National Insurance Contributions Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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2nd reading
Monday 14th June 2021

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber
National Insurance Contributions Act 2022 View all National Insurance Contributions Act 2022 Debates Read Hansard Text
Jesse Norman Portrait The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Jesse Norman)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill before the House today is a short one, with just four measures: an employer’s national insurance contributions relief for employees in freeports; an employer’s NICs relief for employers of veterans; an exemption for Test and Trace support payments from self-employed NICs; and changes to the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes legislation with regard to national insurance contributions. The measures are all important, and I shall explain each of them in more detail.

I shall start with the employer’s NICs relief for employees in freeports. At the Budget, the Chancellor announced the locations of the first eight freeports. These sites, which range from Teesside to Tilbury, will become hubs for trade, innovation and commerce. They will attract new businesses and they will regenerate communities by creating jobs, boosting investment and spreading prosperity. Overall, freeports present an extraordinary opportunity to drive regional economic growth, and the Government want as many areas as possible to benefit.

An important part of the appeal of freeports for employers is undoubtedly the wide range and variety of tax reliefs that they provide. These include an enhanced 10% rate of structures and buildings allowance, an increased 100% capital allowance for companies investing in plant and machinery, and full relief from stamp duty on land or property purchases.

The employer’s NICs relief for workers in freeports contained in the Bill encourages employment while supporting regional growth. Under this measure, employers with premises in a freeport in Great Britain will be exempt from employer’s NICs on up to £25,000 of a new worker’s wages. This legislation applies to all new workers who spend 60% of their working time at a freeport tax site in the first three years of employment.

The relief will be available from April next year until at least April 2026. At that point, a sunset clause will require the Government to lay secondary legislation to extend the relief, if they wish, for up to a further five years to April 2031. Any decision to extend will only be taken upon review of the relief’s impact. However, even if the Government decided not to extend the relief, employers will be able to claim it for the full three years on new hires taken on before April 2026. While these measures relate to Great Britain, let me assure the House that it is the Government’s intention to legislate for this relief in Northern Ireland as soon as is practicable. Indeed, the Bill provides the Government with the power to set out the detail of employer NICs relief in Northern Ireland in secondary legislation once engagement with the Northern Ireland Executive is complete.

The second of our measures concerns NICs relief for employers of veterans. As colleagues will recall, this policy was announced at spring Budget 2020. It also fulfils a manifesto commitment to reduce employer NICs for a full year for every new employee who has left the armed forces. The House will know well that I am very closely connected to the astonishing work of special forces in Hereford, but the veterans of our armed forces across the United Kingdom give extraordinary service to this nation. We know that some face great challenges in obtaining secure and fulfilling employment, so it is only right that we should do all we can to change this situation. Under the Bill, employers will not pay employer NICs on earnings worth up to £50,270 in a veteran’s first full year of civilian employment. This amounts to a saving of up to £5,500 per hired veteran. I am sure that colleagues across the House will agree that this measure should give a real boost to veterans’ employment prospects, and should mean that many more businesses benefit from their often extraordinary skills and personal experience.

I now turn to the exemption of Test and Trace support payments from self-employed NICs. Last September, the Government announced the launch of a £500 support payment in England for low-income individuals who had been told to self-isolate but who could not work from home and would lose income as a result. Shortly afterwards, the Scottish and Welsh Governments announced similar schemes. These payments, which were provided by local authorities, would be subject to employee and employer class 1 and 1A and self-employed class 2 and class 4 NICs under long-standing legislation. Last year, however, the Government introduced secondary legislation to exempt payments under the support schemes from employee and employer class 1 and 1A NICs. The measure contained in the Bill will extend this exemption to the self-employed. It will ensure that these workers are treated consistently with their employed counterparts and do not have to pay NICs on support payments. The legislation will therefore retrospectively exempt Test and Trace support payments from class 2 and class 4 NICs for the 2020-21 tax year. It will also ensure that in future Test and Trace support payments will not be included in profit liable to class 2 and class 4 NICs.

