My hon. Friend raises a point of concern. When I served on the Treasury Committee some years ago, I tried to encourage its then Chairman, my noble Friend Lord Tyrie, to hold an inquiry into the borrowing by councils of money for speculative investments, which is obviously a risk. I am glad to tell my hon. Friend that on 28 July the Government published plans to strengthen the capital framework to prevent councils from taking on excessive risk. That must be the right thing to do.
The hon. Lady has, in a way, answered her own question, because there will be a debate on this important issue. I have just set out the four targets for COP26, and there will be questions to the President-elect of COP26 on 20 October, shortly after the House has returned from recess.
I agree that the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal was one of the worst scandals in our history. My hon. Friend is right to raise the matter; what has happened in his constituency has been appalling. Child criminal exploitation is one of the most heinous crimes, and the Government are determined to do what we can to tackle it. As there is already a Children’s Commissioner for England whose remit is that she
“promotes and protects the rights of children, especially the most vulnerable, and stands up for their views and interests”,
I encourage my hon. Friend in the first instance to put pressure on the Children’s Commissioner to focus time on this very important issue, because it is sometimes easier to use the tools to hand than to create new tools.
As so often at business questions, I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who raises the most important and sensitive issues that have widespread support across the House. Yes, of course I will help in any way I can to promote World Suicide Prevention Day. It is the greatest blow to families and those left behind when a suicide takes place, and so many can be prevented with the right support, care and knowledge. Charitable bodies including the Samaritans do wonderful work to help, but if there is anything that I can do, I will work with the hon. Lady to do so.
This is an issue that every Member of this House will be concerned about and that will have been raised in all our constituency surgeries. Reports submitted to Action Fraud are considered by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau and evaluated to assess the information available that could assist an investigation. Data matching allows reports from different parts of the country to be linked through analysis. The hope is that that can lead to trends being identified and to action being taken to address these threats. However, I agree that more needs to be done; one often finds that constituents’ cases are not investigated in the way that they would like.
The hon. Lady raises an important subject that many in this House will be concerned about. I must confess I am surprised that there has not been a debate on it since 2006, although I think it is more an issue for the Backbench Business Committee or for a Westminster Hall debate than for—as she will have heard when I read out the business—a very full Government programme between now and the recess.
I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s concern. It is a top priority that small businesses are the engine of our recovery. They are as much a part of our cultural heritage, especially in industrial cities such as Stoke, as any museum or concert hall. We have to date spent over £1.2 billion in financial support to more than 5,000 individual organisations and sites both large and small across the United Kingdom, including, I am glad to say, the Spode Museum Trust. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer also announced in the 2021 Budget an additional £300 million of taxpayers’ money to support theatres, museums and other cultural organisations in England through the cultural recovery fund, together with other cultural support, such as funding for our national museums. This means that the total tax- payer package for culture during the pandemic is now approaching £2 billion, which is really an unprecedented sum.
I think that the hon. Lady is really calling for the agricultural reforms that are being put forward to ensure support for farmers who support the environment. Certainly, talking to farmers in North East Somerset, I know that they are well aware of their obligations to protect hedgerows, but this is not an obligation that they resent. They feel it is a natural part of their farming duty.
The £4.8 billion levelling-up fund will spend taxpayers’ money on local infrastructure that improves everyday life across the United Kingdom, including regenerating town centres and high streets, upgrading local transport and spending money on cultural and heritage assets. The fund will operate UK-wide, extending the benefits of funding for priority local infrastructure across all regions and nations. The prospectus published at the Budget provides guidance for local areas on how to submit bids for the first round of funding for projects starting in 2021-22. That includes guidance on the process for submitting bids, the types of projects eligible for funding and how bids will be assessed. To reassure my hon. Friend, there are still 49 deals to be awarded, and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government will be making further announcements in due course, which will be the opportunity for other communities in his constituency to apply.
I have a great deal of sympathy with the point that the hon. Lady is making. When we represent constituents who need drugs for rare diseases, it is important that we get them. I think the principle that NICE is independent in making these decisions is also a sensible one, but it is crucial that its decisions are made in a timely way and appear to be reasonable to the country at large. NICE is a matter that will come up for debate, but it may be that the hon. Lady will want an Adjournment debate on this specific issue. I had one on Batten disease before joining the Government, and the Government proved very sympathetic to the quest for my constituent.
