All 3 Westminster Hall debates in the Commons on 22nd Mar 2021

Westminster Hall

Monday 22nd March 2021

(3 years, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

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Monday 22 March 2021
[Caroline Nokes in the Chair]

Scottish Independence Referendum

Monday 22nd March 2021

(3 years, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
16:30
Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes (in the Chair)
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I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between debates.

I remind Members participating both physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall and are expected to remain for the entire debate, and that they are visible at all times, both to one another and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, can they please email the Westminster Hall Clerk’s email address? Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room.

Chris Evans Portrait Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op) [V]
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 570779, relating to consent for a referendum on Scottish independence.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. The petition calls for consent not to be given to another referendum on Scottish independence and has received 109,929 signatures. It says:

“The independence referendum was called a once in a generation vote—so let it be.”

I thank the petitioner for creating the petition. In preparation for this speech, I spoke to the petitioner, who wishes to remain anonymous because they fear the abuse they will receive for creating a petition on this subject. They know that the independence debate has become extremely divisive; unfortunately, a lot of the political discussion around independence is not constructive or measured, but deeply emotive and all-consuming.

The creator of the petition believes that the focus of political debate in Scotland has been too centred on independence, at the expense of other, extremely important issues; they feel that political time and resources have been funnelled into debates on independence instead of being used to address pressing issues in Scotland. Instead of resources being spent on independence in the hope that, once independence is gained, all problems will be solved, the petitioner would like Scottish politicians to look to local problems now. They mention the need to tackle the rise in the use of food banks and the problems Scottish hospitals face—all with powers they feel the Scottish Government already hold.

One other issue the petitioner would like the Scottish Government to focus on is education, which is already a devolved matter. The long-term costs of the pandemic will fall disproportionately on today’s children, whose education has also been impacted this year through lost learning. It is vital that education is prioritised to ensure the economic recovery and growth of Scotland after the pandemic. The number of full-time or equivalent teachers in Scotland’s schools has fallen by 1,700 since 2007, while the ratio of pupils to teachers in Scottish secondary schools is at its highest since 2013. Only 14% of pupils in primary 1 through 3 are in a class with fewer than 18 pupils, despite promises to cap class sizes at 18 in 2007. That is seriously worrying. The Scottish Government have these powers; they cannot blame Westminster for these problems. The Scottish Government should focus on delivering promises made 14 years ago, rather than re-running a referendum from 2014. I fail to see how a divisive second referendum will help children in Scottish schools.

Ultimately, the problem is this: it always seems to be jam tomorrow. What is the point in more powers if the powers already held by the Scottish Government are not being used properly? Even when the Scottish Government are offered more powers, they defer and delay taking them—Scottish National party Ministers have twice asked the Department for Work and Pensions to delay the devolution of the benefits system, in 2016 and again in 2018. Last year, Scottish Ministers revealed that full devolution of benefits would be completed only in 2024. In June, they pushed that back further, to 2025. If the Scottish Government’s progress on disability benefits is anything to go by, some of Scotland’s most vulnerable people will have to wait a decade for benefits to be up and running in a separate Scotland.

Frankly, claims that it would take only 18 months from an independence vote to set up an independent state are laughable. On the one hand, SNP politicians say publicly that they simply cannot deliver the Scotland they envision without more powers. Yet, quietly, when they are due to get more powers, they say, “Not yet. We’re not ready.” It is too simple to just blame everything on Westminster. I know it is tempting—I know the frustration of Opposition—but we should try to find solutions, rather than taking powers for power’s sake.

The Scottish Government today published draft legislation on holding a second independence referendum. It is all well and good saying that the immediate priority is

“dealing with the pandemic and keeping the country safe”,

but why publish this Bill now? It is quite clear what the Scottish Government’s focus is. Even after the worst effects of the pandemic are over, recovery will take a considerable time, and the Scottish Government should be focused on that. Given the current emphasis on Scottish independence in political discussion within SNP, people could be forgiven for querying the headlines that we are in one of the largest health and economic crises since world war two.

Each hour of political debate given over to independence is an hour not spent discussing how Scottish businesses and tourism will recover from covid or how to tackle unemployment and poverty or waiting times in Scottish hospitals. Hospitals around the UK have been put under enormous pressure during the pandemic, and all those who have staffed them have done incredible work. They have taken extra shifts, put their psychological and physical health at risk, and gone above and beyond to save lives during the pandemic. As we begin to look at how and where hospitals will need support to recover and grow in the future, Scotland needs to look at its hospitals and realise that a lot of work needs to be done to support them fully.

Rather than having all political energies focused on independence, discussion should be focused urgently on the mental health crisis that the pandemic has highlighted, the waiting times in Scottish hospitals, and the health of the population. Right now, politicians should be concentrating on the health and economic crisis that the pandemic has brought about. The provision of food parcels and food aid has grown significantly in Scotland in the last 10 years. In 2009, there was one Trussell Trust food bank operating in Scotland. By April 2017 that had increased to 52, with 119 centres, as some operate satellite centres in various locations in the surrounding area, the better to serve those who cannot easily travel to them or who cannot afford to. The number of families who have had to rely on food banks has risen during the pandemic.

I understand that those problems are not unique to Scotland, but I do not think they are helped by the obsession with independence. I know that those who shout the loudest often get the attention, but I do not think most people want their Government to focus on constitutional matters in the middle of a crisis. Rather than spending political energy on independence, should not the SNP be ensuring that every family can put food on the table and that the Scottish Parliament does everything it can to ensure that the economic effects of the pandemic do not result in a further increase in the number of people relying on food banks?

Even before the pandemic, around 1 million people in Scotland were living in poverty, and that figure is set to rise. In 2019 an estimated 24.6% of all Scottish households were in fuel poverty. That is almost a quarter of all families. Let us not beat around the bush: that shows an urgent problem of fuel poverty among Scottish families. Now is not the time to discuss constitutional change. Now is the time to look at what can be done to prevent poverty and to aid those who face unemployment or homelessness.

This year has seen the UK’s exit from the European Union, alongside the changes that the pandemic has brought. The petitioner has voiced the wish for politicians to allow some time for the dust to settle on those two issues before more political unrest is contemplated. It is surely not the answer to Brexit to do exactly the same with Scottish independence. It does not make sense to cut off your nose to spite your face. If a second referendum is deemed necessary, now is certainly not the time. We need to focus on recovering from the pandemic and to allow for the results of Brexit to become clearer and more settled before any constitutional change can even be considered. The SNP has consistently said that there could be a referendum this year. Thankfully, the Scottish public are rejecting that, in large numbers. Can it really be appropriate even to consider such a divisive and destructive referendum this year?

In 2014 the Scottish First Minister said she hoped people would seize the

“once in a lifetime opportunity for Scotland”

in the independence vote. The people of Scotland voted—they voted to remain a part of the United Kingdom. I was on the losing side of the Brexit referendum two years later. Never once did I call for a second referendum. I knew that we had to accept the democratic will of the people and make the best of it. We cannot simply rerun referendums until we get the answer we are looking for. Quite frankly, if the past five years have shown us anything, it is how divisive referendums can be. The SNP should be leading the people of Scotland, not misleading them by saying that there are simple solutions to Scottish problems and telling them tales of an imaginary utopia with Scotland outside the UK. Rather than picking at old wounds, the SNP should focus on using the powers it has to help the Scottish people.