The final measure in the Bill relates to changes in the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes—DOTAS—regime in relation to NICs. As colleagues will recall, the DOTAS legislation was introduced in 2004. It seeks to provide Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs with early information about new tax avoidance schemes—information on how they work and about those who use them. The provisions in the Finance Act 2021 enhanced the operation of the DOTAS regime, and the Bill includes changes to an existing regulation-making power in the Social Security Administration Act 1992. This will ensure that HMRC can act decisively over a wider range of promoters and their supply chains if they fail to provide information on suspected avoidance schemes. It will also ensure that HMRC can warn taxpayers about suspected avoidance schemes at an earlier stage than at present. In addition, the Bill places responsibility for the obligations within DOTAS and for any failure to comply with them both on promoters of these schemes and their suppliers. I am sure all colleagues across the House will welcome these measures.

The Bill supports regional growth and, with it, the Government’s levelling-up agenda; boosts employment while helping to protect those on low incomes from the financial impacts of covid-19; and strengthens the Government’s powers to tackle promoters of avoidance schemes. For all those reasons, I commend it to the House.

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James Murray Portrait James Murray
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I was awaiting the hon. Gentleman’s intervention—I was definitely expecting it given the recent debates we have had in this place—and if he will wait just one moment, I will get on to setting out our position on freeports in more detail.

We were concerned at the recent Report stage of the Finance Bill that the Government themselves seemed to show a lack of certainty by voting against our simple amendment to the Finance Bill that would have seen the success of each individual freeport transparently evaluated. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will remember, we wanted each freeport to be judged against the key tests of whether, across the country, they lead to any net increase in jobs, deliver improvements in training and skills for local residents, produce tangible transport and infrastructure improvements beyond the port itself and will be adequately protected against the risks of tax evasion, smuggling and criminal activity. It is disappointing that the Government voted against the transparent evaluation of their proposed freeports. Not only would this have enabled us to judge their success, but some of the factors we highlighted in our tests would in fact make investment in freeports more attractive to businesses.

Indeed, in response to the Government’s own consultation on freeports last year, many respondents argued that

“although tax incentives can be a significant driver behind businesses investing within an area, they were not usually the sole determinant.”

The Government’s summary of responses went on to explain:

“Some respondents also indicated the success of tax incentives was partially dependent on local factors, especially the quality of transport infrastructure and the skills and availability of local labour.”

As we consider the tax relief before us today, it is therefore important to remind the Government not to ignore the other aspects of the operation of freeports that may be key to their success.

On this tax relief, I would like to ask Ministers to address three specific points that arise from the Bill. First, while relief to employer’s national insurance contributions may be a reasonable part of a tax incentive package along with other tax incentive measures, it is hard to understand why this relief is conditional on employment not commencing until 6 April 2022. As the Chartered Institute of Taxation has pointed out, with freeports expected to start operating in 2021, that would surely hamper freeport employers this year and perhaps create perverse incentives about delaying the start of an employee’s work. I would be grateful if the Exchequer Secretary set out in her response the Government’s reasoning behind this condition on accessing the relief.

Secondly, clause 8 of the Bill enables the Government to set an upper secondary threshold for employer class 1 national insurance contributions specifically in relation to freeport employees—and, indeed, for armed forces veterans, which I will turn to shortly. In practice, this means that employers do not need to pay NICs until an employee’s earnings pass that threshold. We note that the upper secondary threshold for freeport employees will, according to a policy paper published by the Government on 12 May, be set at £25,000 for 2022-23. That is substantially less than the equivalent thresholds for employers’ relief for under-21s and apprentices, which is £50,270 in 2021-22. Just to be clear, this means that employers do not need to pay any NICs for under-21s and apprentices earning up to just over £50,000 a year, but they will have to pay contributions for freeport employees next year if they earn more than £25,000. It would be helpful to understand the Government’s rationale for picking this figure. According to the Office for National Statistics, the median income in all those local authority areas where the eight freeport sites are located is greater than £25,000, with the figures ranging from £25,200 in Kingston upon Hull, within the Humber freeport, to £33,200 in Thurrock, within the Thames freeport. I therefore ask the Exchequer Secretary to explain why the relief for freeport employers is set below median pay in all freeport areas and why this rate is half of that for those employing under-21s and apprentices.

