Early evening summary
- Boris Johnson has said a decision may have to be taken “very soon” about whether to impose tougher border measures on France over concerns about the spread of potentially vaccine-resistant Covid variants. Giving evidence to the Commons liaison committee, he also said that on 5 April he would be getting the recommendations from the government’s global travel taskforce and setting out details of what travel might be allowed from 17 May. But he warned: “Things are looking difficult on the continent and we’ll have to look at the situation as it develops.”
- Johnson effectively admitted that his thinking about personal liberty had changed as he defended the idea that entry to a pub could depend on having a Covid status certificate. Talking about Covid requirements generally, he said in some areas imposing Covid conditions might be compulsory, in others it might be allowed, and in others it could be banned.
I think there is a hierarchy between mandating something and permitting it or forbidding it. I think in some areas, in particular sectors where vulnerable elderly people are being cared for, there may be some need for mandation, [in others] some need for a more permissive approach. All that will be set out in due course.
He said it might be “highly responsible” for care home companies to insist on workers being vaccinated. Asked if having a Covid vaccine certificate could be a requirement for being allowed into a pub, he replied:
I think that that’s the kind of thing - it may be up to individual publicans, it may be up to the landlord.
When William Wragg (Con) put it to Johnson that this was not an idea that Johnson would have backed in his career as a Telegraph columnist, Johnson suggested his thinking had changed. He told Wragg:
I’ve found myself in this long, national conversation thinking very, very deeply about it, and I think the public have been thinking very, very deeply about it.
And my impression is that there is a huge wisdom in the public’s feeling about this. Human beings instinctively recognise when something is dangerous and nasty to them. They can see that Covid is collectively a threat and they want us as their government, and me as the prime minister, to take all the actions I can to protect them. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last year or more.
Later government sources suggested that Johnson’s comment about pubs was a reference to having show either proof of vaccination or proof of a negative test - not just a vaccination certificate. (This is what the government’s Covid-status certification review is looking at.) This is from Sky’s Sam Coates.
- Johnson said the EU could lose foreign investment if it imposed a ban on the export of vaccines. He told the committee.
Vaccines, as you know, are the product of international co-operation. I don’t think that blockades of either vaccines or of ingredients for vaccines are sensible, and I think that the long-term damage done by blockades can be very considerable.
I would just gently point out to anybody considering a blockade or an interruption of supply chains that companies may look at such actions and draw conclusions about whether or not it is sensible to make future investments in countries where arbitrary blockades are imposed.
- Priti Patel, the home secretary, has not secured agreements with any European countries to return migrants deemed “inadmissible” under a proposed new system of asylum, which has been branded “inhumane” by humanitarian experts.
- Liverpool city council should be brought under the joint control of government commissioners in an unprecedented move after inspectors found multiple failures and a “serious breakdown of governance” at the local authority, Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary has said.
That’s all from me for today. But our coverage continues on our global coronavirus live blog. It’s here.
UK and EU say they are working on 'win-win' solution to expand vaccine supply
Downing Street has just sent out a joint statement from the UK government and the European commission. Here it is in full.
We are all facing the same pandemic and the third wave makes cooperation between the EU and UK even more important.
We have been discussing what more we can do to ensure a reciprocally beneficial relationship between the UK and EU on Covid-19.
Given our interdependencies, we are working on specific steps we can take - in the short-, medium- and long term - to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens.
In the end, openness and global cooperation of all countries will be key to finally overcome this pandemic and ensure better preparation for meeting future challenges.
We will continue our discussions.
There is no guidance yet as to what this refers to.
Alex Salmond, the former Scottish first minister, is planning fresh legal action against the Scottish government, the BBC reports.
From my colleague Peter Walker
The press notice with the official announcement is here.
The exams regulator is warning teachers to watch out for unconscious bias and pressure from parents when awarding grades for GCSEs and A-levels this summer in new guidance for schools.
The Ofqual guidance sets out how teachers should “promote fairness and minimise bias” following concerns from school leaders that teachers are being aggressively lobbied by “parents with pointy elbows and lawyer friends” to boost their children’s grades this summer.
Ofqual recommended that school leaders keep a record of instances where they believe teachers have been pressured into submitting inflated grades as such cases may be treated as “potential malpractice”.
The guidance follows concerns that some students and their parents may attempt to negotiate over teacher-assessed grades when they are given access to the evidence on which results are based.
The guidance identifies several types of unconscious bias that could cloud teachers’ judgment, including confirmation bias, halo effects and affinity bias. It recommends that schools compare predicted grades with final outcomes in previous years to tackle possible bias towards students from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.
The regulator further warned that it would investigate schools which award GCSE or A-level results which fall “considerably” out of step with results from previous years.
The liaison committee hearing has ended. It was only due to last 90 minutes, but Jenkin managed to stretch it out for almost two hours.
Often these hearings turn out to a bit of a non-event, but this one more productive than most. There was a strong hint that border controls with France are going to be tightened (see 4.31pm), as well as a revealing answer about how his thinking on personal liberty versus public safety has changed, to the point where he could make vaccination compulsory for some workers. (See 4.44pm.)
There was also a new line on the vaccine dispute with France (see 4.13pm), some procedural detail on social care and global travel taskforce review and, on trade and visas for touring artists, an uncharacteristic admission that Brexit difficulties go beyond “teething problems”.
I’ll post a summary soon.
Jenkin goes back to Cop26.
Q: This does not look like a priority for government?
Johnson says he thinks he is engaged in a Cop26 conversation every day. He says that applies to other ministers too.
Q: How often does the climate action committee meet?
Johnson says it does not meet much because he is doing a lot of ad hoc meetings.
He says he hopes the conference will be in person. He would like to host a big global summit where everyone turns up, and turns up without fear.
Sir Bernard Jenkin says proxy voting is very useful for MPs with caring responsibilities, who tend to be women. So will the government let that system continue?
Johnson says he wants the government to look at measures that are family friendly.
Q: Women tend to serve as MPs about one parliamentary term less than men. Are there things we could do to make it easier for women to work as MPs?
Johnson says he would be happy to see “family friendly” improvements. These are matters for the Commons, he says.