Ultimately, the obsession with an independent Scotland is driving a wedge between families, friends, neighbours and communities. The petitioner shared with me fears about the abuse aimed their way for wanting Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom. The petitioner’s family was so nervous about the abuse that they asked the petitioner to remove their name from the petition. That is not a healthy discourse, but it is one that results from offering simple solutions to complex problems. Even as I agreed to lead the debate for the Petitions Committee, I was warned to expect abuse online. It is not surprising that people are angry when they have been told that there is a simple solution to all of Scotland’s problems and that the rest of the UK is standing in the way. If I thought that that was true—that the rest of the UK was standing in the way of a great education system, an end to poverty and a fairer society for Scottish people within an independent Scotland—I would be happy to fight alongside the Scottish Government. However, nothing is ever as simple as that. It takes hard work to solve any problem.

Rather than focusing on jam today, let us work together as four nations to achieve the best for all our people. Let devolved Governments use the powers that they have effectively, rather than focusing on what powers they could take next.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes (in the Chair)
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Before I call the next speaker, I have to tell Members that I am instigating a three-and-a-half-minute time limit. I call Douglas Ross.

16:40
Douglas Ross Portrait Douglas Ross (Moray) (Con) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for introducing today’s debate.

We have had many of these arguments. Last week in the Chamber, the SNP used its party business time to debate a similar topic, but on that occasion it was about holding another independence referendum. As we heard from the hon. Member for Islwyn, today we are debating opposition to another independence referendum. The petition was signed by well over the 100,000 threshold needed to have the matter debated in Parliament.

Given the decision that millions of Scots took back in 2014, they must be looking at the SNP Scottish Government’s news today and wondering why Nicola Sturgeon and her party just turned two fingers up at them and said, “We don’t care what you think. We’re forging ahead with another Independence Referendum Bill in the next Parliament”. The draft Bill was launched today, taking us back to the divisions of the past, rather than focusing on our recovery from covid-19 and rebuilding Scotland after this most damaging pandemic.

It hit home to me when the hon. Member for Islwyn said that the lead petitioner wished to remain anonymous because of the state of the debate in Scottish politics right now. Today I found out from the police that someone has been charged with making a very graphic death threat against me and another Scottish politician. That is the state of politics in Scotland right now. That is what the SNP wants to take us back to, and it is what the SNP wants us to debate in the days, weeks and months ahead. We do not need the division that separates families and workplaces and that divides communities all over again. What we need is a laser-like focus in the next Scottish Parliament on ensuring that we can recover from covid-19 and rebuild from this pandemic. That should be all politicians’ and all parties’ No. 1 priority, but again today we have heard that that is not a priority for the SNP, which believes in separation over securing a recovery for Scotland.

I hope that what we get today from the SNP spokesperson and the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson), who is speaking straight after me, is some answers to some very basic questions that people across Scotland will be asking right now. If the SNP’s desire is to take us back into that divisive debate, will its Members answer some basic questions that I put to the SNP shadow Chancellor on numerous occasions in the debate last week? Can any SNP Members in today’s debate tell us what currency an independent Scotland would have? Can any SNP Members in today’s debate tell us what independence would mean for a border between Scotland and England? Can any SNP Members in today’s debate tell us what it would mean for our armed forces here in Moray, at Kinloss barracks, at RAF Lossiemouth and across Scotland? As long as those questions go unanswered, the SNP will continue to seek separation without telling the people of Scotland what it will mean for individuals, families and communities up and down the country.

We can move beyond such division. We can say to people that we do not need another independence referendum, and we can focus on rebuilding Scotland. People can give their votes to the Scottish Conservatives at the election in a few weeks’ time to ensure that our focus is on recovery and rebuilding, not on more referendums.

16:44
John Nicolson Portrait John Nicolson (Ochil and South Perthshire) (SNP) [V]
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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross). He has clearly not heard that the Hamilton report has found no breach of the ministerial code. I know he would want to be gracious and to congratulate the First Minister.

I understand people who once opposed Scottish independence. My dad saw himself as a proud Scottish patriot, but a youth forged in war and then the values of a shared welfare state made him feel Scottish, British and, because of his wartime experiences, passionately pro-European. The brutality of Thatcherism in the 1980s and the imposition of Brexit have removed that triple status from many Scots who thought that they could have overlapping identities protected by a benign state, which recognised that, although we were smaller, we were equal. The Conservatives have disabused them of that notion.

The Union could have survived. A more nimble Westminster establishment might have read the runes in 2014 and determined that the Union had a narrow escape and that equality was the way forward. Instead, drunk on victory, they crashed on into a Brexit campaign and imposed the hardest of Brexits on a country that did not want it. Brexit represents the triumph of the English nationalists over the Unionists in the Conservative party. A Scot who voted no in 2014 because they believed the Unionist promises then will have been deeply disillusioned. They were told unambiguously that the way to preserve Scotland’s membership of the European Union was to vote no to independence. They now know that the opposite was true. The choice now is to either stay in the Prime Minister’s narrow, insular Brexit Britain or for Scotland to become like Denmark—a medium-sized, prosperous, socially progressive independent member of the European Union.

For me, independence has never been about the destination, but rather the gateway. It has been about getting the Governments we vote for and holding them to account. It is about making Scotland the most liberal, socially progressive country in Europe. It is about honouring our old people and giving the best start in life to the young. It is about being a beacon of democracy and freedom to countries yearning for both. An independent Scotland would not have gone to war in Iraq. It would not have bombed the Syrians or supplied weapons to the Saudis. An independent Scotland would not have nuclear weapons.

Tory Members sometimes tell me privately that they know independence is inevitable, and I agree with them. However, Canute-like, they think that waves of policy-free, angry election leaflets will stem the tide. They will not. So what should we make of the campaign to stop a referendum? Please, no more of the “once in a generation” baloney. The Prime Minister said that the last general election was a “once in a generation” election. I doubt he meant that there will be no more general elections. Young people who missed out on voting in 2014 are now in their 20s and are hungry to shape their future. Attempting to stifle their voices shows nothing but fear.

I understand people who feel Unionist. I do not, however, understand those who want to impose their Unionism in defiance of Scotland’s Parliament. The Scottish people are sovereign. We will decide our future, and no one else.

16:47
David Mundell Portrait David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con)
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I am particularly pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank the 1,352 of my constituents who signed the petition. I also thank the Member who preceded me—not so much the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson), but the Member for an alternative universe. I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament during the Iraq war, and the Scottish Parliament voted to support that war, contrary to one of the many myths that the SNP perpetrates. I may or may not have agreed with that decision, but these wild statements that an independent Scotland would not have gone into the Iraq war are nonsense, just like the statement in relation to the EU in the Scottish referendum in 2014—it was known at the time of the Scottish referendum that there was going to be an EU referendum in the United Kingdom, and any pretence otherwise is complete nonsense.

This debate is timely, even though it is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) mentioned, a rerun of many of the issues that were discussed last Wednesday. In that debate, we learned that the nationalists’ statement that the 2014 referendum was a “once in a generation” event was in fact a complete and deliberate con—a trick to persuade their supporters to go out and vote. It is clear that there was never any intention to stick to that promise, and the suspicion at the time that the SNP would keep pursuing a referendum until it got the answer it wanted was correct. So much for the Edinburgh agreement, which was described as a gold standard by Alex Salmond. Of course, the same people who are decrying Alex Salmond today were, at that time, describing him as the father of our nation and somebody whose word could be relied on.