Thirdly, as the plans for freeports stand, businesses taking advantage of their tax incentives will still pay corporation tax. British businesses that pay their fair share of tax will find it very hard to understand why the Chancellor has been for so long so lukewarm about a new, global minimum corporate tax rate to stop large multinationals undercutting them by exploiting tax havens around the world. The Chancellor welcomed the rate being cut from the original 21% proposed by President Biden down to 15%, even though that would cost Britain £131 million a week and leave British businesses being undercut. When I have asked the Financial Secretary before about the Government’s position, he said he did not think

“it is appropriate for Ministers to comment on tax policy in flight”.—[Official Report, 28 April 2021; Vol. 693, c. 418.]

Now, however, the outcomes of the G7 Finance Ministers’ meeting and the Carbis Bay summit are public, so perhaps his colleague, the Exchequer Secretary, could explain why the UK Government’s position has been to back a rate of 15%.

Let me move on to other measures in the Bill. As we have heard, an important relief, covered by clauses 6 and 7—

Jesse Norman Portrait Jesse Norman
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I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman some satisfaction on that question. What is extraordinary is how the Labour party has continuously sought to pretend that things are other than they actually are in relation to this deal. Let us just talk about that for a second. In the first case, the G7 is a package—it is a process. Were we, as Labour would have had us do, to ignore the pillar 1 aspects, there would then have been no argument, no debate and no proper taxation of platforms in the areas where the new taxing rights will reside. That would have been a serious, serious deficit. The whole point of the package is to see it as a package, and it predated the Biden Administration. We have greatly benefited as a world from their additional support, but it is by no means up to them; it is an OECD process, of which they have been an important recent supporter.

James Murray Portrait James Murray
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I thank the Minister for engaging on what has happened in the negotiations about the new global deal, but I notice that he did not address the issue about the headline rate. I have asked him on several occasions, perhaps three or four times in recent months in this place, to explain why the Government have been so lukewarm about an ambitious rate of 21%, as proposed by President Biden, and instead favoured its being cut to 15%, which is indeed what has happened. I note that when the right hon. Gentleman got to his feet a few moments ago, he did not address the headline rate. Labour Members continue to worry that we are missing out on a once-in-a-generation opportunity to strike a truly ambitious global deal to stop a few large multinationals avoiding paying their fair share of tax.

James Murray Portrait James Murray
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I will make some progress, if that is okay.

James Murray Portrait James Murray
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I tell you what, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will give way if the right hon. Gentleman addresses the specific point about 15% and 21%.

Jesse Norman Portrait Jesse Norman
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As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is completely inappropriate for a Minister to comment on confidential negotiations with allies and other nations around the world. He is ignoring that this is a package and the package involves two pillars, the second of which is a 15% rate, globally agreed, one that reconciles and acknowledges different countries around the world which have different tax regimes and different supports. The Government have been in no way lukewarm on pillar 2. What the Government have insisted on, in contradiction to the Labour party and against the ill-fated and ill-advised suggestions that it has made, is pillar 1, which is the crucial component of this that allows us to tax platforms. It is extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman refuses to acknowledge that under a Labour party Administration, there would have been no taxation of these platforms. What on earth does he say to that?

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Sarah Olney Portrait Sarah Olney (Richmond Park) (LD)
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The Bill seeks to achieve a range of aims, but like most things that the Government are currently attempting, it misses the opportunity to achieve a great deal more.