Some of the abuse female MPs face is appalling, he says.
Q: Are there any specific changes you would like to see?
Johnson sidesteps that.
But he says he would like to see the chamber full again.
That way you can see the reaction on the benches, and how an argument is going down.
He says he would like to see MPs mingle again in the lobbies. When they vote that way, they have to think about how they are voting, and how to justify it.
He says he hopes he does not sound like a crazed traditionalist on this.
The final few minutes are devoted to questions from Karen Bradley (Con), chair of the procedure committee.
Q: What is your view of how parliament has operated under Covid?
Johnson says he thinks it has been heroic.
But he says he thinks the public want parliament to return to normal at the pace they are doing.
Q: Some colleagues want the Commons to go faster, and to show leadership by going back to normal more quickly than other places. [She is talking about Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons.]
Johnson says parliament should move at the same pace as the rest of the country.
Q: Will vaccine certificates be a commercial necessity for travel?
Johnson says there is a hierarchy.
In some areas, like social care, vaccination may be mandated. In other areas, organisations could be permitted to set their own conditions.
Q: People talk about going abroad on holiday as if it’s a bad thing. How do we open it up?
Johnson says Merriman should not underestimate the wanderlust of the British people. He says Merriman would be amazed by how keen people are to travel.
Q: And will you have a foreign holiday yourself this summer?
Johnson says he will tell the public what he thinks is safe and sensible.
Huw Merriman (Con), chair of the transport committee, is in the room.
Q: Will the global transport framework be published on 5 April?
Yes, says Johnson.
Q: And will it say what countries might be opened up when.
Johnson says Merriman will have to wait. But he says he wants to see people moving again from 17 May.
Julian Knight, the Conservative chair of the culture committee, goes next.
Q: When will the government start talks with the EU to resolve the problem for musicians who cannot tour the EU easily because of the need for so many work permits?
Johnson says talks are already taking place.
Q: Will you consider short-circuiting this?
Johnson says he is passionate about this. In 1620 English players performed Hamlet in Germany. He wants to sort this out so that our cultural exports can flourish.
Q: Without government-backed Covid insurance festivals cannot take place. Will you back a summer of fun, not a summer of none?
Johnson says Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, has done a huge amount of work on this. He does not want to see people unwilling to take risks.
But indemnifying the whole sector would be difficult, he says.
Knight says his committee feels it is not being listened to. He says it has serious proposals on this.
Sir Bernard Jenkin, the chair, says as vice chair of all-party music group he knows that there are very strong feelings on this in the performing arts world.
Huw Merriman (Con), chair of the transport committee, tries to join. But he is muted.
Johnson points out that Merriman seems to be in Portcullis House. He says Merriman could come down from his office and join Johnson and Sir Bernard Jenkin in the committee room. All the other MPs have been participating virtually.
(It is perhaps an insight into how keen Johnson is to ditch Zoom and revert to an in-person meeting.)
They are now on the final section of the session, on the economy.
Mel Stride, the Consevartive chair of the Treasury committee, goes first.
Q: Are the spending plans in the budget realistic? The IFS doesn’t think so. There is no provision, for example, for ongoing spending on test and trace, or continuing the universal credit uplift?
Johnson says the Treasury put out its figures. He says he is not going to say more. But he says he has seen no sign the UK will need to deviate from the roadmap for recovery. The prospects for a strong recovery are “very good”, he says.
Q: Can you say the tax burden in the UK will not have to rise?
Johnson says he strongly believes in a low tax government. He is a low tax Conservative.
He says people should not assume that the budget plans do not allow them to make “profound changes” on social care.
Q: Would you favour having a series of graduated punishments for ministers who break the ministerial code (instead of ministers having to be sacked as the only option)?
Johnson says he will consider the idea. He suggests appearing in front of a committee like this could serve as a punishment.
When Sir Bernard Jenkin, the chair, intervenes, Johnson corrects himself, and tells Jenkin it’s a pleasure to be there.
Johnson hints he now favours compulsory vaccination for care workers
Q: Is making a Covid certificate a requirement compatible with a free society?
Johnson says vaccine certification should not be an alien concept. He says doctors can be required to have a hepatitis B vaccination. He says it is not irresponsible for care homes to want their staff to have the vaccine.
He says this could also be a matter left to the discretion of landlords.
Q: Would you have backed this in your Telegraph columnist days?
Johnson says he has been thinking about this issue a lot.
He thinks the public have too.
He says there is a “huge wisdom” in the public’s feelings about this. The public want government, and him as prime minister, to take actions to protect people, he says.
William Wragg, the Conservative chair of the public administration and constitutional reform committee, goes next.
Johnson says on 5 April he will get the findings from the global travel taskforce. At that point he will set out what might be possible in terms of international travel from 17 May.
Johnson hints decision about toughening border controls with France could come 'very soon'
Q: Have your advisers told you you need restrictions on hauliers coming from France?
Johnson says they have not told him that.
But they have said that a balance may need to be struck.
He says restrictions on hauliers would have a big impact, because of the extent to which the UK is reliant on imports.
But if necessary he will take a decision, “no matter how tough” it has to be.
This may have to happen “very soon”, he says.
But, again, he stresses the drawbacks. He suggests if you took Cooper’s argument to its logical conclusion, the whole world would go on the red list.
PM confirms government considering putting France on 'red list' for border controls
Labour’s Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs committee, goes next.
Johnson says the government is considering toughening the border controls with France. But that would have consequences, he says.
(That was not what Cooper was asking about, but Johnson must have assumed she was asking about this story.)
Johnson goes on:
Putting France on the red list is something we will have to look at.
Treating France as a “red list” country would mean arrivals from the country would have to go through hotel quarantine.
Johnson says test and trace has been an “extraordinary achievement”.
It enables government to know what is happening with the pandemic in granular detail.
Q: Is it worth the £5bn that has been spent up to November? Should we be spending money on this scale?
Johnson says every morning he chairs a meeting where he looks at the data, and every week the information has got more detailed.
Q: So it has been a tool to map it?
It has been a tool to fight it, Johnson says.
Q: Do you regret not locking down earlier at Christmas?
