can be proud of, and we will make sure that those announcements are forthcoming as soon as possible.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
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As Arcadia collapses and jobs are put on the line in Aberdeen and across the country, Amazon pays less than £300 million of tax on almost £14 billion of revenue. Does the Minister therefore agree that, in order to protect our city centres, we need a level playing field and the Government must toughen up their digital services tax?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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This is an important situation. Our hearts must all go out, as they have done today, to the employees of both Arcadia and Debenhams. In terms of an online sales tax, that is something we will look at in the fundamental business rates review. It is important that our high streets survive. There is an understanding that online businesses have an important role to play, but they must pay their fair share of taxes.

Mark Pawsey Portrait Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con)
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The challenges that Arcadia and Debenhams face existed before covid, but they have been accelerated by it as people move online. The Minister outlined the very substantial support the Government are providing to retailers, but, to follow the question from the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), should the Government go further and consider levelling the playing field between bricks and mortar and online retailers through an online sales tax?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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An online sales tax is one consideration that the Treasury will look at, but it is more than that. We need to ensure, in the fundamental business rates review, that there is a connection between businesses, bricks and mortar retailers, and their place, rather than just the customers themselves. There is an important body of work to be done and I know the Treasury will have heard the comments and views today.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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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.

11:30
Sitting suspended.

Coronavirus Vaccine

Wednesday 2nd December 2020

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
13:38
Matt Hancock Portrait The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (Matt Hancock)
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With permission, I would like to make a statement about the coronavirus vaccine.

Today marks a new chapter in our fight against this virus. Ever since the pandemic hit our shores almost a year ago, we have known that a vaccine would be critical to set us free. So all through this arduous year—it has been an arduous year—while we have been working night and day to fight the virus and keep it under control, we have been striving, too, to develop the vaccines that can give us hope and let us eventually release the curbs on our freedoms that have bound us for so long.

Thanks to the incredible work of the Vaccine Taskforce, the Business Secretary and Kate Bingham, we have already amassed a huge portfolio of different vaccine candidates. We have backed seven vaccines and ordered 357 million doses on behalf of the whole UK, one of the biggest portfolios per capita in the world. We have said from the start that a vaccine must be safe and effective before we would even consider deploying it. Any vaccine must go through a rigorous process of clinical trials, involving thousands of people and extensive independent scrutiny from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, one of the world’s most respected medical regulators.

Today, I am delighted to inform the House that the MHRA has issued the clinical authorisation of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. This is a monumental step forward. It is no longer “if” there is going to be a vaccine, but “when”. In our battle against the virus, help is on its way. Today is a triumph for all those who believe in science, a triumph for ingenuity and a triumph for humanity, and I thank everyone who has played their part in this achievement. I thank the team at Pfizer, the team of scientists at BioNTech, the volunteers who stepped up and took part in clinical trials, and the MHRA itself, which made sure that this is a vaccine we can all have faith in. Thanks to their efforts, I can confirm that the UK is the first country in the world to have a clinically approved coronavirus vaccine for supply, and now our task is to make use of the fruits of that scientific endeavour to save lives.

We have spent months preparing for this day, so that as soon as we got the green light, we would be ready to go. We were the first country in the world to pre-order supplies of this successful vaccine, and we have 40 million doses pre-ordered for delivery over the coming months—enough for 20 million people, because two jabs are required for each person. Following authorisation, the next stage is to test each batch of the vaccine for safety. I can confirm that batch testing has been completed this morning for the first deployment of 800,000 doses of vaccine. Those doses are for the whole United Kingdom. This morning, I chaired a meeting of Health Ministers from the devolved Administrations to ensure the roll-out is co-ordinated nationwide.

This will be one of the biggest civilian logistical efforts that we have faced as a nation. It will be difficult. There will be challenges and complications, but I know that the NHS is equal to the task. Rolling out the vaccine, free at the point of delivery and according to clinical need, not ability to pay, is in the finest tradition of our national health service, and I am delighted to confirm that the NHS will be able to start vaccinating from early next week.

