Rishi Sunak has said he was “shocked” to read allegations about the Conservative peer Michelle Mone, as it emerged that her loss of the Tory whip in the Lords only came about because she voluntarily took leave of absence.
Striking NHS workers could be targeted as part of Rishi Sunak’s promised “tough” new measures to curb a wave of industrial action, Downing Street has suggested. No 10 said the government had not ruled out plans to stop industrial action by nurses and ambulance drivers – a significant escalation from previous threats to clamp down on striking rail workers. At PMQs Rishi Sunak told MPs that he was planning a “tough” new law to protect people from strike disruption. (See 2.29pm.) In response, Frances O’Grady, the outgoing TUC general secretary, accused Sunak of engaging in “cheap political shots”. She said:
The right to strike is a fundamental British liberty. With inflation running at 11 per cent, Rishi Sunak wants to make it harder for working people to win better pay and conditions.
Public sector workers would love to be able to deliver minimum service levels. But 12 years of Conservative cuts and mismanagement have left our public services falling apart at the seams.
Rather than attempting cheap political pot shots, the government should be getting around the table and negotiating with unions about pay. So far, ministers have seemed more interested in sabotaging talks than trying to resolve disputes.
UK Border Force staff are to strike over the festive holidays at airports across the country in a dispute over pay and conditions, a union has announced.
Pharmacists are reporting UK-wide shortages of the antibiotics used to treat strep A, despite Steve Barclay, the health secretary, insisting that the government is “not aware” of a problem. At PMQs Rishi Sunak also claimed antibiotics were available. He told MPs:
Strep A can be treated appropriately with antibiotics. There are no current shortages of drugs available to treat it.
The Home Office has said the strike by Border Force staff will lead to delays for passengers. In response to the PCS strike announcement, a spokesperson said:
We are disappointed at the union’s decision to strike on the proposed dates which will cause an inconvenience to the public and businesses.
We are working closely with all UK ports and airports and have robust plans in place to minimise any delays if strike action goes ahead. However, passengers should be prepared for disruption.
Those intending to travel over strike days should plan ahead and contact relevant travel operators before travelling to check how the proposed strike action will affect their journey.
Aslef members vote to continue train drivers' strikes
Train drivers at 12 rail companies have voted overwhelmingly to continue strike action in a long-running row over pay, PA Media reports. PA says:
Aslef said the turnouts were “huge” – showing how angry its members are. Unions have to re-ballot members for industrial action every six months.
Mick Whelan, the Aslef general secretary, said: “The resolve of our members is rock steady. A 93% “yes” vote – up on the very high figure last time – on an average turnout across the 12 companies of 85% shows that our members are in this for the long haul.
“We don’t want to go on strike. We don’t want to inconvenience passengers – our friends and families use the railway, too, and we believe in investing in rail for the future of our country – and drivers don’t want to lose a day’s pay. Strikes are always a last resort.
“But the intransigent attitude of the train companies – with the government acting with malice in the shadows – has forced our hand.”
The companies affected include Avanti West Coast, CrossCountry, Great Western Railway, Greater Anglia, GTR Great Northern Thameslink, London North Eastern Railway, Southeastern, Southern/Gatwick Express, South Western Railway (depot drivers only), SWR Island Line and West Midlands Trains.
Aslef, which has held five one-day strikes this year, said it has successfully negotiated pay deals with 11 train companies this year – DB Cargo, Eurostar, Freightliner Heavy Haul, Freightliner Intermodal, GB Railfreight, Grand Central, Merseyrail, MTR Elizabeth line, Nexus, PRE Metro Operations and ScotRail – and are in dispute only with those companies which have failed to offer their drivers anything.
Plaid Cymru welcome Welsh government report saying independence would be one of three 'viable' options for Wales
Plaid Cymru has welcomed the publication of an interim report from a commission set up by the Welsh government saying independence would be a viable option for Wales.
The independent commission on the constitutional future of Wales was set up under the cooperation agreement between Plaid, which campaigns for Welsh independence, and the Welsh Labour government. It is chaired by Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, and Prof Laura McAllister.
In their foreward to the interim report, Williams and McAllister say the constitutional status quo is not sustainable. They say:
Devolution was a major step forward for Welsh democracy, but the current settlement has been eroded by decisions of recent UK governments particularly in the context of Brexit. The status quo is not a reliable or sustainable basis for the governance of Wales in the future.