Johnson says he was able to respond to the threat posed by the Kent variant, B117.
Q: Was that test and trace, or the work of the scientists?
It was both, Johnson says. He says you can’t do one without the other.
Q: Do you regret what happened at Christmas?
Johnson says of course he regrets what has happened.
But he thinks what he did was the right thing to do. It was the right thing to do.
(Johnson and the questioner, Labour’s Meg Hillier, seem to be talking at cross purposes. She seems to be asking if he regretted not ordering a full lockdown at Christmas. He seems to think she is asking about the partial lockdown that was announced.)
Social care 'highly likely' to be included in Queen's speech, says Johnson
Johnson told Hunt he would publish plans for social care reform this year and that it was “highly likely” social care would be included in the Queen’s speech later this spring.
Here is the quote from Johnson about blockades deterring investment.
Johnson suggests EU could lose international investment if it blocks vaccine exports to UK
The session is now moving on from global Britain to Covid. And Jeremy Hunt, the Tory chair of the health committee, goes first.
Q: Do you rule out retaliating against the EU to stop them blocking vaccine exports to the UK?
Johnson says he does not think blockades of vaccines, or materials for vaccines, are appropriate.
Companies may look at these measures and decide it is not sensible to invest in countries that behave like this, he says.
- Johnson could lose international investment if it blocks vaccine exports to UK.
Stephen Crabb (Con), chair of the Welsh affairs committee, goes next.
Q: Why did the four-nations approach to Covid not last?
Johnson says he does not accept that. The four nations have been working together. He cites genomic sequencing and the role of the army as examples.
Q: Was it a mistake not to have central civil contingency measures so lockdown measures could be UK-wide?
Johnson says that is something people can look at.
He says the new UK Health Security Agency will make a difference.
Q: Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, told our committee he did not have a relationship with you. How much time should you spend with the leaders of the devolved nations?
Johnson says he is sorry to hear that. The first ministers deal with Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, he says.
He says, as PM, his job is to lead the UK.
He says the UK should not become a “mini-EU”.
Q: If there were a new first minister in Scotland, would that make a difference?
Johnson says he is PM of the UK. He has talked many times to Nicola Sturgeon, Mark Drakeford, Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill. But he does not think the UK should have a permanent council, like the European council that is meeting tomorrow.
Q: What would be the GDP gain of joining the TPP? No trade deal yet signed has gained GDP.
Johnson says the benefits of trade deals are well attested.
More than 60 have been signed already, covering 80% of UK trade by the end of next year.
He says the cost to exporters of some products, like fishing products, is a “serious” one. It is regrettable that the Europeans have not made this easy.
The government has a £23m fund to help fishing companies address this, and a £100m fund to build up the Scottish fishing industry.
Q: But the trade deals so far are just roll-over trade deals, replicating what we had. We have lost 4.9% of GDP, and the trade deals signed so far are just a tiny fraction of this.
Johnson says UK exports rose last year. Breaking up UK supply chains would be foolhardy, he says.
The SNP’s Angus Brendan MacNeil, the chair of the international trade committee, goes next.
Q: Will the UK be following the EU and abandoning summer time next year?
Johnson says he has not looked at that.
Q: So you could be the PM who ends British summer time?
That seems unlikely, says Johnson.
Q: If the Scottish or Welsh people voted for independence, would you respect their decision?
Johnson says he is very keen to respect the referendum already held on Scottish independence.
Q: Do you respect the ballot box?
Johnson says he greatly respects the ballot box. But it is “striking and inapposite” that when the country is trying to come together, instead of talking about what the countries of the UK do together, all the SNP talk about is breaking up the union.
Sarah Champion, the Labour chair of the international development committee, is asking the questions now.
Q: Is money for girls’ education being ringfenced despite the aid cuts?
Johnson says the target for another 30 million girls to receive an education remains.
Q: What discussion has there been with other parties about increasing the number of warheads in the UK’s stockpile?
Johnson says it is important to stress that the plan to increase the cap set out in the integrated defence review is a ceiling, not a target.
He says it might be possible to brief the committee on this on privy council terms (ie, in private).
Tobias Ellwood, the Tory chair of the defence committee, goes next.
Q: Shouldn’t we move the UK to a defence footing and increase defence spending to 3% of GDP?
Johnson says the budget has gone up to 2.2%. It is a “full-spectrum investment”, he says.
Q: The Office of Veterans’ Affairs is having its budget cut by 40%. Can you reconsider this?
Johnson says no decision has been taken on that.
Spending on veterans is not primarily through that office, he says.
He says £18m is spent through the NHS. There are national insurance rebates, and discounts on public transport.
Q: Would we contribute troops to a UN stabilisation force in Yemen?
Johnson says he recalls speaking to Ellwood in the past on this. He backs the UN-led approach. the ceasefire is encouraging.
He would look at this if the conditions were right. But conditions would have to be different from what they are now.
Darren Jones (Lab), chair of the business committee, goes first.
Q: Will you give the Cop26 unit more resources before the summit?
Boris Johnson says the Cop26 unit is well-staffed. But it will be beefed up during the year.
He lists all the countries that are now committed to net zero carbon targets. They are following the UK, he says.
Q: In the last few weeks we’ve had the coal mine in Cumbria, and cuts to our aid budget. Will other countries listen to us on this?
Johnson thinks they will. The UK has delivered considerable cuts already to C02, he says.
He says in 1970, when he doubts Jones was even born, 90% of emissions were from coal. Now it is less than 1%.
Q: Did you negotiate the £400m OneWeb deal?
Johnson says the government was involved at all levels.
Q: Which budget did the £400m come from?
Johnson says the business department is in charge of space policy.
Q: Did David Cameron contact one of your special advisers to secure support for Greenshill?
Johnson says that is news to him. Any contacts will be disclosed, he says.
Here is the batting order for the committee, according to a press notice it send out a few days ago.
UK’s place in the world
Sarah Champion, Tobias Ellwood, Angus Brendan MacNeil, Darren Jones
Yvette Cooper, Meg Hillier, Jeremy Hunt, William Wragg, Stephen Crabb
Julian Knight, Huw Merriman, Mel Stride
Boris Johnson's evidence to the Commons liaison committee
Boris Johnson is about to give evidence to the liaison committee.