The whole purpose of the vaccine is to protect people from covid, so that we can get lives back to normal. We will prioritise the groups who are at greatest risk. This morning, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has published its advice, setting out the order of priority according to clinical need, and that includes care home residents and their carers, the over-80s and frontline health and social care workers. We will deliver according to clinical prioritisation and operational necessity. The need to hold the vaccine at -70˚C makes it particularly challenging to deploy.

While we begin vaccination next week, the bulk of the vaccinations will be in the new year. I urge anyone called forward for vaccination by the NHS to respond quickly to protect themselves, their loved ones and their community.

Over the next few months, we will see vaccines delivered in three different ways. First, we will begin vaccinations in hospital hubs. Secondly, we will deploy through local community services, including GPs and in due course pharmacies, too. Thirdly, we will stand up vaccination centres in conference centres and sports venues, for example, to vaccinate large numbers of people as more vaccines come on stream. This is an important step, but we are not there yet, so I stress that we must all keep playing our part, keep following the new rules that the House approved overwhelmingly yesterday and remember the basics, such as “Hands, face space”, and, “Get a test”, which we know from experience are so important in keeping the virus under control.

Before I finish, may I also update the House on another bit of good news? From today, I am absolutely thrilled to say that we can safely allow visits in care homes for those who test negative for covid-19. Coronavirus has denied so many people the simple pleasure of seeing a loved one, which is so precious to so many, especially in our care homes. This is possible only because of the success we have had in building one of the biggest testing capacities in Europe, with local and national teams working together, side by side—something we have often discussed right across this House. We have worked hard on testing. We have worked hard on the vaccine. Our strategy is suppressing the virus until a vaccine can make us safe. That strategy is working, and I am delighted that we will be able to see families and friends come together ahead of Christmas, thanks to this improvement.

This is a day to remember, frankly in a year to forget. We can see the way out of this but we are not there yet, so let us keep our resolve and keep doing our bit to keep people safe until science can make us free.

13:45
Jonathan Ashworth Portrait Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab/Co-op)
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As always, I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. This is indeed fantastic news about the Pfizer vaccine, and I join him in congratulating all who have been involved in making this happen. We have rightly clapped carers throughout this crisis. I wonder if we should as a nation come together and applaud our scientists as well one evening. It is also incumbent on all of us across the House to reinforce the case that vaccination saves lives, and if it helps, I will stand alongside the Secretary State, socially distanced of course, on any platform or in any TV studio to show that we are united cross-party in promoting vaccination.

Our constituents will have legitimate questions and they should not be ridiculed for asking them, so will the Secretary of State launch a large-scale public information campaign to answer questions and encourage uptake? Will he consider sending a pamphlet, perhaps, to every household? We know that dangerous myths circulate on social media, and we repeat our offer to work with Ministers to curb online harms. I hope we can work together and take something forward on that front.

Hospital trust staff will start receiving this vaccine first. I understand that it is a massive logistical exercise, given the temperatures and the need for two doses, but could the Secretary of State tell us how many NHS staff he expects to be vaccinated by January, which is of course the time when we expect the NHS to be under the most pressure?

Where does this leave social care and care home residents and staff? There are concerns that this particular vaccine cannot be moved multiple times to care homes, so can he set out exactly how and when care home residents will receive a vaccine? Our constituents will want to know: when will primary care networks start rolling out vaccination, and when will the mass vaccination centres he has reported to the House start opening in our communities?

We have historic strengths as a country with vaccination, but in recent years we have lost our measles-free status. We know that vaccination rates can be lower in poorer and vulnerable communities and that covid has often had a disproportionate impact in these communities, so will he ensure that there is a health inequalities strategy as well in his vaccination campaign, so that black and minority ethnic groups, and the poorest and the vulnerable, do not miss out on this vaccine?

I think we all understand that restrictions will have to remain in place for some time, but can the Secretary of State offer us a timeframe or a target for when we should expect to achieve herd immunity and life gets back to normal? Will he consider publishing a route map of what restrictions could be released as vaccination rates increase? In the meantime, if someone is vaccinated, will they still have to isolate if contacted by Test and Trace, or are they now released from that obligation?