I commend both my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) for pushing for freeports. Freeports are a really exciting initiative. They will be national hubs for trade, innovation and commerce, regenerating communities across the United Kingdom. They can attract new businesses, spreading jobs, investment and opportunity to towns and cities up and down the land. I welcome efforts that Members are making to ensure that they have freeports in their areas, and I will pass on specific requests to the Treasury. The Government have published their bidding prospectus for freeports and the bidding period will close on 5 February. This is the opportunity for these bids to go in and for the success, the opportunity and the excitement of freeports be trumpeted up and down the land.
May I really thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue in the House? I join her in thanking the Samaritans for the absolutely amazing work that they do that saves so many lives, and the commitment of Samaritans volunteers who take on the incredibly onerous responsibility and burden of speaking to people and encouraging them when they are at their lowest point, and having to deal with the tragedies that sometimes occur; they do remarkable work. The initiative to have an online brew day is absolutely first class, and if I possibly can join the hon. Lady, I will—although I am not sure that everybody would be that cheered to hear from me, so it would have to be a very selective audience that I talked to. [Laughter.]
I am sure that the elves are busily doing their magic work to ensure that Christmas stockings will be filled for children across the world. I think they count as key workers because they need to go into work to do their jobs. Whether they have to wear masks or not, I am not entirely sure; I have not yet found out. We should no doubt have an Adjournment debate on this important subject. We can be pleased that Christmas is coming, presents will be delivered and we will be able to see members of our families over Christmas. That is reassuring for one and all.
The hon. Lady raises a point that we should all celebrate—that is, that accessible housing is important and organisations that provide accessible housing should be congratulated, particularly on a 50th anniversary. As the hon. Lady says, the consultation has closed and a response will be produced in due course. I cannot promise a debate in Government time, but it is a subject that the House may well want to discuss. There are obviously slots in Westminster Hall and Adjournment debates that may prove suitable.
The only organisation or individual in Kettering who would reach similar levels of satisfaction is my hon. Friend, who I think would probably get even higher levels of satisfaction than the 98% achieved by the citizens advice bureau. I would very much like to place on record, on my own behalf and on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, our thanks to the citizens advice bureau, which has offered support and advice to the British people for 80 years. It does a fantastic job in Bath and North East Somerset, and I am very glad to hear that it does a fantastic job in Kettering and Corby as well.
I join the hon. Lady in congratulating Gateshead Carers and the other organisations in her constituency that do such fine work to support carers in this difficult period. I reiterate what I said in answer to an earlier question. It is really important work, a labour of love, literally, and a very lonely labour, probably, in the lockdown circumstance. I cannot promise a debate in Government time, but I think to have a debate, in Backbench Business time or in Westminster Hall, in celebration of carers is a very worthy thing to do.
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.
I actually gave evidence to the Cumberlege report, as I think the hon. Lady knows, on the question of Primodos, so I have an interest in the response to that very important report. I will therefore take this up, as the hon. Lady is asking me to do.
I think that I might cause trouble inside the Government if I started speculating about what might happen with stamp duty. That is a matter for the Chancellor, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue, because I completely understand that it affects her constituency differently from many other constituencies in the country. I will pass on her comments to the Chancellor.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight this important and troubling issue, which shows that there is still more to be done, but the Government have already achieved a great deal. It is worth noting that 200,000 fewer people live in absolute poverty now than in 2010, and absolute poverty rates across the country have fallen in every region since 2010. There are 786,000 fewer children living in a workless household now, which is a record low. Although I absolutely understand what the hon. Lady is saying, and I sympathise with her point and I accept that there is more to be done, a great deal has already been achieved.
My hon. Friend raises a key point. The Government are committed to supporting and reviving Britain’s high streets, many of which are in real need of regeneration. As I understand it, officials from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government are meeting Stoke-on-Trent council leaders to discuss the town’s progress in applying for towns fund investment. The Government welcome proposals from local authorities for towns fund investment, which will be assessed on the quality of their business case. There is another round of money forthcoming, and I am sure my hon. Friend will encourage the local authority to apply. This is a fund of £3.6 billion in England. Many Members across the House will see their constituencies benefit from this use of taxpayers’ money, as I am in North East Somerset, in Keynsham and Midsomer Norton.
Obviously the events industry is particularly badly hit because of the difficulties in managing large gatherings. My right hon Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport set out a significant package of support for live events and cultural events, which is the basis of what is available to the companies affected. As for a debate, this might also be the subject of an Adjournment debate relating to the specific concerns in the hon. Lady’s constituency.