They say there are three options they will consider in more detail in their final report.
Our work has led us to conclude that there are three viable future constitutional options for Wales: entrenched devolution, federal structures and independence.
The report itself says there are 10 reasons why devolution is under pressure.
Responding to the report, Adam Price, the Plaid Cymru leader, said:
This landmark report is the first government report to acknowledge that independence for Wales is both a credible and viable way forward for the constitutional future of Wales.
The significance of this cannot be overstated.
Not only does it reaffirm Plaid Cymru’s argument that the status quo simply isn’t working for Wales but makes clear that we are trapped within a UK economy that is overwhelmingly shaped in the interests of the South-East of England and the City of London and that this broken UK economic model does not deliver prosperity to Wales and offers no prospect of doing so.
The Welsh government was much less enthusiastic in its reponse. In a written statement, Mick Antoniw, the counsel general and minister for the constitution, just said the government would be considering the report carefully, and encouraged anyone interested in the constitution to do the same.
Albanian children facing racist bullying due to UK asylum row, says envoy
Albanian children are being subjected to racist bullying in UK schools because of the debate surrounding arrivals by small boats, Qirjako Qirko, the country’s ambassador in London, told MPs this morning. My colleague Rajeev Syal has the story.
NHS workers could be banned from striking, No 10 suggests
Striking NHS workers could be targeted as part of Rishi Sunak’s promised “tough” new measures to curb a wave of industrial action, Downing Street has suggested. My colleagues Aubrey Allegretti and Kiran Stacey have the story here.
Here is my colleague Rajeev Syal’s story on the Border Force strike over Christmas.
As Rajeev reports, Heathrow airport has put out a response saying passengers may have to wait longer to get through immigration and customs while the strike is on. A Heathrow spokesperson said:
Our priority is to ensure passengers get through the border safely and as quickly as possible. We are working closely with airlines and Border Force on mitigation plans for potential strike action by Border Force officers and these plans will now be implemented for the notified days.
The Home Office advises that immigration and customs checks may take longer during peak times on strike days, and Heathrow will support Border Force to minimise these impacts with the aim of processing passengers through the border as efficiently as possible.
Mark Serwotka, the PCS general secretary, said his members were going on strike because their low pay had made them desperate. When it was put to him that the Border Force dispute would ruin Christmas for people travelling, he told Sky News:
The people we represent, who are striking, their Christmas has already been ruined because 40,000 of them are using food banks, 45,000 of them have to claim benefits, the average wage is £23,000 pounds a year …
The government has given us 2% when inflation is at 11%, and actually at 16% for the poorest people that we represent. People are desperate.
We’ve given a dossier to the government of 170 pages of testimony of our members who are not feeding their families properly, they don’t put the lights on, they can’t afford to get to work, they are desperate. They’re in despair.
Therefore their industrial action is asking for more money to be put on the table so that they can have a half-decent Christmas time at this terrible time.
And this strike would not happen if Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt accepted one plain fact; it can’t be right people they employ are using food banks and claiming benefits. If they put money on the table, all of these strikes would be called off.
Border Force staff at major airports to strike over Christmas
Border Force staff are going on strike over Christmas, the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union announced.
The strike will involve PCS members at Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff airports, who will strike for eight days from 23 December to New Year’s Eve.
Hancock announced he won't stand again after local Tories told chief whip he was 'not fit' to be their MP
Matt Hancock announced he would not stand for parliament after local Tories wrote to the chief whip saying he was “not fit” to represent their constituency, the i’s Kate Maltby reports. The letter was due to be published tomorrow.
As Maltby reports in her story, Terry Wood, president of West Suffolk Conservatives, said in his letter:
I have been instructed by the Officers Group of West Suffolk Conservatives Association to write to you and advise you of the following. At an Officers Group meeting held on the 30 November 2022 a vote was taken that ruled that the Officer Group have no confidence in Matt Hancock as our sitting MP, and we would request that the Whip is not restored to him.
This vote was brought about following feedback from the constituents in West Suffolk, advising that by virtue of recent events, they consider Matt Hancock not fit to represent this constituency.
Labour says bill requiring minimum rail services on strike days would be 'unworkable'
At its own post-PMQs briefing, Labour said it thought legislation requiring unions to maintain minimum service levels during transport strikes would be “unworkable”. A spokesperson said the party would oppose any such legislation.