On mass testing, some directors of public health have told me that the lateral flow tests are not licensed for door-to-door testing in hotspots and therefore can only be administered at sites. If that is correct, can the Secretary of State resolve it? If is not correct, can he issue urgent clarity to directors of public health? The Government’s document published on Monday suggests that local areas could use mass testing as a freedom pass. Will he outline to the House what that means in practice? Will local areas enforce rules? What happens if some people have had the test but some have not had the test in a particular area that is supposed to be under tier 3? In the House yesterday, the Prime Minister suggested that people may want to take advantage of mass testing ahead of visiting their families this Christmas. Will the Secretary of State update the House on whether that is the plan and how that will be implemented?

We of course welcome the Secretary of State’s news on care homes, but many care homes report that they will need resources to support the testing exercise. Will those resources be in place?

Finally, if mass testing is to work in communities, people will need support to isolate, if it is found that they have covid when they are not feeling unwell. Will the Secretary of State now expand the eligibility criteria for the £500 grant?

This is a good news day, and we should all pay tribute to everyone who was involved—we should pay tribute to the scientists. I will say again, we will work together to make the case that vaccinations save lives.

Matt Hancock Portrait Matt Hancock
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The hon. Gentleman has worked supportively and constructively with the Government throughout this pandemic. I pay tribute to the approach that he has taken, and that he took again today.

I stand with the hon. Gentleman in saying that vaccinations save lives. If we can encourage anybody who might be hesitant to take a vaccine by appearing together to be vaccinated together, of course I would be happy to do that. I recommend that we have a professional vaccinate us, of course—I do not think that he would trust me to do it.

The hon. Gentleman asked for a public information campaign, and there will of course be one. He asked about health inequalities, which are a very important consideration. The best thing to support tackling health inequalities is the fact that we have a vaccine, but we absolutely need to reach all parts and all communities across the whole country.

The hon. Gentleman asked how many will be vaccinated by January. While today brings more certainty, it does not end all uncertainties. We have 800,000 doses that have now passed the batch testing, but the total number to be manufactured over this timeframe is not yet known, because it is all dependent on the manufacturing process, which is itself complicated. After all, this is not a chemical but a biological product, so I cannot answer that question—that is as yet unknowable.

The hon. Gentleman asked when the PCNs and the centres will open. The answer is very soon. We have 50 hospital hubs ready to go from next week. The PCNs are also being stood up, and the centres outside hospitals. They are all coming very soon.

The hon. Gentleman then asked when we will get to lift restrictions. Of course, I understand why not only he but almost everybody in the country wants to know the answer to this question: how many people do we have to vaccinate before we can start lifting the restrictions? The answer to that is that, while we know that the vaccine protects an individual with a 95% efficacy, we do not know the impact of the vaccine on reducing transmission, because of the problem of asymptomatic transmission, which has so bedevilled our response to this virus and made it so hard to tackle.

We do not know the answer to that question, but what we will do is to follow the same five indicators that we were discussing at length yesterday, which are the indicators of the spread of the disease. We will look at the cases, the hospitalisations and of course the number of people who die with covid, and we will hope very much that, as we vaccinate more and more vulnerable people, we will see those rates come down and therefore be able to lift the restrictions. We will have to see how the vaccination programme impacts directly on the epidemic, and then move as swiftly as we safely can to lift the restrictions, which we all want to see gone.

The hon. Gentleman asked about community testing being licensed from door to door. I have not heard about that problem—I will ensure that I get back not only to him, but to those who raised it with him, if he will work with me. I am a bit surprised to hear that. Administering the lateral flow test currently requires a professional, although we hope to move on from that, but as far as I know it can take place in any setting, hence my surprise. However, as the comment was made by a public health professional, I shall dig into it further.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman talked about the testing prospectus we launched on Monday. We hope to be able to use testing to do more things that we would not be able to do without testing. In a way, visits to care homes are an example of that, as something we can now safely recommend that we could not recommend before; so too is testing to release from quarantine people coming into this country. If there are further examples of that sort of enablement of normal life through the use of testing that can be safely done and can be approved by a director of public health and by the chief medical officer and his team, we are enthusiastic about working with local areas to deliver it on the ground.