The Edinburgh agreement contained that important provision that we would respect the result, but as from 19 September 2014, that result has not been respected. The SNP has disrespected it from that moment onwards. This is not about something happening around the Brexit referendum, nor about Governments and general elections after that. It was disrespected from 19 September 2014, and the constant call since then has been for another referendum, and even another referendum in the middle of a pandemic or in the recovery period that we will essentially need.

We were told that we could have a referendum by the end of this year. That is the last thing Scotland needs. We need a focus on jobs, on education and on our NHS as we rebuild after this pandemic. Contrary to claims that that has been the focus of the SNP Government, we see the incredible sight of an independence referendum Bill being launched today. It does not need to be like this. On 6 May, people can use both their votes for the Scottish Conservatives, and ensure that we focus on rebuilding Scotland and not on another divisive independence referendum.

00:04
Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Ms Nokes. Seven years ago in the run-up to that Scottish independence referendum, those who advocated independence pitched it not just as a once-in-a-generation vote and opportunity; they effectively said to the Scottish people, “This is your chance—grasp it or lose it.” That is effectively what they said, and the people of Scotland gave their response in the outcome, which was that they were better off together within the United Kingdom.

Nationalism, whether in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales, thrives where there is perceived disadvantage. I know from friends to whom I have spoken over many years that Scottish people feel that they have been disadvantaged by successive Governments. That is why the levelling-up approach by the Prime Minister is absolutely essential in delivering a better United Kingdom. That is why the vaccination programme and the success of the national health service vaccination programme across the United Kingdom demonstrates that we are indeed better off together.

For all of the Members here today who are from Scotland and all of their constituents, their Scottishness and their Britishness are not exclusive. They are complementary. It is not very often that I quote with affirmation a former Labour Prime Minister, but to paraphrase Gordon Brown speaking just before the referendum seven years ago, the people of Scotland have been born together in the United Kingdom, they have lived together, they have fought in wars together, and they have died together in the United Kingdom.

That is a plea I would put out to all of the people of Scotland. We are much better off together. Let us build a truly United Kingdom, where all of us win, where all of us are levelled up, and where progress and prosperity can be achieved and obtained by everyone across the United Kingdom.

00:04
John Lamont Portrait John Lamont (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the chair today, Ms Nokes. I am pleased to be taking part in the debate on this petition, which has attracted so much support across Scotland. I am particularly pleased to see that 1,894 of my constituents of Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk have signed this petition—the 11th highest number of any constituency in the UK. However, if I went around door-to-door in my Borders constituency and asked people to sign a petition calling on the SNP to drop their obsession with another independence referendum, I suspect the figure would be significantly higher. Members might say that that is no surprise, given that the Scottish Borders voted by a margin of two to one in 2014 for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom.

I certainly do not have any sense that people have changed their minds since that referendum vote in 2014—since that act of self-determination back in 2014; since that once-in-a-generation vote, when Scotland voted by a margin of more than 10% to reject the case for separation—quite the opposite.

Scots are worried about the coronavirus pandemic; people are worried about the economy and their jobs; people are worried about our young people and their education; families are worried about the health and wellbeing of loved ones; we are worried about whether our NHS will cope. They are certainly not thinking that now is the right time for another divisive referendum on Scotland’s future. People want Scotland’s two Governments to be working to navigate our way through the pandemic and implement the economic recovery plan.

That is reflected in the fact that this petition was set up in the first place, but also that so many people felt the need to sign it. They do not want to see the SNP Government in Edinburgh prioritising another referendum when there are so many other things that the SNP in Holyrood should be doing.

“But why,” we ask, “is the SNP doing this?” It does not want Scotland’s voters to look at its record in government over the last 14 years. Scotland’s education standards are in decline; Scotland’s NHS is in crisis; Scotland’s rural broadband delivery is in chaos; Scotland’s economy is lagging behind; Scotland has missed climate change targets; I could go on and on.

Of course, there is trouble in the SNP’s nest too—another reason to try to distract voters—ripped apart by an internal civil war the likes of which we have never seen before. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, is seemingly unable to tell the truth, leads the SNP Government, who are corrupt, sleazy, tired, and certainly past their use-by date.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes (in the Chair)
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Order. Can we maintain parliamentary language, Mr Lamont?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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I am grateful, Ms Nokes. I know that others, even in the Scottish Parliament, have questioned whether the First Minister has been able to tell the truth.

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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I apologise, Ms Nokes.

We need to rebuild Scotland, end the division of the past, and stop the constant talk of another independence referendum. There is one way to do that, and that is for people to use both votes in May for the Scottish Conservatives.

16:57
Christine Jardine Portrait Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West) (LD) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and to have the opportunity to take part in this debate.

The views of the petition, expressed by the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) earlier, reflect many of the frustrations that I hear daily in Scotland, particularly from my constituents in Edinburgh West, which has the third highest number of signatories to the petition that triggered this debate.

What I am about to say is not a party political point, nor a free potshot at the SNP, but an appeal. Everyone in the House is painfully aware of the impact of the pandemic on our economy and on the daily lives of our constituents, small businesses and families. They are struggling and are tired; they want reassurance that their politicians and their Government will put their recovery first.

Surely no reasonable person, at a time when the country is going through the biggest crisis of this—or any other—generation, can think that we should be focused on anything else. Surely no reasonable politician would say to people, “We know you’re worried about your job and your family’s future, and we know it’s going to be an expensive business to rebuild. First, however we’d like you to take the time and the money to talk about a constitutional question you have already answered.”

I believe that the people of Scotland have answered that question more than once. At the most recent general election, only 45% of the electorate voted for the Scottish National party, whose very raison d’être is separation, and which takes every available moment in the Chamber, every speaking opportunity here, every soundbite or quote in the Scottish media, to talk about how independence would be the solution to every imaginable problem.

The SNP gained precisely the same proportion as voted for separatism in the referendum in 2014. It seems happy, in doing that, to put aside education, health and the economy to argue for independence. It is clear that the majority of the people in Scotland have other priorities than that argument. They do not want to talk about independence.

I share the priorities of the majority of the people of Scotland. I am tired of the SNP’s failure to listen to the people of Scotland and their constant claims about what an independent Scotland would have done. How does the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) know what an independent Scotland would have done? Perhaps he has a crystal ball that we are not privy to. None of us knows. I am tired of these myths and wild, baseless statements, and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) for putting the record straight. I am tired of the SNP’s blame and grievance strategy, which is at its worst at a time when we need our politicians and our Governments to pull together to steer us out of a crisis.

I mentioned at the beginning of my speech that Edinburgh had the third highest number of signatories to the petition. The two seats above it in Scotland are both held by the Scottish National party. Perhaps the SNP would do well to ponder that and think that perhaps the time has come when the people of Scotland want it to put its endless grievances aside, think about the people of Scotland and put their recovery first.

17:00
Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) (Con) [V]
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It is a pleasure, Ms Nokes, to serve with you in the Chair for this important debate on an incredibly divisive and emotive topic: the future of our Union. It is clear that, like all nationalists, the Scottish National party has an unhealthy obsession with stoking division rather than celebrating the centuries of shared history, culture and values that all nations in the UK have with one another. As I recently heard, we are, after all, a family of nations and a nation of families. Like all families, different components will sometimes have different priorities or views, yet with our family Union of Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland, I believe that we share, and will always share, more in common than less.