But she would not commit the party to repealing it if it were passed.
However, she did say some trade union legislation would be repealed. She said:
We would repeal the 2016 Trade Union Act. There are unnecessary elements in trade union legislation that we would look at … One example would not allowing online balloting. We don’t think that’s practical, we think it’s costly and we think that’s unnecessary.
Sunak says he is working on 'tough' new law to protect people from rail strike disruption
At PMQs Rishi Sunak said he was working on “tough” laws to protect people from strikes.
In a reference to the Tory proposal to legislate so that unions have to maintain minimum service levels during transport strikes (which was promised in the 2019 manifesto), he said:
The government has been reasonable. It’s accepted the recommendations of an independent pay review body, giving pay rises in many cases higher than the private sector.
But if the union leaders continue to be unreasonable, then it is my duty to take action to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British public.
That’s why, since I became prime minister I have been working for new tough laws to protect people from this disruption.
But at the post-PMQs lobby briefing the PM’s spokesperson would not give further details of what the new legislation would say, or when it might be introduced.
At the transport committee this morning Mark Harper, the transport secretary, said a bill of this kind was “not a solution” to the current dispute. (See 10.12am.)
No 10 says Michelle Mone lost Tory whip 'by default' when she took leave of absence from Lords
At the post-PMQs lobby briefing the PM’s press secretary said Lady Mone lost the Tory whip “by default” when she took a voluntary leave of absence from the Lords. The press secretary said:
She’s taken a leave of absence therefore, by default, she has not got the Conservative whip any more.
Asked why Rishi Sunak waited for Mone to in effect strip herself of the whip if he was “shocked” by allegations about her, the press secretary claimed that was matter for the whips’ office.
When it was put to her that Sunak cut Mone adrift, the press secretary replied: “I wouldn’t characterise it as that. She’s taken a leave of absence from the House of Lords.”
She said she was not aware of “any conversations” between Sunak and Mone about her taking a leave of absence, adding: “As I understand it, it was her voluntary decision.”
The Conservative party has confirmed Alex Wickham’s report that its membership fee is going up. (See 11.17am.) A party spokesperson said:
An increase to the membership fee, which has been frozen for 16 years, has been agreed. Existing members will see their membership fee frozen in 2023 and the new membership fee remains substantially cheaper than Labour’s.
The fee for new members will from £25 to £39. Most Labour members pay about £50 a year, PA Media says.
The Tory MP Justin Tomlinson has criticised the increase.
The i’s Kate Maltby says Matt Hancock has not told the full story about why he is leaving parliament. She says she will reveal more later.
Matt Hancock’s decision not to fight the next general election is not really shock news at Westminster. After his toe-curling adventures in the reality TV jungle, it was assumed he had no route back to the top of politics.
But the announcement may come as a surprise to anyone who made the mistake of believing Matt Hancock’s own spokesperson. Only last week, in response to a Sun story, the spokesperson told Sky News:
Matt has no intention of standing down or stepping away from politics and there has been no conversation with Mayah Riaz or any other PR.
Matt Hancock says he standing down as MP at next election, saying it could take Tory party decade to recover
Matt Hancock has announced that he is standing down at the next election.
In a letter to Rishi Sunak that he has posted on Twitter, Hancock said that he was recently told that he would have the whip restored (it was removed because he went on I’m a Celebrity without permission), which would have allowed him to stand again at the next election. But he said he was quitting anyway, because he had realised he did not need to be in parliament “to influence the public debate”.
He also implied the Conservative party was on a path to defeat, saying that it had to “reconnect with the public we serve” and that:
The revival of modern conservatism over the next decade will I suspect take place as much outside parliament as much as in it.
PMQs - snap verdict
When William Hague became Tory leader, for a while he regularly trounced Tony Blair at PMQs by making MPs laugh at him. Hague can deliver jokes brilliantly, and Blair did not know how to respond. Eventually he hit back by saying, as often as he could, that while Hague was good at jokes, he could not do serious politics. As Hague himself admitted in a recent interview for Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart’s podcast, The Rest is Politics, he was spooked by the criticism and toned down the jokes a bit. In retrospect, that is a mistake.