There are lots of ideas out there, and I urge people to be creative about how we can we can use testing to enable some of the things we love to get going again in a way that keeps people safe. That is what that part of the testing prospectus was about. I am very enthusiastic about it and look forward to working with directors of public health and with colleagues in this House. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that with the roll-out of mass testing and the availability of these tests, we all, as leaders in our local communities, have a role in promoting mass testing. I am sure that there are communities across the country represented in this House that can benefit from the roll-out.

Looking around the Chamber right now, I see many people who have already approached me—not just from Lancashire. I look forward to working with colleagues in all parts of the House to promote this public health message, along with all the other important public health messages we have to promote, not least that if the NHS phones you up or sends you a letter saying that there is a vaccination slot open to you, just say yes.

Bernard Jenkin Portrait Sir Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con)
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I congratulate my right hon. Friend on this moment and the Government on the news about the Pfizer vaccine, but please can we continue to have increased honesty about what we still do not know? We do not know how long the immunity will last, we do not even know whether people who have been vaccinated can still transmit the disease, and of course we do not know whether tier 2 restrictions will succeed in bringing the R rate down. Until we can answer those questions, we will continue to need maximum effort behind contact tracing and isolation of virus spreaders.

Councils including Essex County Council need daily access to all the positive cases recorded by NHS Test and Trace immediately and without delay, so that they can make their own operations effective, so why are they having to wait 48 to 72 hours before they get the data? Also, what are the Government going to do to engage districts and their community volunteer hubs to help to persuade people to support those who must still isolate even if they have been vaccinated?

Matt Hancock Portrait Matt Hancock
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Dealing with the pandemic has been a case of dealing with uncertainty in large degree. Today we have more certainty because we know this vaccine is safe and effective, but just as I said to the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) that we do not know the effect of the vaccine on transmission, so, as my hon. Friend says, we do not know the longevity of its effectiveness.

My hon. Friend is right about another part of public health advice that all of us as local representatives can play a part in promoting: that is, engagement with contact tracing. I will write to him about access to daily data in Essex. Of course we have to wait until the test result comes in, which can sometimes lead to delay, even though the results of the majority of tests done in person now come back within 24 hours, but I agree with him in principle, so let us make it a reality in practice.

Philippa Whitford Portrait Dr Philippa Whitford (Central Ayrshire) (SNP) [V]
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As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on vaccinations for all, I welcome the authorisation of the Pfizer vaccine and echo the shadow Secretary of State’s call for a public health campaign to encourage uptake. It will naturally take some time before the vaccine is widely available, so we all still need to stick to the rules and ensure that we can test, trace, isolate and support all those carrying the virus.

Last week, the Secretary of State claimed that the pilot project of mass testing in Liverpool was responsible for driving down cases, despite the city having been under lockdown for much of the time. Lateral flow tests miss up to 40% of cases, so the Government’s plan to use them to free people from isolation are causing concern among many public health and screening experts. When will the formal assessment of the pilot be published, and how can he justify already putting out tenders for £40 billion-worth of contracts to extend that approach without scientific evaluation? Would it not be better to invest some of that money in getting the traditional test, trace and isolate system working properly? Six months on, the Serco and Sitel system has still not improved, and over 40% of contacts in England are still not being informed that they should be isolating.

The Secretary of State does not often talk about it, but he knows that it is not testing but isolation that stops the spread of the virus, so if people who are carrying the virus are not isolating, no amount of mass testing will stop the spread. When I raised the King’s College London report last week which found that less than 20% of cases and only 10% of contacts were isolating, the Secretary of State claimed that the Government have data showing much higher compliance. Can he tell us the figures for isolation rates for those with covid and their contacts? People will not stay off work if it means that they cannot feed their family, so is he concerned at reports that many requests for the isolation payment are being refused? How will he ensure that those carrying the virus are financially supported to isolate and reduce its spread?