The Liberal Democrats welcome the provisions that will enable a 0% rate of national insurance contributions to be paid by employers of former members of the armed forces. Glass Door, a charity in my constituency that provides shelters and outreach for homeless people and rough sleepers, has described to me how past trauma is a key risk factor in becoming homeless and how the two groups most at risk are survivors of childhood sexual abuse and armed forces veterans. Like many Members across the House, I am deeply concerned about how we care for our servicemen and women, and I support all measures to assist them in their post-service life. The Liberal Democrats unequivocally welcome an incentive for businesses to bring them into new employment.

We also welcome the straightening out of any unintended tax consequences that have arisen from covid payments in the past 18 months. The British public have been extraordinary in their response to the crisis and have willingly played their part in staying at home to protect the NHS and save lives. For many individuals, that will have had a direct financial consequence, and it is absolutely right that any payments made to mitigate such financial consequences should be free from tax and national insurance. There is no doubt that people would willingly have gone out and earned national insurance contribution income if the Government had not asked them not to. It is only fitting that their financial sacrifices be properly recognised in our tax and benefits system.

I support the comments made by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) about tax avoidance schemes and the extent to which they are being promoted. I support measures to clamp down on such schemes, particularly where vulnerable taxpayers are being targeted and potentially lured, dare I say it, into investing in schemes that would bring them into default in their tax affairs; we have seen that happening in relation to the loan charge, as he mentioned. I would like to see the Government doing more to clamp down on these schemes, and I welcome any measures to do so.

The Bill also makes provision for 0% national insurance contributions for employers in freeports. The Government have made a great deal of their plans for freeports; they appear to have great hopes for their abilities to bring economic revival to our country following Brexit and the pandemic. The extent to which that looks likely to be achieved remains uncertain. The Government have not yet published an assessment of the likely impact of this national insurance reduction, which leads me to believe that that uncertainty is continuing. If the Government are unable to say how much the Treasury will lose from the cut in national insurance, one can conclude only that they do not yet have any confidence in how much they expect freeports to boost employment.

What is certain is that the Government have not yet brought forward any other plans to boost economic growth following Brexit and the pandemic. I regret that they are missing the opportunity to boost growth in other sectors and in regions that are not lucky enough to benefit from a freeport.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Kemi Badenoch)
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The hon. Lady says that the Government do not have any additional plans for growth. We launched a plan for growth in the Budget with three pillars—infrastructure, innovation and skills—to tackle net zero post covid and take our opportunities for global Britain on leaving the EU, so she is quite wrong to say that we have not done anything to plan for growth.

Sarah Olney Portrait Sarah Olney
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I very much welcome the Exchequer Secretary’s intervention. I am happy to stand corrected, and I very much look forward to seeing the impacts of those plans right across the nation, because as far as I am concerned, the significant weakness of the plan for freeports is that it cherry-picks areas for investment while ignoring the needs of many other communities across the country. That is why I say that the Bill is a missed opportunity: because to target the national insurance cut just at areas that will have a freeport is to ignore the impact that such a cut could have across many sectors that could provide fantastic opportunities for employment as we come out of the pandemic. There is a very real danger that freeports will divert business activity from areas outside freeports, and that this measure will hit the public finances without any subsequent increase in economic activity.

I believe that the Government would make much better use of the national insurance contributions scheme by stimulating economic growth in ways proven to be effective. For example, an increase in the annual employment allowance to £16,000 could benefit every small and medium-sized enterprise. It would allow employers to take on up to five workers each without making contributions, which would be a substantial boost to communities across the country and would do much more to boost employment across the nation than these hand-picked benefits whose impact cannot be measured.

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Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Kemi Badenoch)
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I would like to thank Members for their well-considered contributions to what has been a very productive debate, and I am very grateful for the support across the House on Second Reading. A range of perspectives has been presented here today, but I think we are all agreed that this is an important piece of legislation, which assists this country’s recovery from covid-19 and helps us prepare for a better future.