Keir Starmer, and the whole Labour machine, are trying to ensure that when the public see Rishi Sunak, they think “weak”. But Sunak, Blair-style, is trying to shame him off this line of attack. In his first response to Starmer he complained that the opposition leader was just “focused on the process and the politics”. In his second response, he said Starmer was “engaging in the petty personality politics, not focused on the substance”. It is a defensive ploy, and not altogether convincing (not least because Sunak himself accused Starmer of not being “strong” enough to stand up for workers affected by rail strikes), but it went some way to blunting the attacks he was receiving from the Labour leader.
Sunak also had a good retort to Starmer’s questions about the housing targets U-turn, and why the government was allowing councils to have the final say over housebuilding targets.
Just this week, on Monday, [Starmer] said the government should be giving people more power and control. Now he seems to be opposing that policy.
It is a fair criticism of the policy announced by Starmer with Gordon Brown on Monday. Governments can champion decentralisation, or they can champion housebuilding, but it is hard for them to do both.
In most of their PMQs encounters so far Starmer has won quite easily. Today it was more even, although he still had the upper hand. His mockery over the policy U-turns was effective. His jibe about the “blancmange prime minister” who “wobbled” was good (at least, for those of us old enough to remember the pink pudding monstrosity). And Starmer can do withering scorn as well as anyone now, as showed with this line.
Does [Sunak] really expect us to believe that the member for Chipping Barnet [Theresa Villiers] and the member for the Isle of Wight [Bob Seely] are cheering him on because he’s going to build more homes? Pull the other one.
Starmer also scored a direct hit with his Michelle Mone question. Although Sunak said in response that he was “absolutely shocked” by the revelations, it was a response that didn’t explain why she was allowed to retain the Tory whip. The question was more powerful than the answer – although Kevin Brennan’s version of the same question was even better. (See 12.32pm.)
At PMQs the PM normally saves his best soundbites for his final answer. But Starmer scuppered that today but devoting his final question to strep A. In the past, when the opposition leader has wanted to raise a question on something sombre and cross-party, they’ve almost always done it at the start. Saving the grim topic of an illness that has led to the deaths of children to the end meant Sunak was obliged to ditch whatever party-political crowdpleasers he had in his file, and instead address the question.
It was a novel and surprise tactic, and it helped give Starmer the edge. But it was also the sort of move you deploy when you don’t want to take your opponent for granted.
Poll suggests support for independence in Scotland has reached 56%, with 44% opposed
Support for independence has jumped sharply after the UK supreme court ruled last month that Holyrood was unable to hold a fresh referendum without Westminster consent, according to a new poll from Ipsos.
Their poll for the broadcaster STV found support for independence was now 56%, up six points from its poll in May, versus 44% against. The Scottish National party said that showed the yes vote was “rocketing” after the court’s judgment, which has now barred Nicola Sturgeon from pursuing a legal referendum.
Ipsos said those figures were based on responses from those “very likely” to vote and also knew how they would vote. Other polling organisations use a different method, and do not normally produce results based only on likely voters.
Ipsos also found SNP support was at 51%, up by seven points since May, and the Scottish Greens at 3%. Other recent polls have shown a fall in support for the SNP, to as low as 41%. If the Ipsos results were matched at a general election, it could vindicate Nicola Sturgeon’s plans to use the next general election as a “de facto referendum”.
She says winning a majority of Scottish votes would mandate her to start negotiations on independence – a position Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak have rejected.
Emily Gray, the managing director of Ipsos in Scotland, said:
This is a high-risk strategy for the party, who secured 45% of the vote in 2019. However, the indication from this poll is that, at this stage at least, this is not harming their electoral chances.
At the same time, there are some indications that wider public ratings of the SNP have slipped. While the SNP remains comparatively more trusted than other parties, trust in their ability to manage a range of crucial issues – including the NHS and the economy – has fallen significantly over the last 18 months.
Sunak says hotels are “incredibly expensive” for housing asylum seekers. The government will urgently bring forward plans to reduce the pressure on them, he says.
Kevin Brennan (Lab) says we all applauded nurses during Covid. But at the same time “Tory spivs” were helping themselves to public money. Why is the PM on the side of the spivs not the nurses?
Sunak said the government needed to get PPE quickly. The shadow chancellor suggested we should get PPE from a law firm, and ventilators from a football agent. He says ministers did not take the decisions. Labour should stop playing politics with this, he says.
Dame Diana Johnson (Lab) asks why the government cannot process asylum claims within six months.