Matt Hancock Portrait Matt Hancock
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The hon. Lady says that I do not talk about contact tracing very much. I was literally answering a question on contact tracing just before her question— I talk of little else. We are publishing further data tomorrow on contact tracing, precisely in response to the question that she asks. She will see that the continued improvement of our contact tracing across the country is advancing further. I cannot say any more than that, because the figures are not being released until tomorrow.

The hon. Lady asked about scientific evaluation. We are constantly scientifically evaluating the work that is going on, especially in Liverpool. That is one of the things that the scientists who work as part of my team, in NHS Test and Trace and in Public Health England do. It is a matter of constant scientific evaluation, but we will not wait until ages after something has finished to do an overly long evaluation. We have to evaluate as we go along, because we are constantly trying to improve the response to this pandemic, and we are constantly trying to learn. I urge her to support the approach of constant learning and constant improvement. We will have to do that through the roll-out of the vaccine too.

Philippa Whitford Portrait Dr Whitford
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indicated dissent.

Matt Hancock Portrait Matt Hancock
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The hon. Lady shakes her head, but that is how we have to deal with a pandemic in practice.

Jeremy Hunt Portrait Jeremy Hunt (South West Surrey) (Con)
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This is a huge personal triumph for the Health Secretary, who has always backed the science. In choosing and backing on behalf of the country the first vaccine to prove efficacious, he has scored a massive goal for the country; he deserves great credit for that. It will also have global significance. I was in a meeting with the World Health Organisation this morning, which congratulated the UK on being the first country to approve a vaccine, because it will encourage other countries around the world to approve vaccines faster.

I want to ask the Health Secretary about something different, which is the plight of people with learning disabilities. He will know that Public Health England says that they are two to four times more likely to die from covid. The news he has given this morning about people in care homes is tremendously welcome, but people with learning disabilities often feel that they are forgotten, particularly those in supported accommodation. Will he redouble his efforts to ensure that they, too, are able to be reunited with their families ahead of Christmas?

Matt Hancock Portrait Matt Hancock
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My right hon. Friend is gracious and kind in what he says, and I welcome the WHO’s comments this morning. It has supported the UK approach and rightly commended the MHRA, our independent regulator. It has followed all the same steps that any high-quality regulator would, should and will, but it has followed them rapidly and sometimes in parallel, instead of one after the other. That is how we have got to the position of being the first country in the world to have a vaccine that is clinically authorised; it is because the MHRA has done a brilliant job, working with Pfizer and BioNTech, to make sure that the same safety considerations are looked at but in a way that made the process as fast as is feasibly and safely possible. The WHO has backed that approach. Regulators around the world could take a look at the MHRA, and we should all congratulate it.

My right hon. Friend rightly asks about making sure we vaccinate those with learning disabilities and offer them vaccination at the right point in the prioritisation. I have discussed that important consideration directly with the JCVI, which takes into account the higher mortality of those with any given condition and has done so in the prioritisation that it set out this morning. Age is the single biggest determinant of mortality from coronavirus, which is why age is the predominant factor in the prioritisation, but it is not the only one. That matter has been considered by the JCVI and it is important that we accept and follow the JCVI advice as much as is practicable in the delivery and deployment of this vaccine.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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It is, indeed, a fantastic day. I add my thanks and congratulations to everybody who has been involved in getting us to this point, not just in the UK, but worldwide, because this is a great example of global scientific collaboration. May I also pick up on the point about batch testing, which the Secretary of State mentioned on the radio this morning and in his statement? Will he clarify that if we signed up to a mutual recognition agreement with the EU, we would not need to batch test the vaccine again once it arrives in the UK, which could slow down the process, not least because having enough qualified persons to do the batch release testing could be a real challenge? Is he working on a mutual recognition agreement?