Let us face it: this debate and talk of yet another referendum is about far more than facts and figures. The potential separation of our Union is about how we, as four nations in the UK, view our identity and purpose in the world. For over 300 years, the people of Britain have been banded in a common union in which all have benefited. Our being in this Union has ensured that this island has been a beacon of liberty and enterprise. The Union enabled this small island of ours to lead the way in the industrial revolution, stand against tyranny twice—in 1914 and in 1939—and play a key role in the worlds of the 20th and 21st centuries. At each turn in our island’s story, Scotland has benefited from being part of this family of nations. Indeed, many Scots, from Prime Ministers to economists and sportsmen and women, have rightly led and continue to lead this family.

In 2014, the Scottish people rejected outright the SNP’s narrow nationalism, which would have had this wonderful and prosperous family of nations split apart. However, yet again, the party is pushing for another divisive referendum, stoking division and causing uncertainty among businesses and families during the worst economic downturn that the country has faced in living memory. If the SNP truly cared about the people of Scotland, it would respect their wishes to remain part of the UK and not call for a referendum for at least 20 years. It was, after all, a once-in-a-generation decision. However, it is more apparent than ever that the SNP hold nothing sacred—not the Union and not the wishes of the Scottish people. I say: enough. The SNP should focus on governing Scotland for the benefit of all its people, not solely its own supporters. I therefore agree wholeheartedly with the petition and hope that SNP Members hear the voices of the petitioners loud and clear.

17:03
Steven Bonnar Portrait Steven Bonnar (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (SNP) [V]
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I am delighted to take part in the debate under your stewardship, Ms Nokes. In reality, many people could accept being part of the UK; having our rights and privileges as EU citizens ripped from us in such a fashion, many more simply could not. But “Brexit means Brexit” came the cry from London. It is irrefutable that Brexit has decimated Scotland’s trade with the European Union. Last week, Business for Scotland reported that January saw the worst collapse of Scottish trading with the European Union since comparable records began over two decades ago. The Office for National Statistics figures show precisely how harsh it has been. There has been a staggering 83% drop in fish exports, a 59% drop in meat exports and a 50% drop in dairy exports. Overall, total EU exports from Scotland are down 63%.

Brexit has pushed many businesses in my constituency to the brink of bankruptcy and collapse. Warehouses lie empty, products are not getting to their EU market on time and transportation leaving Lanarkshire—a logistically critical distribution network—is delayed time and time again. All of that is a direct consequence of the red tape and unnecessary paperwork that the UK Government have created. It is a mess that Scotland neither wished nor voted for.

Covid has been used time and again as a convenient scapegoat for these issues. However, as James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, stated, Brexit is “at the heart” of the EU trade collapse. After all, non-EU markets have not seen a crash, despite being affected by the same global pandemic. Indeed, many economists have forecast that delays at the EU border and growth stagnation will continue for months, if not years, to come. Brexit is a disaster of the UK Government’s own doing. Scotland can do better. With these harsh figures laid bare, the people of Scotland surely know that too. Twenty-two consecutive polls have shown support for Scottish independence, and today a new poll once again confirms that Scottish independence is now seen as a necessity, rather than a wish, by most Scots.

The Prime Minister is fond of an excuse, and in recent days he has resorted to using covid yet again. This time, it is the main reason why an independence referendum cannot take place. No one is suggesting that our referendum be held during a pandemic—no one has ever suggested such a thing. However, the Prime Minister cannot continue to deny democracy. He cannot continue to deny and ignore democratic mandates, and he cannot deny a second independence referendum.

I enjoy taking part in petition debates. They are, to my mind, the truest form of democracy in action. This one has given us a chance to remind all across the UK that their opinions are valued and respected in relation to Scotland’s place in the world. It is also a good time to remind the same people that when a referendum takes place is for the people of Scotland to determine through our democratically elected Parliament.

17:07
Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I am getting a sense of déjà vu. We basically had the same debate on Thursday, but having the same debate twice in a row is an apt metaphor for the nationalists’ approach to referendums.

I was going to launch into a polemic about the sanctity of the settled will of the Scottish people and the importance of consent in our democracy, but it would be entirely wasted on the SNP. The party is so out of touch and arrogant that it claims to speak for an entire nation, and is venal enough to claim that any criticism of its knavish regime—I am mindful of your call for parliamentary language, Ms Nokes—in Holyrood is talking Scotland down. It is certainly not going to respect the outcome of a once-in-a-generation referendum.

Ad nauseam, we hear from nationalist Members that the panacea for all the world’s ills is separation. If only we can ignore the myriad details they forgot to work out, Scotland will be off and up into the sunlit uplands. Then of course we get the other logical fallacy: that an independent Scotland handing over control of its laws and economy to an unelected Commission in Brussels will somehow make Scotland more prosperous and free.

SNP Members have set themselves up as pound-shop Bravehearts—I say “pound shop”, but we do not actually know what currency they would be using in an independent Scotland—peddling the fantasy that a major constitutional issue can simply be passed. Meanwhile, support for the SNP is on the slide, as the murky goings-on at Holyrood become more public, and support for independence slides with it. No doubt the goalposts will be shifted again after May’s poll to suit the realpolitik of whatever the outcome is.

The same self-important, peevish nationalism that underpins the SNP’s vision for Scotland, creating an inward-looking, less tolerant country, is still writ large. After three years of hard graft to get Brexit done, we are moving back out into the world, which has always been the United Kingdom’s true place. We are a trading nation, and nowhere is that clearer than here at home, where trade between Scotland and the home nations is three times greater than with the EU27. Public spending in Scotland is more than £1,600 per person higher than the UK average, which means that every person in Scotland benefits from levels of public spending substantially above those of the rest of the UK. The SNP wants to take that away. The SNP’s perspective on separation would make Scotland poorer, less democratic and less outward-looking.

I fully accept that some people wanted a different future for the UK in 2016, but we have a responsibility to one another to take the opportunities of our new reality and to make it work for everyone, not constantly stoke division and acrimony in pursuit of an ill-conceived separatism. The only way to ensure that Scotland can move forward as a full partner in our national recovery from covid and in our shared prosperity post Brexit is for those who have a vote in May’s Holyrood elections to cast both votes for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party, the only party that has a clear and consistent position in our support for the Union and our desire to get on with the day job of looking after the interests of the people of Scotland.

17:10
Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan (Angus) (SNP) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes.

This debate being called rather sums up the dysfunction of this so-called United Kingdom—a hopelessly asymmetric construct from the outset, and one that now substantially exceeds the limits of what Scotland can continue to endure. In 2014, the Smith commission report noted that

“nothing in this report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose.”

That report included signatories from all political parties represented in Scotland: the Greens, the SNP and the vow signatories, Labour, Liberal and Tory. The Better Together amalgam still clearly exists, and as usual they speak with one voice to deny Scotland the credit of her abilities, subscribing to a Tory “Union first” ideology.

The petition that we are debating today received almost one fifth of its signatures from people not resident in Scotland, so this Westminster Hall debate on whether people in Scotland should decide Scotland’s future is therefore taking place because people not resident in Scotland have decided that we should not allow Scotland self-determination. Democratic values cast aside, here in the “mother of all Parliaments”.