Sunak says the number of staff dealing with claims is being doubled. But one problem is that people make false claims. He says he is looking at what can be done to fix that, and hopes to have Labour’s support.
Jackie Doyle-Price (Con) says Thurrock supports building new homes. But it cannot build all the homes it wants because of limits imposed by the highways authority.
Sunak says, if Doyle-Price writes to him, he will look at this.
Conor Burns (Con) starts by thanking the speaker, and other MPs, for their support in recent week. (Burns was sacked by Liz Truss as a minister over a groping allegation, but a subsequent Tory inquiry said he had not done anything wrong.) He asks Sunak to visit a school in his constituency.
Sunak says it is good to see Burns back. He says he will consider the invitation.
Siobhan McDonagh (Lab) asks about the removal of cash machines from high streets. A quarter of ATMs charge people to withdraw their own money. He asks if the government will back her amendment to the financial services and markets bill today that will ensure people can still use free ATMs.
Sunak says the government is taking steps to ensure that people can access free ATMs. But he does not commit to backing McDonagh’s amendment.
Eleni Courea has written about the amendment in today’s London Playbook briefing. She says:
An amendment to the Financial Services and Markets Bill drafted by Labour’s Siobhain McDonagh with consumer group Which? has amassed Tory backbench support ahead of a vote today. Playbook counted 21 Tory MPs on the paper after three additions late last night, with names from all wings of the party and including Priti Patel, Danny Kruger, Anne Marie Morris, David Mundell and Iain Duncan Smith.
Call to arms: One Tory rebel told Playbook: “HSBC have just announced they’re closing branches … Banks are taking the piss in rural areas and we have no option but to sign this and push the government to act.” Rocio Concha, the director of policy and advocacy at Which?, said the amendment aimed “to ensure those who want to use cash aren’t cut further adrift.”
Crunching the numbers: 21 Tories — assuming no more join, and also assuming those who signed the amendment actually back it — isn’t enough to overturn the government’s working majority of 69 but would send a clear message if it came to a vote. In a letter sent to MPs on Monday and seen by Playbook, Treasury minister Andrew Griffith effectively restated the government position on the bill, saying he recognized “the considerable interest of colleagues in the matter of free access to cash in relation to the government’s legislation” but the government believed it was a matter for the FCA and that “access to cash remains extensive in the U.K.” It suggests ministers are holding firm… at least for now.
Gareth Davies (Con) asks Sunak to confirm that the Indo-Pacific remains a priority for UK foreign policy.
Sunak says he confirmed this in his recent speech at the lord mayor’s dinner.
This is from Labour’s Chris Bryant on what Rishi Sunak said about Lady Mone.
Stephen Farry (Alliance) says progress in the talks on the Northern Ireland protocol is very slow. He urges Sunak to speed it up, and to visit Northern Ireland.
Sunak says he wants to see the protocol issues resolved “as quickly as possible”. He thinks they can find a way through.
Stephen Flynn, the new SNP leader at Westminster, starts by paying tribute to his predecessor, Ian Blackford. He calls Blackford a giant of Scottish independence, and says he has seen off three Tory PMs.
Flynn asks what is the greatest achievement of the Tories: leaving the single market, ending free movement, denying democracy to Scotland, or getting Labour to agree with all of these?
Sunak says the answer is simple: protecting the public during the pandemic, with furlough and the vaccine programme.
Flynn says a poll has just come out showing support for Scottish independence at 56%. Will rising energy bills make that go up or down?
Sunak says the government is helping people with energy bills.
Starmer says Sunak clearly has not heard what Mark Harper told MPs about the strike legislation this morning.
He asks: what is being done to keep children safe this winter, in the light of the strep A outbreaks?
Sunak says his thoughts are with the families who have lost children. He says he has spoken to officials about this. He says it is important that parents know the symptoms. He says there is no shortage of antibiotics, and the strep A strain is no more virulent than usual.
Starmer says it may not seem like it, but Sunak is PM. He says he should resolve the rail strikes. And he says he was chancellor at the time all these PPE deals were struck.
Sunak says the government will legisate for minimum standards on strikes. Will Labour back it?
Sunak says he was 'absolutely shocked' to read Guardian revelations about Baroness Mone
Starmer says there was another U-turn on windfarms last night. He agrees with that.
He then asks how Baroness Mone ended up with £30m in her bank accounts.