He will be asked about Covid, the economy and global Britain.
These are from Alf Dubs, the Labour peer and campaigner on behalf of child migrants, on Priti Patel’s plans to tighten the rules for asylym seekers.
UK singled out for failing to export Covid vaccines to EU
Britain has been singled out for failing to export Covid vaccines to the EU as Brussels empowered officials to prohibit shipments of doses to countries where a large part of the population has been vaccinated, my colleague Daniel Boffey reports.
The latest edition of the Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast is out. Jessica Elgot and Rafael Behr discuss calls for a public inquiry into the UK government’s handling of coronavirus, as well as the ongoing vaccine battle with the EU. Plus, Jessica speaks to Heather Stewart, Rosena Allin-Khan, Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, and Dan Jarvis about their memories of when the prime minister announced the first national lockdown.
Here is the 69-page report (pdf) on Liverpool council published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government today.
Here is the letter (pdf) from Max Caller, who led the inspection, to Robert Jenrick summarising his findings.
And here is Jenrick’s letter (pdf) to the council setting out his intervention plans.
I didn’t have time for a PMQs verdict today, but the Evening Standard’s Joe Murphy has a good one here.
This is from the Times’s Steven Swinford, on the 29m doses of AstraZeneca vaccine found “hidden” in Italy mentioned earlier. (See 11.44am.)
In its response to the Jenrick announcement, Liverpool city council has put out a statement saying it takes the findings of the report about its failings “extremely seriously” and that it will be publishing an improvement plan after the local elections.
It includes a joint statement from Wendy Simon, the acting mayor, and Tony Reeves, the chief executive, who said:
This is a difficult day for our organisation and we take the report findings extremely seriously.
The inspector’s report has highlighted several failings, but there is a collective commitment from both councillors and officers to learn from these mistakes.
We would like to reassure all residents and businesses that we will take action to address all of the issues highlighted. We know we need to rebuild your trust.
It is reassuring that the inspector believes we have made progress in starting to deliver the wholesale changes needed.
A detailed improvement plan is being drawn up and will be implemented in full.
The Liverpool Echo is running a good live blog with reaction to the announcement.
Here is my colleague Josh Halliday’s story on the government’s proposal to send commissioners to Liverpool to help run its city council.
Dan Carden (Lab) says people in Liverpool are concerned this is a takeover by Whitehall.
Jenrick says there will be elections in May, and a new mayor will be elected. He says, if commissioners are sent to the city, they will be there to support the mayor and councillors. They will be given powers to act, he says. But he says it is his hope and expectation that they will not need to use those powers.
Jenrick says he thinks there have been other councils where having councillors elected in thirds (ie, not all at once) reduced accountability. He says he would like to see more authorities moving to “all-out” elections.
Labour to launch its own review of the party in Liverpool, MPs told
Steve Reed, the shadow communities secretary, said Labour backed the action the government was taking.
This was not a “Tory takeover” of the council, he said.
He said, instead, this was about professional people helping the council to turn around.
He said Labour would launch its own review into the party in Liverpool, and that action would be taken if there was evidence of wrongdoing.
UPDATE: Reed said:
The council will respond to [Jenrick’s] letter in detail but we support his intention to appoint commissioners, not at this stage to run the council, as he says, but to advise and support elected representatives in strengthening the council’s systems. This is a measured and appropriate approach.
I want to reassure people in Liverpool that this does not mean government ministers are coming in to run their city directly. This is not, as some would put it, a Tory takeover.
It’s about the government appointing independent people of the highest professional standing to help the council improve as quickly as possible and intervening directly only if the council’s elected leaders fail to implement their own improvement plan.
Given the concerns raised in this report, the general secretary of the Labour party intends to appoint a senior figure to lead a review and reassure the people of Liverpool that the Labour party takes these concerns seriously and will take action against anyone in our ranks who is involved in wrongdoing of any kind.
Jenrick says another issue is that Liverpool council has elections every year.
He says he is instead proposing to change the system, so that from 2023 it will hold “all-out” elections (when all councillors are up for re-election at the same time).
He says he wants to work with Steve Rotheram, the Labour mayor of Liverpool city region, in dealing with this problem. He said earlier the Liverpool city region was not involved in the problem.
And he ends by saying, as the son and grandson of Liverpudlians, he wants to start a new chapter for the city.
Jenrick says government appointing commissioners to help run Liverpool council
Jenrick says he needs to intervene in the council.
He says he is planning to appoint commissioners who will take over certain “limited” council functions for a minimum of three years.
The council will have to draw up an improvement plan, he says.
He says he is writing to the council about that today.
UPDATE: Jenrick said:
Given the gravity of the inspection findings, I must consider what would happen if the council fails to deliver the necessary changes at the necessary speed.
I’m consequently proposing to direct the transfer of all executive functions associated with regeneration, highways and property management at the authority to the commissioners. These are for use should the council not satisfy the commissioners in their improvement processes.
I hope it won’t be necessary for the commissioners to use these powers, but they must be - in my view - empowered to do so to deliver the reforms that are required.
Jenrick says damning inquiry found Liverpool council dogged by mismanagement and 'rule avoidance'
Robert Jenrick says the police have been carrying out an investigation with significant links to Liverpool council.
He says he commissioned a best value inspection.
That is being published today.
It paints a “deeply concerning picture of mismanagement, the breakdown of scrutiny and accountability, a dysfunctional culture, putting the spending of public funds at risk”.
The report identifies multiple apparent failures by Liverpool city council in complying with its best value duty.
This includes a failure of proper and due process across planning and regeneration including worrying lack of record-keeping - indeed, documentation had sometimes been created retrospectively, discarded in skips or even destroyed.
A lack of scrutiny and oversight across highways, including dysfunctional management practices, no coherent business plan and the awarding of dubious contracts.
A failure of proper process relating to property management, including compliance with the council’s own standing orders, leading to a continued failure to correctly value land and assets - meaning taxpayers frequently lost out.
He says there was an environment of intimidation, according to the report. One person said the only way to survive in the council was not to ask too many questions, or apply professional standards.