Indeed, of the 13 hon. Members lining up today to downplay the harm of London rule in Scotland while talking down Scotland’s right to self-determination, only five represent Scottish constituencies. That perhaps explains why a consistent majority of people who actually live in Scotland now support independence. I do not doubt that outwith Scotland there are those who oppose Scottish independence, and do so for what they may consider very good reasons, but it is Scotland’s future, so it is Scotland’s choice, and the people of Scotland know it.

That is consistent with the latest poll by BMG for The Herald, which again showed a majority in support of independence. The UK is splitting up in slow motion before our eyes, but we will change into top gear following an SNP majority in May’s Scottish Parliament elections, if the people of Scotland vote for the SNP’s ambition for another referendum. The UK cannot refuse that in those circumstances.

In Scotland, we largely dispensed with the irrelevance of the Labour party in 2015, and now Wales and the north of England are pursuing the same enterprise with enthusiasm. Since 2016, England has, it seems, embraced a populist, right-wing, Tory anti-EU agenda, which is its democratic right so to do, but Scotland has pursued social inclusion, fairness and opportunity, and it is positive about Europe. Those values and ambitions of either nation for its people are mutually exclusive.

Earlier in the debate, defence jobs were mentioned. Let me expand on that. When, in 1989, I was employed by the Navy as an apprentice aircraft engineer, I joined a workforce of more than 32,000 Ministry of Defence employees in Scotland. Last year, that number was less than 14,000. What Union dividend is that?

Six weeks on Thursday, I trust the people of Scotland to exercise their vote in such a way as to send a very clear instruction to Westminster, demanding another referendum—not a demand from the SNP or any political party, but a demand from the sovereign people of Scotland, to which the UK will accede.

17:13
Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes.

In reality, the petition reflects the views of a minority of people in Scotland. Only today, an opinion poll reconfirmed previous polls indicating that people are in favour of a referendum in the next five years if the SNP gets a majority. A small minority believe in the Union so strongly that their contention is that there should not be another referendum, no matter the will of the people.

The petition is fundamentally flawed for a couple of reasons. First, it puts Westminster’s sovereignty above the will and democratic votes of the Scottish people, which should be unacceptable for any democrat. In common with nine Opposition MPs last week and several today, the petition references the “once in a generation” comment, as if somehow one referendum is all we get. It is conveniently ignored that constitutionally Northern Ireland can hold a referendum every seven years, so why should democracy be blocked in Scotland?

In 2014, the UK was still a member of the European Union. It was acknowledged then that an SNP majority paved the way for a referendum and the Edinburgh agreement was put in place. Now, it seems the British state will do anything to obstruct Scottish parliamentary democracy. So 2014 actually was a unique opportunity. Sadly, too many people believed that voting no would keep us in the EU. Contrary to what the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) said earlier, Baroness Davidson tried to assure us that there was no way there would be an EU referendum, so that information was not given to the Scottish people.

We are told the myth that we are part of the most successful political union in the world—so successful that it is now frightened to give the people another verdict on it. We are told that we have the most powerful devolved Parliament in the world, yet Northern Ireland has powers over welfare, pensions and the civil service that we do not have. Wallonia was able to veto the comprehensive economic and trade agreement deal, but Westminster would not even look at Scottish Government compromise proposals on Brexit, instead taking us out of Europe against our will and imposing a bad deal. Now for good measure we have the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which undermines devolution altogether.

The Scottish Parliament have limited borrowing powers, not enough tax powers and control over only about 15% of welfare. Westminster cuts the budget and Scottish Tories demand more is done with less money. It is an impossible circle to square. Meanwhile Labour agrees that the Scottish Parliament does not have enough powers only when support for the SNP increases. For them, it is a means to an end. A con like the vow will not work next time.

Too many people in Scotland now realise that Westminster is broken and is headed by an anti-Scottish and anti-devolution Prime Minister, who stated that a pound spent in Croydon is of more value to the country than a pound spent in Strathclyde, and that a Scottish MP should never be Prime Minister, who wanted the Barnett formula to be scrapped and who, as editor of The Spectator, published an anti-Scottish poem. Some 62 countries have exercised their democratic right to leave the UK. Westminster needs to recognise that it is for the electorate in Scotland to choose if we are to be the 63rd. Now is the time for real change.

17:17
Imran Ahmad Khan Portrait Imran Ahmad Khan (Wakefield) (Con) [V]
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This debate is a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate exactly why Scottish independence would be catastrophic for the people of Scotland. Our United Kingdom continues to fight against covid-19, employing the power of the Union and its Government to deliver life-saving vaccinations across the United Kingdom, providing us all with a route out of lockdown. As this critical fight continues, the SNP has prioritised another independence referendum, launching its independence taskforce on 17 January this year.

While we are at the pivotal moment in the battle against the virus and taking our first steps towards recovery, pulling our United Kingdom apart will damage our chances of recovery. In indulging their obsession with independence, including planning an independence road map, the SNP has failed to respond properly to the pandemic. In August last year, the SNP promised to expand testing capacity to 65,000 people per day, but the largest number of tests carried out in a single day in Scotland is 34,932.

All the while, Her Majesty’s Government have been supporting the Scottish people. Around 780,000 Scottish jobs and the incomes of 157,000 self-employed Scots have been protected by the power of Her Majesty’s Treasury’s interventions. In rebuilding our United Kingdom after the pandemic, every effort has been made to ensure that no part is left behind. The £4.8 billion levelling-up fund embodies this commitment, with £800 million available across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to help investment in communities, high streets and local transport.

The SNP’s abysmal track record in Government is only a taste of what would happen if the SNP were left completely in charge of Scotland. The SNP has presided over the lowest rate of job creation in the UK, watched Scottish schools drop to the lowest international scores in science and maths, and reduced the number of frontline officers protecting Scottish communities. Being dragged out of the United Kingdom will be hugely damaging to Scotland’s recovery, and is against the will of the Scottish people. Polls indicate that an overwhelming majority of people support the Union, and the petitioners responsible for today’s debate underline that.

Importantly, another independence referendum would make worthless the SNP’s promise that the 2014 referendum would be a once-in-a-generation event. At this critical moment, our collective focus ought to be on rebuilding the entire UK and paving the way to greater prosperity, not on damaging independence referendums. Scotland deserves better. Thank God the Union stands to support Scotland from the deficiencies of the Scottish National party.

17:20
Peter Gibson Portrait Peter Gibson (Darlington) (Con) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. May I offer my sincere apologies for my dress at the outset of the debate? It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan).

Like many citizens, I have a heritage from Scotland and England, and in my case Ireland too. I am a proud Unionist and believe in our United Kingdom. Our United Kingdom is one of the most successful political unions in history. In my constituency of Darlington, some 33 people have signed e-petition 570779—a small number of those who I am sure would not want to see our United Kingdom broken up by the separatists.

The continued refrain of the SNP on independence, despite the once-in-a-generation decision, is used to distract from the failings of its Government in Holyrood, its internal party conflicts, its failure on education, its failure on health, and its worsening polling data. The debate presents a great opportunity to shine a spotlight on the phenomenal level of support that this Conservative and Unionist Government have provided during the pandemic to the people of Scotland, as indeed they have throughout the whole United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom Government have protected jobs and businesses, giving tangible proof of the argument that, working together and supporting each and every country of our United Kingdom, we are better together—facing the challenge of the pandemic and its aftermath together. Across the UK, employers have been able to take advantage of the unprecedented levels of support, such as the coronavirus job retention scheme, the self-employed income scheme and UK-backed business loans. In June last year, almost 800,000 Scottish jobs were being supported through the furlough scheme, and statistics from January show that more than 360,000 Scottish workers were still on furlough. More than 431,000 self-employed people have been supported through the self-employed income scheme, and more than 90,000 Scottish businesses have been supported by UK Government-backed loans worth almost £3.4 billion. At the same time, the Scottish Government struggled to distribute support to the businesses that needed it.