Sunak says he was “absolutely shocked” to read that. Mone no longer attends the Lords. But there is a process to follow, he says.
“It’s absolutely right that she is no longer attending the House of Lords and therefore no longer has the Conservative whip. The one thing we know about the honourable gentlemen is that he is a lawyer – he should know there is a process in place. It is right that process concludes. I hope it is resolved promptly,” he says.
He then says Labour should stand up for working people and oppose the rail strikes.
Starmer says Labour would have helped the government win the vote for mandatory housing targets.
Sunak says he will not cooperate with Labour because of its record on housing.
Starmer asks if Sunak really thinks Theresa Villiers is cheering him on because he thinks he will build more homes. “Come one.” As usual, the blancmange PM backed down in the face of his own MPs.
Sunak says Starmer is engaging in “petty personality politics”. He says only on Monday Starmer promised more local control. He says even by Starmer’s standard this is a rapid flip-flop.
Keir Starmer says the Tories said they would build 300,000 houses per year. The PM broke that promise by scrapping mandatory targets. What changed?
Sunak says Starmer is focused on the process and the politics. But he has not read the detail of the policy. The government is protecting the greenbelt, investing in brownfield sites, and protecting neighbourhood plans.
Anthony Browne (Con) asks if the PM agrees there should be an anti-scams taskforce.
Sunak says the government is looking at this, and he will meet Browne to discuss this further.
Philippa Whitford (SNP) says yesterday the United Kingdom turned 100 years old. Does the PM still think it is a voluntary union?
Rishi Sunak says he respects the supreme court ruling, and will work with the SNP government to deliver for the people of Scotland.
The king is visiting parliament next Wednesday, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the speaker, has announced.
From the i’s Paul Waugh
From my colleague Aubrey Allegretti
PMQs will be starting shortly.
It will be the first PMQs for Stephen Flynn as the new leader of the SNP group at Westminster. The SNP is the third largest party in the Commons, which means the leader always gets two questions.
Here is my colleague Pippa Crerar’s story about Flynn’s election as leader last night.
And here is the list of MPs down to ask a question.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, has welcomed the government’s decision to abandon the schools bill. (See 11.29am.) He said:
From the moment the schools bill was published it was clear it wasn’t going to be workable. It was inevitable the government would eventually have to scrap it, and we are pleased to see it won’t go ahead in its current form.
While this is the right decision, it does reflect the chaos of government over the last 12 months. It’s frustrating that so much of everyone’s time has been spent dealing with this when we could all see its flaws.
And it’s a shame that the sensible and necessary elements of the bill that we did support have been thrown into the long grass alongside the others.
The introduction of a register of children not in school, for example, is something we believe is important to improve safeguarding for children, as is the crackdown on illegal schools. We hope these elements of the bill won’t be lost entirely.
The Stormont assembly will be recalled today for another seemingly doomed bid to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland, PA Media reports. PA says:
Rival parties are attempting to ramp up the pressure on the DUP to end its boycott of devolution but, unless the party unexpectedly changes its stance, the move will not succeed.
A petition tabled by Sinn Féin gained the requisite 30 MLA signatures to secure a recall of the crisis-hit institutions, which will take place at 12pm.
Several previous attempts to reconstitute the assembly have already failed as the DUP has not supported the election of a speaker at the outset of the sittings.
Without a speaker in place, the assembly cannot proceed with further business.
The DUP is again set to block the election of a speaker on Wednesday.
The region’s largest unionist party has refused to engage with the devolved institutions in Belfast in the wake of May’s assembly election, meaning it has not been possible to form a ministerial executive.
The boycott is part of the DUP’s campaign of opposition to Brexit’s Northern Ireland protocol and the party says it will not return to powersharing until decisive action is taken to remove the protocol’s economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Negotiations between the UK government and the EU to resolve differences over the protocol are continuing.
Rishi Sunak has now departed Downing Street and is on his way to PMQs.
Government has dropped schools bill, Keegan tells MPs
The government has abandoned its schools bill, Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, told MPs this morning.
When the government published the bill in May, it said the legislation would “deliver on the government’s mission to raise standards across the country, increasing attendance and improve safeguarding for children wherever they are educated”.
The bill was introduced in the House of Lords, where it had cleared most of its stages by July, but since then it has been stalled.
