As it seems that the SNP has been doing its best to make the Borgias look respectable in recent weeks, I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman would wish to have such a debate, but it would be an opportunity to point out how the SNP Government are failing Scotland in terms of its education and its policing. The SNP Government recently stated that they would have done just as well with the vaccine roll-out by themselves, when under a year ago, the SNP spokesman was asking why they had not joined the European scheme and whether it was a great failure not to have joined it. So a debate on the failings of the SNP, its lack of success and its lack of drive in its position in charge of the Government of Scotland would be one that would have many speakers and there would be a great deal to say. However, over the next few days we have to deal with ping-pong with the House of Lords, so I regret to say that there will not be time for that pleasurable discussion.
The towns fund, to which the hon. Lady refers, is a really good way of helping high streets to improve and of ensuring their viability, and it is available up and down the country. It is an important and successful initiative, which is helping to restore high streets that faced such difficult times and have found it even harder during the pandemic. I refer her to what I said about the amounts of money made available to local government bodies during this pandemic; unprecedented levels of support have been provided, showing the strength of the centre in supporting the localities, including her constituency.
Exams will go ahead next summer, as they are the fairest and most appropriate way to measure a pupil’s attainments. We are ensuring that students now have more time to prepare for their exams next year, and AS-levels, A-levels and GCSEs will mainly be held three weeks later to help to address the disruption caused by the pandemic. We are taking great steps to support all children to ensure that they do not fall behind because of the pandemic, with a £1 billion catch-up plan, £650 million of which was in the catch-up premium, helping pupils to make up for lost time in education, and £350 million in the national tutoring programme, a package of targeted funding for the most disadvantaged pupils. So steps are being taken, and exams will take place because they are the best way of judging students’ progress.
It is very reassuring to see the hon. Gentleman, albeit virtually, all in one piece. I join him in congratulating Black Knights for ensuring that everything happened safely. How inspirational it is of him, as a local constituency MP, to be raising money for such an important cause, GM1. I suggest, initially, that this is very suitable for an Adjournment debate, which would of course receive a ministerial response.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Free, unhindered attendance at Parliament is one of our most ancient rights, going back to 1340. There is no law and no local lockdown that may prohibit elected Members from attending Parliament. But let us understand what we do in this House. Let us not downgrade our role. We are an essential service. It is crucial that the Government are held to account when extraordinary powers are taken, powers that many of us never thought a Government would be taking in our lifetimes. These must be scrutinised and voted on. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to use the word “duty”, which you personify, Mr Speaker. You have done your duty every day and we should do our duty, too.
The police are obviously operationally independent, so I would not want to speak about a particular case. I will say this, however. Freedom of speech is one of the pillars of our constitution. Without freedom of speech we find that democracy fails, because there is no ability to question what people are doing and saying. We know that over the centuries regimes that attack freedom of speech often do so through legal means. We used to have criminal libel in this country, which was used in the 18th century to silence people who said disobliging things about the Government. We do not want to be in the situation where laws are used to stop freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is valuable whether it is responsible speech or irresponsible speech, as long as it does not incite hatred or violence. That is the key, and freedom of speech must be protected by this House.
We miss the hon. Gentleman too and look forward to seeing him back here in due course. I was pleased to note that he asked a question to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care earlier, so he remains an enormously active Member of Parliament, although I recognise his general point that it is harder to get in during Question Time than it was before.
With regard to building works in the Palace, I am delighted to be able to say that that is a matter for the House of Commons Commission. The spokesman for the Commission answers questions periodically, and I am sure the matter will come up next time. We all look forward to seeing the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) back here in due course.