Our vaccination programme across the UK—a programme that underpins our precious Union—has shown the strength that we gain from working together. If the SNP had its way and was part of the European Union’s vaccination programme, it is likely that Scotland would not have achieved the number of vaccination first doses that we have achieved so far. Despite the unprecedented situation that we have faced this past year, and despite the constant negativity of the SNP, this one nation Conservative and Unionist Government have delivered for the people of the entire UK, and will continue to do so.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes (in the Chair)
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Before I move to the Front-Bench spokesmen, I remind them that they have 10 minutes each, which will allow a few minutes for the mover of the motion to wind up at the end.

17:24
Mhairi Black Portrait Mhairi Black (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (SNP) [V]
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It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I know it might be hard for others to believe, but I genuinely try my best to understand where Unionists are coming from in their defence of the UK as a Union. Although I disagree with them more often than not, I always respect and accept what their position is. That is what keeps a democracy healthy: genuine thoughtful debate.

Today’s debate is not about the merits of independence or the problems with independence, but about whether Scotland should have another independence referendum. Although the two issues are intrinsically linked, it is important to keep that distinction in mind. The basic principle on which all democracies are built is that it is for people to exercise their democratic rights in free, fair and regular elections to determine what the future of their country should be. To an extent, this is a hypothetical debate. We are weeks away from the upcoming Scottish elections, when people in Scotland will again exercise their democratic right to choose the future direction of the country. If the people in Scotland elect a majority of Members on an explicit pledge to have another independence referendum, this debate will no longer be hypothetical. In that scenario, there should be another independence referendum—there is no democratic or moral argument to state otherwise. Ultimately, time will tell. We are all politicians; we know how elections work. It is for us to present the future we want to pursue and for the people to democratically endorse which plan they want put into action. No one has the right to stand in the way of that. It is as simple as that.

Scotland held a referendum on independence, and a majority in Scotland voted to give this Union another chance. A lot has happened since then—I will touch on some of that later—but it is important to remember that there was nothing in the Edinburgh agreement stating that there would never be another independence referendum. In fact, there was cross-party agreement that nothing contained in the Smith commission report

“prevents Scotland from becoming independent in the future”.

I remember watching the debates back then, when the idea of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister was laughed off and the possibility that Scotland would be dragged out of the EU against its will was dismissed as scaremongering. Any attempt to say that there has not been a material change since then is wishful thinking at best.

I was elected to my current role on a manifesto pledge to hold Westminster to account for the promises that were made. Any suggestion that we are not respecting the outcome of that referendum is a futile attempt to rewrite history. Supporting independence does not equate to disrespecting the outcome of the referendum. We would not be in the position we are in if we had not respected that outcome. It means that we know we need to work to convince others. That is why I find it quite curious that the only people who seem vehemently opposed to a second referendum are those who are passionately in favour of the Union.

I will specifically address some of the arguments made today. We heard that Alex Salmond said that the referendum was a “once-in-a-generation” vote. The last general election was described by the current Prime Minister as a

“critical once-in-a-generation”

vote. Does that mean that there will not be a general election for a generation? I assume not. Although he might not like it, Alex Salmond does not hold the authority on Scotland’s future anyway.

The second main criticism—that we should be debating health, social security and the economy—for me shows a complete failure to meaningfully engage with the arguments being made. The reason most people support independence is not because of nationalism or flags, but rather because they see the actions and attitudes of Westminster. Our Scottish Parliament spends millions every year mitigating policies of the UK Government, which more often than not Scotland did not vote for. People are recognising that only by having the powers of a normal independent country can we actually have the power to deliver that radical change that we need, particularly in the context of our post-covid recovery, because we are certainly not getting that thinking from Westminster.

The Scottish Government disagreed with Brexit, but they still produced a framework for how to make it work. That was rejected by Westminster. In the situation that Scotland ever does vote for independence, the SNP does not and should not dictate what that future looks like, but Unionist parties are depriving people of what their own vision would be and then decrying the SNP for being the only ones talking about it. Like I said, we want independence because we think it will give us the means to provide a lot of the responses we think people need. As I said at the beginning, the issue of timing is undoubtedly interlinked with our constitutional preferences, and I do not think anyone would disagree with that. But it got me thinking; if Scotland was already independent, and we were debating whether to join the UK, particularly in the aftermath of covid, what would the merits of this Union be? Power would be moved to a Parliament miles away, where we would be in the minority, we would rarely get the Governments we vote for, and those Governments would have the ultimate control over our economy, our borders, and our social security. They would dictate how much money we could spend and what we could spend it on, and we would have nuclear weapons in our waters, like it or not. In that context, the fear of another referendum becomes much more understandable.

The events of the last six to seven years have shown that the case for the Union is paper-thin. I sincerely respect and welcome the fact that people disagree with independence, but it takes an epic leap to then say that the matter should never be discussed again, especially when a sizeable amount of people in Scotland consistently disagree. Ultimately, it is for the people of Scotland to decide if and when a referendum should happen, and it is our job to listen.

17:31
Ian Murray Portrait Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab)
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It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) who opened the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I thought he gave an excellent and measured speech. He had spoken to the petitioners and expressed what they were trying to achieve by this debate, which just shows the breadth of what they were trying to do. I was quite shocked—really shocked—when he said that the petitioners wish to remain anonymous because they fear the consequences of speaking out. That is one of the main reasons we should not have another independence referendum. It is hugely divisive; businesses, charities and third-sector organisations feel they cannot speak out and make their voices heard. Members of the public cannot speak out. There is division in families and division in workplaces. It is really shocking that the petitioners feel as if they cannot put their name publicly to this kind of petition.

We have just had another debate in the House that is all about process with none of the answers. Last Wednesday in the House of Commons Chamber, we had seven hours of debate and no answers about the proposition being made. That is one of the major reasons why the debate has turned into a debate about process, rather than the actual issues. The SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), talked about “meaningfully engaging”. There is no meaningful engagement at all in this debate, because none of the big questions are answered.

Let me give an example, which will be recorded in Hansard from last Wednesday. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), who opened the debate, was challenged about some big questions on currency, the EU, borders, debts and the deficit—the list is pretty endless. He said there was no need to answer those questions at the moment, because they would all be addressed when an independence referendum is actually held. However, just two speakers from the SNP Benches later, we had a detailed analysis of how an independent Scotland’s asylum policy would operate. On the one hand, we have answers. On the other hand, we do not. I suspect that that is because the answers to the big questions are not forthcoming.

We have heard a number of times today, including from the petitioners and from my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn, that the Scottish Government could be not only answering a whole number of questions but looking at a whole number of really important policies for the Scottish people. My hon. Friend talked about food poverty, about energy poverty and about the education system catching up—is it not strange that for the first time in its history the Scottish education system is plummeting down the international rankings and we have heard nothing about that?