Before I address some of the specific points raised by Members today, I will briefly reiterate the Bill’s main measures and outline what they seek to achieve. First, this Bill supports the delivery of the Government’s freeports programme and boosts regional growth. It achieves this through the introduction of an employer national insurance contributions relief for businesses based in freeports that take on workers. This measure will play a major part in helping these new economic zones to create jobs, drive growth and revitalise local communities.

Secondly, this Bill delivers on a Conservative party manifesto commitment by introducing an employer national insurance contributions relief for organisations that recruit armed forces veterans. This will encourage firms to take on former services personnel, as so eloquently put by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne), boosting veterans’ employment prospects. On this point, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised an excellent point about working better with veterans charities, and I agree that this is something that employers and Government should do more of. In turn, this measure will allow even more businesses to benefit from veterans’ abilities, skills and experience, and I am sure Members would agree that this represents a valuable opportunity for firms up and down the country.

Thirdly, this Bill provides an exemption from self-employed national insurance contributions for test and trace support payments, which will apply retrospectively. This measure will ensure self-employed workers benefit from parity with their employed counterparts and are not penalised if they need to self-isolate and therefore submit a claim.

As I have outlined, the Bill supports workers and the wider economy, but it also contains measures targeted at those who threaten our country’s financial wellbeing. The final measure is the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes regime introduced by this Bill, which boosts HMRC’s powers to deal with the promoters of such unscrupulous arrangements. In addition, it will help ensure that taxpayers are better informed about the risks posed by avoidance schemes. This measure will deter the operators of such schemes and better protect consumers.

I will now move to the specific questions raised by Members. There were several questions from the Opposition Front Bench. The hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray) asked why the self-employed national insurance contribution exemption was not legislated earlier. The answer is that class 1 NICs exemptions were made in regulations. However, the self-employed exemption requires primary legislation, and therefore is included in this Bill, as this is the earliest opportunity to legislate.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the upper secondary threshold for freeports and why, at £25,000, this is lower than for other reliefs and what the rationale was. The answer is that, unlike other NICs reliefs that are available to employers nationally and generally are targeted at specific groups of employees with particular characteristics, businesses operating in a freeport are likely to be able to claim the relief on almost all of their new hires. To balance generosity of support with the need to consider the public finances, this broader eligibility has been balanced by limiting the amount of salary that can be relieved. We have chosen to set this limit at £25,000 per annum, which is approximately the average salary in the UK. Employees with earnings at or below this limit will be eligible for full employer NICs relief, and employers will still be able to claim up to approximately £6,500 of relief on the salaries of employees earning more than this.

The hon. Gentleman asked why the relief was not starting until April 2022. The Government have been clear that this relief is only available on new hires from April 2022, and set this out in the “Freeports Bidding Prospectus” published in autumn 2020. The reason why is that having a clear start date is a simple approach that will support the freeport businesses. Further, a freeport tax site needs to be designated so that the location requirements can be met, otherwise there would be no reference in legislation for what geographical area constitutes a freeport tax site.

On the veterans scheme, I believe the hon. Gentleman asked why the relief was just for a year compared with that for freeports, and he said that it needed to be longer. The answer is that the relief provides employers with up to £5,500 in savings per veteran that they employ. The aim of that policy is to support veterans’ transition into civilian life through encouraging employers to hire veterans.

Finally, on corporation tax, the hon. Gentleman asked a question about the 15% rate. The reason the global rate of 15% was settled on is that, at that value, it will protect against multinational tax avoidance while leaving appropriate room for countries to use corporation tax as a lever to support their economic, fiscal and environmental objectives.