I thank the hon. Lady for her marvellous initiative. It is important that we thank people and recognise the incredible outpouring of community spirit that there has been during a very difficult time. She is doing absolutely the right thing. It seems to me that if the Government can piggyback on the work that she has been doing, that would not be a foolish thing to do, so I will certainly bring it to the attention of other Ministers.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question. I have not yet read the report that she refers to, but I hope she will agree that the Government want to ensure that our economic recovery is sustainable and environmentally friendly. Many of the measures announced by the Chancellor yesterday will ensure that that is the case. We are already championing innovative and eco-friendly technologies, and our ambitious Environment, Fisheries and Agriculture Bills will enable us to protect our precious natural environment and diverse ecosystems for years to come, in line with the legal commitment for a net zero economy by 2050. Along with my right hon. Friend, I and many others representing rural constituencies want to see the country’s rural economy coming firmly back to life in the next few months. Our countryside is far more than an attraction to preserve in aspic; it is made by the millions of people who live and work there, and I believe the Government must do all they can to support rural lives and livelihoods throughout this recovery.
When each and every one of us as constituency MPs has a case where there is a drug available and there is a constituent who cannot get access to that drug, it is one of the issues we always pursue with the most single-minded vigour, and that is absolutely the right thing to do. I have had representations made to me by my constituents about PKU, and I therefore have great sympathy with what the hon. Lady says. I would encourage her to continue making that case, and the hint I gave about the Adjournment debate may also be useful to her.
My right hon. Friend has already managed to make the point that she might have made in the debate, so I am glad to say that our hybrid procedures facilitate the involvement of all Members. On debates more generally, I know that the Procedure Committee is looking at that question. The issue is: how do we allow debates to run properly and in a free-flowing way, with interventions and so on, with people who are not present? We await with interest what the Procedure Committee has to say. I know that there are tremendous grammar schools in her constituency, and this country has been very well served by grammar schools over the years, decades and centuries. The Government are working with the sector to provide guidance, and I hope she will join me in welcoming the Education Secretary’s statement later today on further measures on the autumn opening of education settings.
This is a very important point, and I know that many Members are concerned about it. The Government recognise the huge contribution the arts and culture sector makes, not only to the economy and the international reputation of the United Kingdom, but to the wellbeing and enrichment of the British people. The general package of support has been unprecedented, but in addition to that, the sector has drawn down £653 million from the job retention scheme, and Arts Council England announced a £160 million emergency response package. But that does not answer the reopening question, and the Government want to support our vital cultural sectors to reopen as soon as it is safe to do so. Sector-wide guidance for the performing arts to return to rehearsal and performance safely will be published in due course. These matters are worthy of debate during the general economic debate next week, but the Government are very much on the same side as the hon. Lady.
I will, if I may, answer the second question first. It was such a shocking scene, and I can only repeat what the Holy Father said, which is that racism is a sin, and murder is a mortal sin, and anyone seeing those pictures must watch them in horror. It is difficult to change from that subject to talking about zoos, although they are important to the people who run them. I understand the point my right hon. Friend has made and I will ensure that it is taken up with my colleagues in government.
I understand that “Points West”, the programme in my constituency in Somerset and the region, is more watched, proportionately speaking, than “EastEnders”, which is an indication of how popular these programmes are and the local service that they provide. David Garmston, the local broadcaster in Somerset, is one of the most popular figures around. It is very important that local television is kept up. However, it is a matter for the BBC as to how it allocates resources, and this may be a subject worth raising in an Adjournment debate.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has experience as a former Leader of the House and knows and understands how this place ought to work. The measures that we are using currently are a remarkable achievement by the House authorities in a very particular circumstance, and it is very unlikely that this way of operating would be suitable to other circumstances.
The point that the hon. Lady makes is a serious one, and it is being considered by my office and by the House more generally. Discussions will continue over Whitsun to try to work out how those people who are receiving specific medical advice or being instructed to shield may be helped to participate in proceedings once we return, and how the technology may work with regard to that, but the importance of the point is one that we understand.
Oddly, that falls under my responsibility as Lord President of the Council because bank holidays come from royal proclamations. I wonder, however, if I might steer my hon. Friend. Would it not be nicer, if we are going to ask for a new holiday in June, to have, as some other countries have, a Queen’s birthday holiday? That is rather more in keeping with our traditions than the slightly—I do not know—republican sounding “UK day”.
I do accept that litter in all its forms is a great blight on communities and that landfill sites that overspill can be particularly problematic. Because it is such a constituency-specific issue, this is a matter to raise in the first instance in an Adjournment debate.