That is all at a time when the Scottish Government are using precious Scottish Government time in Parliament —just 24 hours before Parliament’s last full day—to introduce another referendum Bill. Not a Bill on educational attainment or food poverty. Not a Bill to ensure that the 220 people who were queued up in the snow and sub-zero temperatures in George Square are fed and given a home. It is not a Bill on poverty, or on how we grow businesses. It is not a Bill on any of those things, but a Bill to have another referendum. That is the only priority that the Scottish National party has and it is paralysing our politics. It is paralysing our Parliament and, as we have heard from the petitioners, it is poisoning our national discourse. Where is the debate about a fairer society? Where is the debate about some of these big questions?

The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) spoke inaccurately, I think, when he tried to muddy the line between patriotism and nationalism. It is as if someone who is not a nationalist is not a patriot. That surely cannot be the case. We are all patriotic about our country, but it is possible to be a patriot and celebrate everything that is Scottish—I certainly do— without being a nationalist. Blurring that line is incredibly dangerous. The hon. Gentleman also talked eloquently, and he was right, about the damage that leaving the EU is doing to Scotland and the rest of the country. However, he did not spend any time telling us what the SNP’s plan would be for getting back into the EU. It is contradictory and impossible to deliver, and that is not being honest with the Scottish people.

The right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) rightly challenged the SNP on the rewriting of history, which is really the only tool in its box at the moment: speaking about things that did not happen, making assertions about what other people have said and what the Scottish Parliament is for, and making the huge assertion that the SNP’s voice is the voice of the Scottish people. It is not. The Scottish people is much wider than that. I certainly would not suggest that I could speak on behalf of all the Scottish people. The SNP should not do so either.

The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) said no one was talking about a referendum at any time soon. Well, no one apart from the First Minister—and the Cabinet Secretary responsible for it, Mike Russell, and the SNP leader at Westminster, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). They have all talked about a potential independence referendum this year. Can you imagine, when most Scots are thinking about their jobs, worried about their livelihoods and concerned about their health and that of their family, friends and colleagues as we come out of probably the most serious economic and health crisis the country has seen in peacetime, going straight into an independence referendum? Here is a little bit of a conundrum for the Members who have said, “We are not talking about having it this year; we will wait until covid is over, because it would be too difficult at this time to have this big debate and get people to the polls while there is a pandemic on”—apart from the fact that there is a Scottish election on 6 May, with people going to the polls. That is more contradictory stuff from the Scottish National party.

We heard from the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson). It is wonderful to see the screens in the new hybrid situation, because while he was talking about his Scottish heritage, and his pride in it, there were SNP Members shaking their heads. The hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) shook his head as if that point could not legitimately be allowed to be made, because the hon. Gentleman is not living in Scotland and represents Darlington. He has every right to celebrate his Scottish heritage. We should all celebrate it with him. He is very welcome to tell us that he wants Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom because it is part of him, and of his family’s history. It is wonderful to see people’s reactions on the screen when such points are made, because it is clear that the issue is very much about being anti the rest of the United Kingdom, rather than about a proper argument. The hon. Member for Angus also said that the debate shows the worst of Westminster. The debate was called by the public. There is a Petitions Committee, and if a petition gets the relevant number of signatures a debate can be held. That is why the debate is happening.

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) talked of sovereignty. He talked very much about the Smith commission and other issues like that. He is right to assert that the Scottish Parliament is not one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. Why not? Because the powers it has are not being used. It has the potential to be the most powerful devolved Parliament in the world. It could use the social security powers that SNP Members seem to think it does not have. Sections 25 to 27 of the Scotland Act 2016, which came out of the cross-party Smith commission, mean that Scotland can essentially design its own social security system. What did the SNP Scottish Government do? They handed all the powers back to Westminster until at least 2024—eight years after the commission document was signed. Using the powers of the Scottish Parliament would make it one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. Not using them means it is possible to sit back and say, “We have no powers, and it is everyone else’s fault.”

We need to concentrate now on a national covid recovery plan. We need an NHS recovery. All those people who have missed out on treatments for cancer and other illnesses need to get their treatments and diagnoses. We need that to be at the forefront of everything we do post the next election. We need an education catch-up for all the kids that have been left behind. The education system, and the NHS, were in a poor place before the pandemic and are in an even worse place now. We need a jobs and business recovery. Scotland’s economy was in a bad place before the pandemic and is in an even worse place now. We need a climate recovery. All those wonderful climate targets that the Scottish Government set—it is great to set targets—will not be met. We were in a dreadful place with regard to climate targets before the pandemic, and we are in an even worse place now. We need a community recovery; we have a housing crisis and local services starved of cash, with billions taken from local council budgets. That was in a bad place before the pandemic, so we need a recovery now.

On what the Scottish Labour party wants to do, I can read from the speech of the leader of the Labour party, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). He talked about Scotland in a modern United Kingdom and the process of devolution going forward. There does not have to be a binary choice between the broken status quo and separation. There is another way that it can be done. This is about looking at the United Kingdom, at a post-Brexit Britain and at how it manages itself. On the consequences of independence and another referendum, he said that that is why the First Minister’s

“call for an independence referendum in the…next Scottish Parliament—perhaps even next year”—

this was in December—

“is so misguided. Given the damage and division this would cause”,

particularly during a pandemic,

“no responsible First Minister should contemplate it—and no responsible Prime Minister would grant it.”

Those are the words of the leader of the Labour party, and the new leader of the Scottish Labour party, Anas Sarwar, has been pretty clear that we will go into the 6 May election saying that we are setting aside every single bit of constitutional division to unite our country and put forward a national covid recovery plan to ensure that people do not need to worry about their health, their jobs or their livelihoods. Post the election in May their Scottish Government will have that as their sole focus.

17:41
Iain Stewart Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Iain Stewart)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on introducing the debate so effectively, with great measure and care for what the petitioners were asking us to consider today. I am grateful for the contributions from right hon. and hon. Members on a subject that arouses considerable passions.

It is worth restating why we are here today. More than 110,000 people put their names to a petition against a second separation referendum in Scotland. I think that view chimes with views right across Scotland and the whole United Kingdom. There is no evident pressing demand that we should put this at the top of our list in our debates. SNP Members are always happy to cite opinion polls that back up their case. They do not mention the recent ones with a majority view against separation. The most recent batch of polls show that for less than 10% of people, constitutional issues are the primary focus that will drive their voting behaviour.

As many Members have pointed out today, this is absolutely not the time to obsess about process and constitutional measures when we are recovering from one of the worst public health crises and economic challenges in our history. People in all parts of the country want to see us working in partnership to tackle the pandemic and drive the recovery that we want to see. The contribution from the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) was absolutely spot on. People want to know what we are going to do if their mental health or their child’s education has suffered, or they are worried about their job or a range of other pressing issues, and that is what they want us to talk about.

I was also deeply troubled by the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) raised about this already starting to arouse some deeply unpleasant behaviour; he referenced a death threat. The hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) rightly highlighted how appalling it is that the organiser of the petition felt they had to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

We would set that in train again if we went down the path of another divisive referendum, but it is quite clear that the SNP wants to drive that as fast as they can. The hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) said that in as many words: it will go into overdrive, and once the Scottish Parliament elections are out of the way, that is what the SNP will focus on. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) said in last week’s debate that he does not really mind whether it is later this year or early next year when we go into the divisiveness of another referendum, but that is what is going to be. That is not what Scotland needs or wants. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) hit the nail on the head: since the 2014 referendum, the SNP has never stopped agitating and bringing up every sense of grievance to chip away, to nip away, to have another vote—it is a neverendum. It will keep going, but that is not what the people of Scotland need or want.