I now turn to some of the questions raised by the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who asked why we are having freeports now, after they have not necessarily worked in the past. He has forgotten one thing: we have left the European Union. Leaving the EU means that we have an opportunity to do things differently. We have developed an ambitious new freeport model to ensure that towns and cities across the UK can benefit from fantastic new international trade opportunities. Freeports can attract new investment and employment in left-behind communities across the UK, and the further benefits include a simplified customs process. Our freeports will offer tax measures to incentivise private business investment, carefully considered planning reforms to facilitate much needed construction, and additional targeted funding for infrastructure improvements in freeport areas to level up communities and increase employment opportunities. This is therefore a much more ambitious policy than the previous freeports that the right hon. Gentleman referenced.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s question about evidence-based policy and the wider impact of freeports, we believe that the relief will significantly reduce the cost of taking on new employees and doing business in the freeport. That, along with other tax reliefs being offered as part of the wider package, will support businesses, but the Government have not yet agreed and finalised successful bidders’ tax site proposals. Any modelling that we have done to support the process remains sensitive to the locations chosen, and we will be in a better place to conduct more detailed modelling once tax sites have been agreed with the Government. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether that would be completed before the end of the passage of the Bill. That will not be done before we finish this Bill. However, the Government will outline the process for confirming tax sites in due course.

There were several questions about the Union. Freeports in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones), the hon. Members for Gordon (Richard Thomson) and for Strangford, and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar). I say to all of them that we want to ensure that the whole of the UK can benefit. We are thrilled that there is demand for freeports across the United Kingdom, and we remain committed to establishing at least one freeport in Wales as soon as possible. Discussions about the best way to establish a freeport in countries outside England, such as Scotland, are complex. It would not be appropriate for me to elaborate on those private discussions. However, those are things that the Treasury is considering in detail.

On the point that the hon. Member for Strangford made about Northern Ireland, we are working with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that a suitable model for an NI freeport is developed. We will ensure that we meet our international legal obligations in Northern Ireland. It is appropriate that we take our time to ensure that the freeports model for Northern Ireland meets these obligations while delivering a competitive offer for the ports, businesses and communities in that country.

There was a question about displacement of economic activity from other local areas—I believe it was from the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington. That is something that we have considered. We still believe that this proposal will encourage new investment and create jobs in deprived communities, and will not cause harmful displacement.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to explain this Bill’s measures and the context behind them. To sum up, this Bill supports the regional growth that is integral to furthering our levelling-up agenda, and is part of our plan for growth, as I said to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney). It plays a part in shielding self-employed people from the full financial impact of covid-19, while boosting our veterans’ employment prospects. It strengthens HMRC’s powers to tackle the organisers of tax avoidance schemes. There are clearly a number of points that we can expect to discuss at greater length when this legislation moves to Committee stage, but for the purposes of this debate I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

National Insurance Contributions Bill (Programme)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the National Insurance Contributions Bill:


(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.

Proceedings in Public Bill Committee

(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Tuesday 22 June.

(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.

Proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading

(4) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which proceedings on Consideration are commenced.

(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.

(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading.

Other proceedings

(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

Question agreed to.

Thangam Debbonaire Portrait Thangam Debbonaire (Bristol West) (Lab)
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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Further to earlier points of order, as matters seem to have moved on, I seek urgent clarification on the process that we are in the middle of, given that Mr Speaker appeared to be deeply unhappy earlier and that we are now facing a wait of possibly up to two hours to hear from the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on a matter that the Prime Minister has already addressed the press about.

We understand that the Prime Minister was not available at 3.30; we know that and that is reasonable. Since then, though, the Prime Minister has addressed the press. His comments are causing concern and confusion, but the House has to wait two hours more. This is treating the House with disdain. Parliament is sovereign. What is more, the Prime Minister himself ran on a campaign of Parliament being sovereign—sovereign, Madam Deputy Speaker. Our constituents deserve better.

I wonder whether those on the Treasury Bench have had time to reflect on the matter since the earlier points of order. Can you tell me, Madam Deputy Speaker, whether you or the House have had any word from No. 10 about coming here now to clear up the confusion and whether the Prime Minister is willing to face questions from Members of Parliament on behalf of our constituents? I seek your urgent clarification, because we feel that the Prime Minister is treating this House with contempt.