In evidence to the Commons education committee this morning, Keegan said the bill “will not progress”. She explained:
Obviously, there’s been a lot of things that we’ve had to focus on, and the need to provide economic stability and tackle the cost of living means that the parliamentary time has definitely been reprioritised on that.
And we all know that we had to do that because of the pandemic aftershocks but also the war in Ukraine and we’ve needed to support families.
However, we do remain committed to the objectives, the very many important objectives that underpinned the bill, and we will be prioritising some aspects of the bill as well to see what we can do.
Keegan said many of the proposals in the schools white paper, which preceded the bill, could be achieved without legislation anyway. As an example, she said the government could go “quite a long way to achieving our aims” on reforms to schools funding for England without a new bill.
Everyone is hard up at the moment – including the Conservative party, it seems. According to Bloomberg’s Alex Wickham, the party is raising membership fees by 56%.
This morning Steve Barclay said Rishi Sunak was taking “a very strong stand in terms of the priority of getting inflation down”. (See 10.02am.) But not for Tory members, it seems.
Health ministers are likely to call in the armed forces to drive ambulances when NHS staff go on strike later this month, the Times is reporting. These are from Steven Swinford, the Times’ political editor.
Harper refuses to deny claim Treasury insisted on revised pay offer to RMT including extending driver-only trains
Harper says driver-only train operation applies on a significant part of the network already. He accepts that it is controversial, but he says the fact that it is already in operating means there should not be an objection to it.
Ben Bradshaw (Lab) asks Harper if it is true, as the Telegraph reported on Monday, that extending driver-only operation was inserted into the negotiations at the last minute, at the insistence of the Treasury. Bradshaw says this scuppered the deal.
Harper repeatedly avoids the question. He says he is not interfering in the talks.
But he insists that “no one is trying to stop a deal”.
Union leaders were left enraged on Sunday evening after train operators made the nationwide implementation of driver-operated doors as a condition of an 8pc pay deal.
Industry sources said that driver-operated doors, which negates the need for a guard on-board some services, was a “red line” for unions.
“They would not agree to a 20pc pay rise if that was left in there,” a source said.
UPDATE: Here is the key exchange.
Has the issue of driver-only trains been introduced by No 10 or the Treasury at the last minute? It wasn’t on the table before.
We’re very clear we need to see reform. On the specifics about detail, detailed negotiations are taking place between employers and trade unions.
It’s not the government’s role to micromanage the detail of the reform.
Grahame Morris (Lab) is asking the questions now. He says legislating for minimum rail standards during strikes would be “hugely controversial”.
Earlier in the hearing Harper said there would be no legislation on matters like pavement parking and e-scooters in this session of parliament. Yet the government intends to legislate on something much more controversial, Morris says.
Harper says Morris’s question has highlighted the point he made earlier, about there being no cross-party support for this move. (See 10.12am.)
Harper says Network Rail is considering whether to postpone engineering work planned for the Christmas period because of the RMT strike action. He says work worth £120m was planned.
UPDATE: Harper said:
One of the things that Network Rail is now looking at, given the strikes that were called by the RMT on Network Rail, is looking at that £120m worth of essential maintenance work to see the extent to which that’s affected.
Of course, even though that may not impact passenger services, it absolutely will affect the reliability of the railway.
Of course it’s done at Christmas because – although I recognise it sometimes causes inconvenience to people at Christmas – it is done then because that is the least busy time.
If that work isn’t done at the Christmas period, it means it will have to be done at other times of the year, which will cause more inconvenience to passengers.
Harper says legislating for minimum rail services on strike days 'not a solution' to current dispute
Back at the transport committee, Mark Harper, the transport secretary, is now being asked about rail strikes.
Chris Loder (Con) asks when the government will pass the legislation it has promised to require the rail unions to maintain a minimum service when they are on strike.
Harper says he cannot say when MPs will vote on it.
But he also says the bill is “not a solution to dealing with the industrial action we are seeing at the moment”.
And he says it would not improve rail services on non-strike days. He wants a new settlement that does improve the service generally.
Q: Are you saying the bill would not be valuable?
Harper says it may be valuable in the future. But he repeats the point about how it would not help with the current strike.
Q: Do you no longer intend to pass the bill rapidly?
Harper says the government normally passes legislation quickly when there is cross-party agreement. That is not the case here, he says.
Barclay rejects calls for government to improve pay offer to NHS staff
Here are some more lines from Steve Barclay’s morning interview round.