The council was not meeting acceptable standards, he says
The pervasive culture seemed to be “rule avoidance”, according to the report, Jenrick says.
He says the report does not criticise all staff.
And he says the chief executive, Tony Reeves, has been playing a valuable role.
Priti Patel’s statement is over. We are now about the get a statement in the Commons from Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, about plans to intervene in Liverpool council following corruption allegations.
Here is our overnight preview.
And this is from the Times’ Patrick Maguire.
Sturgeon taunts Davidson about going to Lords at last FMQs before Scottish election
In the Scottish parliament, after a succession of bruising FMQs in recent weeks, all focused on the Salmond inquiry, both the Tories and Labour pivoted away from the topic today, with Ruth Davidson challenging the SNP’s record on the attainment gap and Anas Sarwar leading on unanswered questions about children who died because of hospital infections at Glasgow’s super-hospital.
Nicola Sturgeon pointed out that Davidson could have been asking about education in previous weeks but instead had indulged in “smears” regarding Salmond.
After Sturgeon’s second mention of the fact that this was Davidson’s final appearance before she takes her seat in “the unelected House of Lords”, presiding officer Ken Mcintosh intervened to ask the first minister not to be so personal. “Gallant, but not required,” Davidson immediately replied.
“It’s not me that’s running away from responsibility and accountability,” Sturgeon told Davidson, saying she would now “put myself before the Scottish people”. This is of course the final FMQs and the final day of parliament before the Holyrood election campaign begins, so can we learn anything from this session about the likely arguments?
The Lib Dems too went in on Sturgeon’s record on education – pointing out that her party has been in government for 14 years, not just the past five.
The Scottish government’s record on public services certainly ought to be central to the campaign, and one of Anas Sarwar’s key messages as the new Scottish Labour leader is the need to move away from binaries such as Salmond v Sturgeon or independence v the union and come together beyond the pandemic. But, as pollster John Curtice pointed out at a pre-election briefing this morning, the evidence suggests that the constitutional question remains central to voters’ choices in this election.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Tories have already been setting out their stall focusing on “SNP sleaze”. Who knows if education will get a hearing beyond this FMQs.
Paul Blomfield (Lab) says Patel’s plan is based on the assumption that there are safe and legal resettlement routes. But the Syrian refugee resettlement scheme has closed, and there are no details of the new scheme. How will it operate, and when will it start?
Patel claims the details are in the document.
Patel says she wants to hold a “people’s consultation” on her plan.
Here is the full text of the New Plan for Immigration (pdf).
And here are details of the Home Office consultation.
Patel proposing changing law to allow asylum seekers to be sent offshore while applications processed
The government wants to change the law so it can keep the option of offshore processing for asylum seekers “open”, details of its new immigration plan confirm. PA Media reports:
A Home Office policy statement on the government’s proposals said the UK’s asylum system is “too easily exploited by people-smugglers and does little to disincentivise individuals from attempting to enter the UK illegally”, adding that, if left unchecked, “illegal immigration puts unsustainable pressures on public services”.
Among a series of measures proposed to overhaul the system, it said: “We will also amend Sections 77 and 78 of the Nationality Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 so that it is possible to move asylum seekers from the UK while their asylum claim or appeal is pending.
“This will keep the option open, if required in the future, to develop the capacity for offshore asylum processing - in line with our international obligations.”
Yvette Cooper, the Labour chair of the home affairs committee, says there are increasingly long waits for child refugees trying to use safe legal routes to come to the UK to rejoin families. She says the government promised to set them up after Dubs was ended, but that has not happened. That is pushing people in the hands of people traffickers, she says.
Patel says most of those seeking asylum are young men. The government is committed to setting up safe and legal routes for children, she says.
Patel's asylum plans 'ugly, dogwhistle politics', says SNP
Anne McLaughlin (SNP) says there is so much wrong with these plans that it is hard to sum up in two minutes.
She says the high rate of success on asylum appeals shows how genuine these claims are.
She says these measures are “ugly, dogwhistle politics”. The SNP wants no part of them, she says, and Scotland does not want the associated shame.
Shaun Bailey (Con) says our European neighbours need to “step up”. It is not fair that the UK should have to take the “lion’s share”, he claims.
Patel says Bailey is absolutely right.
Patel is responding to Thomas-Symonds.
She says it was distasteful of him to compare people seeking asylum to the Windrush generation. She says she is legislating to help them.
From taking in Ugandan Asians, to resettling more refugees than any other European country (see 12.53pm) to offering haven to people from Hong Kong, Conservative governments have a good record on immigration, she says.
She says Labour just wants to “turn a blind eye” to the problem of illegal immigration.
She says Labour’s approach would encourage illegal immigration and the criminal trade associated with it. She says that approach to human trafficking lacks compassion.
And Labour passed a conference motion for free movement, she says. In effect, they want open borders, she says.
Labour says Tories broke immigration system and don't know how to fix it
Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, says Patel admits the immigration system is broken. But that is the fault of the Conservatives, who have been in charge.
He says the plans have been criticised by the UNHCR.
The Dubs scheme was closed down after just 480 children were helped, not the 3,000 originally intended, he says.
He says DfID was the department that addressed the problems driving people to flee their countries in the first place. But it has been abolished, he says.
He says Patel could not name one country that was going to help with her plans to process asylum claims offshore. When Gibraltar and the Isle of Man were briefed as possible sites, those ideas were rubbished within hours.
He says urgent changes to immigration policy are needed to address the shortages in the health and social care workforce.
He says the Tories have broken the immigration system. But they have no idea how to fix it.
UPDATE: Here is a quote from Thomas-Symonds.
The plans risk baking into the UK system, the callousness frankly of this government’s approach ...
These changes risk making the situation even worse for victims of human trafficking as it would be even harder to access help in the UK, helping criminal gangs escape justice ...
The reality is the measures outlined today will do next to nothing to stop people making dangerous crossings and they risk withdrawing support from desperate people.
The Conservatives have undoubtedly broken the immigration system over the last 11 years but the reality today is they have absolutely no idea how to fix it.
Patel says there will be a one-stop process, requiring all claims to be made upfront.
The new system will be faster and fairer, she says.