We should take such pride in the history that is displayed through the art in this House. It might be a slightly Whiggish view of history, but if we go to Committee Room 10, we see Alfred the Great defeating the Danes, starting our great island story. If we walk from here to the House of Lords, we see on the walls the whole process of the civil war, with King Charles I raising his standard at Nottingham, and we see the birds that flew—we see the history of our nation. It is something that we should be proud of, for we are a great nation; a successful nation; one of the greatest nations the world has ever seen; and we have done so much good, not just at home but abroad, and we should be proud of that. We should recognise that how our forefathers have recorded our history is not something we should dispose of. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has said:
“Statues and other historical objects were created by generations with different perspectives and understandings of right and wrong… they play an important role in teaching us about our past… Rather than erasing these objects, we should seek to contextualise…them in a way that enables the public to learn about them in their entirety… Our aim should be to use them to educate people about all aspects of Britain’s complex past, both good”—
in my view, primarily good—and occasionally bad. The word “occasionally” is an edit of my own.
The Government have set out infrastructure plans that involve spending billions of pounds across the country and this is where the effect will be felt. Money has been made available to local councils to bring forward infrastructure programmes that they already have in the pipeline. Of course, there will be individual proposals and programmes that are subject to delays, but the overall record and ambition of this Government in building infrastructure is second to none.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome of what is being done for the hospitality sector; I am grateful for this level of cross-party support. Imminent is imminent. I cannot do more than reiterate the Prime Minister’s words, although perhaps we should consult the great dictionary of Dr Johnson—not an ancestor, I believe—to see what “imminent” means.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Freedom of speech is fundamental to how our society operates. Democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech and the rights of property are the four pillars on which our constitution is built—a constitution that has thrived through the centuries. If we take away freedom of speech, we undermine all the other pillars that have supported our constitution.
It is a requirement in state-funded schools to teach a broad and balanced curriculum that promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at schools, and that must be done in a way that encourages freedom of speech. The key to that is that we all have to accept the right of people to express views not only that we do not like but that, on occasions, we even find offensive. If we accept only views that we like and find unchallenging, there is no freedom of speech.
The Government have made enormous steps to protect jobs with more than £124 billion of support from taxpayers’ money, which I will reiterate just in case the hon. Lady was not listening earlier. The job retention scheme is supporting 9.3 million jobs at a cost of £25.5 billion, and 2.6 million self-employed people are being supported at a cost of £7.7 billion. There have been 52,000 loans through the coronavirus business interruption loans scheme for small and medium-sized enterprises at a cost of £11 billion. There have been 359 loans for larger companies at a cost of £2.3 billion. There have been more than 960,000 bounce-back loans, worth over £29.5 billion, plus £10.57 billion for business grants for 861,000 firms. What the Government have done is to ensure that the economy lasts through the crisis so it may recover when the crisis ends. That has been the right thing to do.
My hon. Friend is so right, and it is a bit sorrowful, isn’t it, that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) titters when we are thanking people who have done their duty? I agree with my hon. Friend that the commitment to this House and to Parliament of the Doorkeepers, the caterers, the cleaners and, Mr Speaker, your team, is quite remarkable. May I be indiscreet? I asked a senior member of your team yesterday—and this will give the game away—whether she was pleased to be back, and she said:
“How could you be away from doing something that is so important?”
Being in Parliament is fundamental to the governance of the nation and people have made sacrifices to be here, and, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, I am grateful.
I am sorry to disagree with the hon. Lady, interesting though it is to observe the guitar that is behind her, given the fascination that we have in being nosey about where people are calling in from. We have ensured that the proper Parliament can continue. When scrutiny was impossible without hybridity, we had hybridity. Now that it is possible for reasonable numbers to come back, we are coming back as far as possible while continuing to make arrangements for people such as the hon. Lady to vote by proxy if they so wish and to appear remotely in interrogative sessions. That is the right way to proceed. People who can go back to work because they need to be back at work should go back to work, and we are leading by example.
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”.
My hon. Friend makes her point extremely well. As we have heard previously, these are matters of concern across the House. As I said earlier, the Government are taking steps to help the artistic community, as they are helping the whole of the economy. The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has acknowledged that social distancing makes staging performances exceptionally difficult for theatres, and that the industry will need a different approach form other sectors. We might end up with different ways of going to the theatre and with more live streaming and so on. Over the next few weeks my right hon. Friend will be convening experts in a targeted way and bringing together our leading performers from theatres, choirs and orchestras with medical experts and advisers in the hope that a solution can be found that will preserve our heritage in the way that my hon. Friend suggests.