Barclay, the health secretary, rejected calls for the government to improve the pay offer to NHS staff. When he was asked on the Today programme repeatedly if he was willing to offer more, he replied: “No. We have an independent pay review body that looks at that. That is the position that we have in terms of pay.” When pressed again on this, he just stressed his commitment to the independent pay review process – even thought it was pointed out to him that the government could offer more than the pay review bodies recommend. As HuffPost UK reports in its story on this, Barclay also insisted the dispute was not just about pay.
He refused to defend the decision not to remove the Tory whip from Lady Mone. When asked repeatedly about this on Sky, he just said that this was a matter for the chief whip.
He defended Rishi Sunak’s decision to perform a U-turn on onshore windfarms. Asked about last night’s announcement, he said:
You can see, actually, the fact that the prime minister has taken a very strong stand in terms of the priority of getting inflation down.
I think it’s important that we listen to colleagues, that is our parliamentary process. It’s important that we do these things with local consent.
Barclay said there was no shortage of antibiotics in the country to treat strep A.
He said an announcement on motor neurone disease (MND) research funding would be made “in days”.
Ex-Tory donor scathing about party’s response to Michelle Mone allegations
Gareth Quarry, a former Conservative donor who recently defected to Labour, has launched a scathing attack on his former party, saying their response to the allegations about the Tory peer Michelle Mone has only strengthened his determination to help oust them from office. My colleague Kiran Stacey has the story here.
Transport secretary Mark Harper tells MPs he was 'disappointed' RMT turned down 'improved offer'
Mark Harper, the transport secretary, is giving evidence to the Commons transport committee.
He starts with a statement about the rail strikes. The RMT was given an “improved offer”, he says. He is “disappointed” they turned it down.
He says it is not just a pay dispute; it is about reform.
He says over the past two years the public has put £31bn into the rail industry.
Rail staff were not furloughed, and did not lose pay during Covid, he says.
But he says passengers numbers are only 80% of what they were before the pandemic.
He says he would still urge the unions to keep talking, and to call off their strikes.
The government will “do what we can” to encourage employers and unions to keep talking, he says.
Elderly people who fall won’t be able to get ambulance during strikes, says Steve Barclay
Good morning. Steve Barclay, the health secretary, has been doing the morning interview round this morning, mostly taking questions about the strikes that are about to hit the NHS. Mark Harper, the transport secretary, will be giving evidence to the Commons transport committee soon, and he will face a grilling about the rail strikes. And at 12pm Rishi Sunak will be up for PMQs where it is almost certain that strikes will be on the agenda too. This may be the pattern for much of winter.
Barclay was asked what services will be operating when ambulance staff in England and Wales go on strike on Wednesday 21 December, and he confirmed the message in the Daily Telegraph’s splash – that elderly people who have a fall will probably have to get to hospital on their own.
Barclay said that, while the strike was on, ambulance staff would respond to life-threatening incidents – known as a category (cat) one calls. And he said that tomorrow there would be a meeting to discuss how ambulance staff would respond to category two callouts, which cover heart attacks, strokes, epilepsy and burns. He told Times Radio:
We’ve got further talks with the officials tomorrow on what are called the derogations - which bits of the service that they will offer.
They’ve said that they will continue to offer life-threatening service, so that’s the cat ones.
There’s a question in terms of whether they will cover all the cat twos - those are the emergency responses to things like heart attacks and stroke - so it is hugely important that those are also covered.
But when asked if elderly people who suffered a fall would be able to get an ambulance, Barclay indicated that they wouldn’t. Falls were usually category three calls, and “at the moment the trade unions are saying those things wouldn’t be covered,” he said.
Barclay admitted this would put the system under “huge pressure”. He said:
Of course, we can look at what contingency plans we can put in place, but they’re never going to cover the same amount as having 3,000 ambulances on the day, which is roughly what we have on a typical day. There is a risk if we can’t get ambulances to people.
I will post more from his interviews shortly.
Here is the agenda for the day.
9.30am: Mark Harper, the transport secretary, gives evidence to the Commons transport committee.
9.45am: Qirjako Qirko, the Albanian ambassador to the UK, gives evidence to the Commons home affairs committee.
12pm: Rishi Sunak faces Keir Starmer at PMQs.
After 12.45pm: MPs debate the remaining stages of the financial services and markets bill.
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