She says the long-term plan will fix the broken system.
She says some opposition MPs have claimed all immigration controls are racist or sexist.
She says people say she lacks compassion. But this plan is intended to stop human trafficking.
And if Labour does not like the plan, where is theirs, she asks.
Patel confirms the law will be changed to remove an anomaly that has made it hard for some Windrush victims to get citizenship. My colleague Amelia Gentleman wrote about this here.
Patel says the new rules will be based on three firm but fair objectives.
First, she wants to protect those in genuine need of asylum.
Second, she wants to deter illegal entry.
And third, she wants to make it easier to remove those people with no right to be here.
Priti Patel claims this is the most significant overhaul of our immigration system for decades.
She says the government has a responsibility to act because people are dying coming to the UK.
Since 2105 almost 25,000 seeking refuge have been resettled in the UK. This is more than any other country in Europe, she says.
(This is technically true, but highly misleading. See this Full Fact explainer for an analysis.)
PMQs is now over, but we are about to get a statement from Priti Patel, the home secretary, on her plans to tighten asylum rules.
I’ll be covering it in detail.
Johnson says the government has taken steps to protect veterans from prosecutions launched by “lefty lawyers”, like those not a million miles from here, he says (implying Keir Starmer).
Philip Davies (Con) says he thinks people make better decisions for themselves than the state, loathes the nanny state and believes in cutting taxes. Is he still a Conservative?
Yes, says Johnson.
Dawn Butler (Lab) asks if the PM will read her private member’s bill offering an alternative to the Coronavirus Act and provide a response.
Johnson says he will.
Butler’s measure is based on this plan drawn up by Liberty and other campaign groups.
Sir Mike Penning (Con) says children who need medicinal cannabis cannot obtain it.
Johnson says he will hold a meeting to address this.
Paul Blomfield (Lab) says the PM said no leasehold should have to pay “unaffordable” costs of unsafe cladding. But the government’s measures do not achieve this, he says. Will the PM keep his promise?
Johnson says, in addition to the £3.5bn announced, there is another scheme for addressing problems in lowering buildings. And there will be a tax on developers so they can contribute.
Kelly Tolhurst (Con) asks about the closure of Chatham Docks in her constituency.
Johnson says this is a matter for the local council. But he hopes a solution can be found.
Emma Lewell-Buck (Lab) asks about a constituent living in Gran Canaria. She is seriously ill. But she has been told when she gets home she will not get NHS care. Can the PM ensure that she does?
Johnson says a health minister will meet Lewell-Buck to discuss this.
Afzal Khan (Lab) says more tha 126,000 lives have been lost. He says his family has lost an entire generation - his mother, father and mother-in-law. Will the PM commit to launching an inquiry as soon as restrictions are lifted?
Johnson say the whole house shares his sorry for Khan’s loss. Far too many families have suffered. As soon as it is right to do so, and as soon as it would not be an irresponsible diversion, there will be an inquiry, he says.
Allan Dorans (SNP) says the Good Friday legislation sets out the conditions in which the government must hold a border poll in Northern Ireland (majority support, as implied by polling). Those conditions are met in Scotland. So why won’t the PM allow a poll?
Johnson says he knew it would not be long before this came up.
Lucy Allan (Con) asks about the Post Office sub-postmasters scandal. Taxpayers will pick up the bill for this reckless wrongdoing. Does the PM agree that heads should roll?
Johnson says he understands the strong feelings on this issue. An inquiry has been launched. The government wants to ensure the right lessons are learnt and people are held to account, he says.
Sir Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, says the PM is pushing a bill that will restrict freedoms. And he wants to renew the Coronavirus Act, which also restricts freedoms. He asks the government to publish a roadmap for achieving freedom.
Johnson says the government needs the powers in the bill, for example to deal with the backlog facing the courts. That is why the bill is needed, he says.
Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, says his colleague Neil Gray is stepping down as an MP so he can stand for Holyrood. But the Scottish Tory leader, Douglas Ross, who is also standing for Holyrood, is not stepping down as an MP. Should he? If he doesn’t, he will cost the taxpayer more.
Johnson dodges the question, and criticises the SNP over independence.
Blackford says the Scottish Tories are led by someone who is nasty and daft. Ross, asked what he would do if he became PM, mentioned action against Gypsies and Travellers.
Johnson says the SNP can only talk about a referendum.
Then (contradicting himself completely), he says Blackford, twice, has not mentioned it this afternoon.
Asked for his message to young people, Johnson says he would like to thank them, and say how sorry he is for how much they have missed. He thinks no other young generation has lost out so much.
Starmer says 5,000 jobs are at risks at Liberty Steel, and more in the supply chain. Will the PM commit to working with Labour and the unions to put British steel first, and protect those jobs?
Johnson says the steel output halved under Labour. The business secretary has had three meetings with Liberty Steel in recent days.
He says the government’s infrastructure plans will require millions of tonnes of steel. And leaving the EU means the government can buy British. He says Starmer wants to take the UK back into the EU.
Starmer says there is a pattern here. Johnson promised the NHS whatever it needed. But nurses’ pay is being cut. And he said taxes would not rise. But people will pay more tax. Why won’t Johnson put the army cut to a vote?
Johnson says the government is running a sound economy. He says Labour are out shouting “Kill the Bill”.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, intervenes. He says he does not think any MP would favour “Kill the Bill”.
Starmer says you can’t trust the Tories to protect the armed forces. He quotes the 2015 and 2017 Tory manifestoes saying the size of the armed forces would be maintained, and Johnson said the same in 2019. But the armed forces have been cut by 40,000 since 2010. Lord Richards, the former army chief, says the UK would not be able to retake the Falklands now.
Someone shouts “rubbish”. Starmer says he is quoting Lord Richards.
Johnson quotes items were defence spending is going up. He says it is hilarious to be lectured about the Falkland by Labour. They are consistently weak on the armed forces, he says.
Starmer says the size of the army will fall. Only the PM could claim a reduction is not a cut. But why did the PM make that promise? He cut the size of the army by 10,000, as well as cutting the number of ships, planes and tanks. Did he ever intend to keep that promise?
Johnson says he increased spending by 14%. He sayss it is “satirical” to be criticised by Labour. Lisa Nandy wanted the army turned into a peace corps, he claims. He says he welcomes Labour’s new “spirit of jingo”. They don’t like it up ‘em, he says.
Starmer says how about this for up ‘em. He quotes Johnson saying during the election campaign saying he would maintain army numbers.
Johnson says there will be no redundancies in the army.
UPDATE: Here is the article Starmer cited.
Sir Keir Starmer says the death toll is “shocking”. As soon as restrictions lift, there must be a full public inquiry.
Why did the PM promise at the last election he would not cut the armed forces “in any form”?
Johnson says it was because he was going to increase defence spending. Starmer stood for election under someone who wanted the UK to leave Nato, he claims (wrongly).
Nusrat Ghani (Con) asks the PM to pay tribute to Covid vaccination heroes in her constituency.
Johnson pays tribute to those involved, and says people like this have contributed to the UK’s vaccine success.
Stephen Farry (Alliance) says many countrie have bilateral veterinary agreements with the EU. Will the PM negotiate a new UK-EU veterinary agreement?
Johnson says that is why the temporary measures were put in place in Northern Ireland. Those who object to them should accept the importance of east-west trade.
Boris Johnson starts by paying tribute to the part everyone has played in tackling the Covid crisis.
From HuffPost’s Paul Waugh
PMQs is about to start.
The Scottish Refugee Council says it is “appalled” by Priti Patel’s plans to change the asylum laws.
In his speech to the Local Government Association this morning, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said that the UK Health Security Agency, the new body being set up to replace Public Health England (see 10.42am), would prepare the country for future pandemics. He said:
UKSA, as it will be known, will be this country’s permanent standing capacity to plan, prevent and respond to external threats to health ...
UKSA will work with partners around the world and lead the UK’s global contribution to health security research.
Next, UKSA will be tasked to prevent external threats to health, deploying the full might of our analytic and genomic capability on infectious diseases... in all, helping to cast a protective shield over the nation’s health.
Even after years without a major public health threat, UKSA must be ready, not just to do the science, but to respond at unbelievable pace.
According to a report in La Stampa, the Italian authorities have discovered 29m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine at a manufacturing site. Citing EU sources, La Stampa says they were originally destined for the UK but their export has been blocked. Politico Europe has a write-up here.
Jane Halton, co-chair of the Covax initiative, which is working to provide vaccines for low and middle-income countries, has said that altruism is playing a big part in ensuring that vaccines are provided to people around the world.
In an interview with Times Radio, asked to comment on Boris Johnson’s claim that “greed” was a vital factor (see 9.21am), she replied:
I haven’t heard those remarks and I would suggest that it’s never wise to comment on the alleged comments of somebody.
But let me put it to you this way: what the UK government did, together with CEPI (the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations), is fund the research and the development of vaccines very early in this pandemic.
CEPI actually put money into vaccine candidates when there were a total of 700 diagnosed cases globally and to give the UK government credit, they similarly put money into this research and development.
So I would say that, regardless of those comments, there’s been a pretty significant level of altruism and forward thinking demonstrated here because we would not have these vaccines now if we hadn’t made those investments.
It’s because of that money that was spent, that we can now vaccinate people.
Ahead of Priti Patel’s statement to MPs this afternoon about her changes to the asylum system, anyone interested in immigration policy should read this long explainer by Colin Yeo, an immigration lawyer and author of Welcome to Britain, a compellingly clear and unforgiving book about immigration policy, and how it has been mismanaged over recent years.
Yeo has also summed up the article with some charts in a Twitter thread, starting here.
UN refugee agency hits out at Priti Patel's plans for UK asylum overhaul
Priti Patel is misrepresenting international law to push her hardline agenda against asylum-seekers as the home secretary unveils a sweeping set of punishing proposals, the UN’s refugee agency has suggested. My colleagues Jamie Grierson and Sarah Marsh have the story.
Here is Jamie’s summary of what we know so far about the “New Plan for Immigration” that Patel will be announcing this afternoon.
Dr Jenny Harries, one of the two deputy chief medical officers for England (the other is Prof Jonathan Van-Tam), has been appointed head of the new agency that will replace Public Health England, Matt Hancock has announced. The body will be called the UK Health Security Agency. These are from the Times’s Chris Smyth.
Harries has become a familiar figure to the public because she is a regular at No 10 Covid press conferences.
Boris Johnson is under pressure from his scientific advisers to tighten border controls, particularly in relation to France, according to a report in today’s Times (paywall). It says:
South African and Brazilian variants of the coronavirus that are more resistant to vaccines now account for up to 40 per cent of all new cases in some regions in France, according to data presented to ministers.
The Times has been told that Boris Johnson is under mounting pressure from Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, and Jonathan Van-Tam, his deputy, to implement tougher border controls to stop mutant strains being imported. They are said to be “very concerned” because the majority of people travelling from France are exempt from quarantine measures.
Van-Tam told MPs yesterday that 68 per cent of those arriving from the country — predominantly hauliers and other drivers — were not covered.
In interviews this morning Priti Patel, the home secretary, would not confirm this story, but she said the government was willing to take “all measures” necessary to protect the country. She told the Today programme:
We rule nothing out in terms of the approach we take when it comes to infection control and the safety and security of our public from this virus. We will take all measures basically to protect our country and our citizens from new variants.
Women under 50s have worse long-term outcomes after Covid hospital admission than others, study says
New research says women under 50 and people who experienced severe disease had worse long-term outcomes following hospital admission with Covid-19 than others, PA Media reports. PA says:
The study found that in adults who were admitted to hospital, nearly all experienced ongoing symptoms three months or more after the onset of their Covid-19 infection.
Researchers found that women under the age of 50 had higher odds of worse long-term health outcomes when compared with men and older study participants, even if they had no previous co-morbidity.
The study, which has been published as a pre-print, found that people with more severe acute disease in hospital also had worse long-term outcomes than those who did not require oxygen.
Overall, more than half of all the participants reported not being fully recovered three months after the onset of Covid-19 symptoms.
The research, summarised here, was led by the University of Glasgow in collaboration with the Universities of Oxford, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Imperial College London. Dr Janet Scott, from the University of Glasgow-MRC Centre for Virus Research, said:
Our research shows that survivors of Covid-19 experienced long-term symptoms, including a new disability, increased breathlessness, and a reduced quality of life.
These findings were present even in young, previously healthy working age adults, and were most common in younger females.
The fact that women under the age of 50 are the group with the worst outcomes could have profound implications for pandemic policy decision, as well as vaccination strategy.
Children could start getting the coronavirus vaccine from as early as August, according to a report in the Telegraph. In their story (paywall) Ben Riley-Smith and Laura Donnelly report:
Two sources involved in preparations said that was the soonest point at which Britons under the age of 18 would be given the jabs – months earlier than expected.
Safety data on the critical child vaccine study being run by Oxford University – on which ministers are waiting before making their final decisions – is expected shortly, with its conclusions due in June or July.
Israel, the country with the highest proportion of vaccinated citizens, is already giving jabs to 16 and 17-year-olds after deeming it safe.
Prof Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told Good Morning Britain this morning that, although this was an option, no decision has yet been taken. He said:
As far as I know there has been no decision made to immunise children starting in August, or indeed any decision been taken to immunise children at all at this point.
But it’s certainly something that we might need to do. That’s why we’re doing the study [the child vaccine trial] and we will be doing more studies of the other vaccines in children over the coming weeks. In order to establish that vaccines can safely be used in children, we need to do that.
Finn also said if the government did decide to go ahead, it was likely to prioritise teenagers over younger children.
Action needed to tackle post-Covid 'loneliness emergency', MPs say
Britain needs more benches, public toilets and street lighting to encourage lonely people to start mixing socially again once the lockdown ends, a cross-party group of MPs and peers has said. My colleague Denis Campbell has the story.
What Johnson has said before about the value of 'greed'
One reason why we can be sure that, when Boris Johnson praised “greed” in his private remarks to Tory MPs last night (see 9.21am) he was talking about the desire to make a profit, is that he has made this argument many times before. The key text is probably Johnson’s Margaret Thatcher lecture (pdf) to the Centre for Policy Studies thinktank in 2013, delivered when Johnson was mayor of London. As well as being a defence of fiscal greed, it also included an argument for inequality.
Here is the most contentious passage.
Like it or not, the free market economy is the only show in town. Britain is competing in an increasingly impatient and globalised economy, in which the competition is getting ever stiffer.
No one can ignore the harshness of that competition, or the inequality that it inevitably accentuates; and I am afraid that violent economic centrifuge is operating on human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual worth.
Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.
And for one reason or another – boardroom greed or, as I am assured, the natural and god-given talent of boardroom inhabitants – the income gap between the top cornflakes and the bottom cornflakes is getting wider than ever. I stress: I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.
Other parts of the speech less provocative. Johnson argued strongly for more social mobility, and he said that he did not want to see a return to “the spirit of loadsamoney heartlessness” associated with the 1980s. But overall the speech was seen as uber-Thatcherite, and it was out of synch with the mood in the capital he was meant to be leading. Since then his comments on this topic have been more restrained.
People often wonder what is Johnson’s core political philosophy; one answer might be Ayn Rand, tempered by a very strong desire to be liked.
Patel defends PM after he claims capitalist 'greed' vital to success of vaccine rollout
Good morning. When Boris Johnson makes false claims, as he does regularly in parliament, he is notoriously unwilling to retract them. But last night, when he made an infelicitous comment on a private Zoom call with Tory backbenchers, he withdrew it almost immediately - even though at the time he was being much more honest than he often is.
This is what he said:
The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed, my friends.
The remark was tactless because it is open to the interpretation (almost certainly not intended) that he was suggesting that UK “greed” is behind vaccine hoarding that has led to the EU not getting the supplies of AstraZeneca vaccine they expect. According a blog by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, one source has suggested that he was even making a joke about the eating habits of Mark Spencer, the not-slim Tory chief whip. But the best explanations are normally the most obvious ones and we can be confident what Johnson meant because he has said it many times before; he was articulating the essential Tory faith that the profit motive in a free market will spur innovation and efficiency. Adam Smith expressed it best in his famous quote: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.”
Whether this is true or not is another matter, and one of the reasons the remark is attracting so much attention is that the UK vaccine programme, which has involved massive government investment (even to the extent of the state building its own vaccine factory), AstraZeneca selling the vaccine at cost in the developing world (the very opposite of “greed”) and distribution of jabs via a state-run health service, could be a textbook example of how profit is not the solution to everything.
Here is our story about what Johnson said last night.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, was doing an interview round this morning. She was reluctant to be drawn into the controversy but she has broadly defended what the PM said. She told Sky News:
The prime minister always acknowledges the strong success we’ve had in terms of the vaccine, not just the rollout, which is incredible, but also our ability as a country to develop the vaccine, the role that pharmaceutical companies and science and technology has played in that.
And asked about Johnson’s aside on LBC, she said:
I didn’t hear those comments so I’m not going to get involved in that but the role of the free market, having absolutely a diversity in terms of different organisations that we’ve been able to work with on vaccinations, is incredibly important.
Here is the agenda for the day.
10am: Caroline Dinenage, a culture minister, gives evidence to the Commons culture committee on the reopening of festivals this summer.
10am: Matt Hancock, the health secretary, and Dido Harding, head of NHS Test and Trace, speak at a Local Government Association health conference.
12pm: Boris Johnson faces Sir Keir Starmer at PMQs.
12.15pm: The Welsh government is expected to hold a coronavirus briefing.
12.30pm: Priti Patel, the home secretary, makes a statement to MPs about her plans to change the asylum rules. As my colleague Jamie Grierson reports, she will say that migrants who arrive in the UK by small boats or other illegal routes will be indefinitely liable for removal even if they are granted asylum.
12.30pm: Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, takes questions in the Scottish parliament.
3.30pm: Johnson gives evidence to the Commons liaison committee.
Politics Live has been mostly about Covid for the last year and I will be covering UK coronavirus developments today, as well as non-coronavirus Westminster politics. For global coronavirus news, do read our global live blog.
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