We heard it last week. Given a rare chance, as an Opposition party, to set the subject for debate in Parliament, SNP Members could have looked at what lessons we are learning from the current pandemic so that we can avoid future ones, or they could have debated the economic challenges. They could have focused on what measures we will take to get the 100,000 Scottish people who have sadly lost their jobs due to covid back into work. They could have debated how they were going to tackle waiting lists, the catch-up education for three quarters of a million Scottish schoolchildren who have not had their full educational development this year, or how to clear the backlog of some 40,000 criminal and civil legal cases. There are so many issues they could have talked about, including the vaccination programme—of course, the SNP wanted the UK to be part of the EU’s vaccination programme and procurement, so perhaps that is why they did not want to talk about that. But no, they wanted to talk about the division and divisiveness of another separation referendum. I think that is the wrong focus.

We have seen how much we can achieve together—all spheres of government, be it local, Scottish or UK—by working together to help us get through the pandemic and rebuild. For example, the British armed forces are helping to establish new vaccine centres right across Scotland and are helping to vaccinate people, a programme that is delivering huge strides forward to getting us back together. We are promoting our green industrial revolution, investing in the technologies and industries of the future, a programme that will support levelling up and up to 250,000 new jobs, while Glasgow will of course host COP26 later this year—a golden opportunity to showcase the best of what we can offer and to demonstrate our global leadership on this vital issue. Just at the time that the world’s eyes would be on us, the SNP would have us fighting one another, family against family, community against community. That is not what we want.

Let me pick up on some of the other points that Members made during the course of the debate. The hon. Member for Edinburgh South was on the money when he criticised SNP Members for confusing patriotism and nationalism. How insulting to suggest that if someone does not buy into the divisive programme of the nationalists they are somehow less Scottish. They do not speak for all of Scotland; they speak for those who are obsessed with smashing up the world’s most successful economic and social partnership.

Brexit was raised a number of times, and I want to challenge the point often made that so much has changed since the 2014 referendum. Perhaps SNP Members would like to revisit their prospectus for separation, “Scotland’s Future” which contained the warning that Scotland should vote for independence to stop

“Scotland being taken out of the EU”

against its will. It was there. It was a once-in-a-generation vote, although, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale said, apparently that was just a get-out-the-vote strategy and we were not meant to believe it. I am afraid they are making it up as they go along. It was a decisive vote; it was once in a generation.

I have two other points to make about Brexit. First, if, as SNP Members have referenced, Brexit has been so damaging to Scotland’s exports and trade, what on earth do they think would happen if we broke up the UK single market? Is that what businesses are really looking for as they rebuild after the pandemic—to add in another risk and uncertainty, with all the costs and division that would cause? Is that what they are asking for? I do not think so.

The UK Government continue to drive forward their ambitious programme of economic growth to support people and businesses across Scotland and the UK. That includes programmes such as city deals, the new trade deals and export support. That is the concrete work going on to help rebuild Scotland’s economy and invest in the future. The Budget earlier this month demonstrated the Government’s commitment to operating on a truly UK-wide basis, with extensions to furlough, the self-employed scheme and the levelling-up fund benefiting businesses and citizens right across the UK.

We do not need another divisive referendum. We had the vote. People want us to focus on rebuilding, catching up and investing in the future. That is what the coming election in Scotland is about. That is how people will decide which party they will support. I look forward to a lively debate between my hon. Friend the Member for Moray and the party of the hon. Member for Edinburgh South, the party of the hon. Member for Edinburgh West and others on those key issues of jobs, education, health, transport, clean energy and the many other areas that people are concerned about.

We do not need another referendum on separation. The UK Government are focused on rebuilding, and I very much agree with the petitioners, whom I congratulate again on securing this important debate. I also congratulate once again the hon. Member for Islwyn on introducing it so effectively.

17:53
Chris Evans Portrait Chris Evans [V]
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This has been a very measured and good debate. There have been passions on both sides as we would expect on something that stirs up such passion. However, I hope that those in the wider public who want to indulge in personal abuse because someone has a different view from them learn from the debate. It is my genuine belief that, as we have seen with the Brexit referendum and previously with the Scottish referendum, we will get nowhere in our political discourse if all we do is shout at each other. We will not be able to hear what others are saying.

Many in the debate have liked to compare Wales to Scotland. From a Welsh perspective, the warning I have for Scottish politicians is that the truth is that we are in danger of disappearing down a constitutional rabbit hole. It is no good talking about the constitution all the time. As I said in my earlier speech, the idea of jam tomorrow will not cut it anymore. These are desperate times. We live in a pandemic that has never been seen before, and we face an economic downturn like never before. Constitutional arguments will become secondary to that. Therefore, we can set the debate either as independence versus Unionism, or about how we want our country—our United Kingdom—to look in the coming years.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 570779, relating to consent for a referendum on Scottish independence.

17:55
Sitting suspended.

Spring 2021 Covid-19 Road Map

Monday 22nd March 2021

(3 years, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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[David Mundell in the Chair]
18:16
David Mundell Portrait David Mundell (in the Chair)
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I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will be suspensions between each debate.

I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. I also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each other and to us here in the Boothroyd Room.

If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerk’s email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room.

We anticipate that there might be a vote in the main Chamber during this debate. If so, I will suspend proceedings for 15 minutes, to allow that vote to take place.

18:16
Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) (Con) [V]
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petitions 313310, 557167, 563904, 566718 and 567492, relating to the Government’s Spring 2021 Covid-19 roadmap.

It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Mr Mundell. I am pleased to lead my first petitions debate on an incredibly important issue: the easing of lockdown in the country. Collectively, the five petitions that we are debating gathered approximately 750,000 signatures, with more than 600 of those from my constituency.

Before I start, I thank the individuals who started the petitions: Paul Marton, James Roberts and Liz Terry. It was a pleasure to speak with both James and Liz last week. They told me of their frustration with gyms being closed in this current lockdown. As I reassured both of them, however, we have since seen a publicised road map out of lockdown in England.

I understand that the petitions have taken some time to be considered, so I apologise to the petitioners and signatories for speaking somewhat retrospectively. That said, it is important to highlight why the petitions were signed and what we should all take into consideration as we move forward and recover from this dreadful pandemic.

Let me speak first of where we are now with regards to the lifting of restrictions. The vaccination programme in the UK continues to make great progress: more than 50% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and hospitalisations are down to their lowest level since September. We all have an enormous sense of gratitude to our NHS and other health workers, who have been on the frontline of this fight for more than a year now.

The speed of the vaccine roll-out must relieve some of the fears of individuals who created and signed the petitions we are debating. Golf courses will reopen on 29 March. Many people will be relieved to know that gyms will reopen on 12 April. Most importantly, however, the Government plan to end all restrictions by 21 June. Equally, the signatories of the petition regarding gymnasiums being open in tier 4 should also be reassured, as the easing of the lockdown does not include a return to the tier system. While developments that we have witnessed since the setting up of the petitions are perhaps unhelpful in this particular debate, they are great news for the many thousands of individuals and businesses to have suffered from economic hardship, unemployment, loneliness and poor physical and mental health over the past 12 months. Despite developments, it is important that these petitioners have their voices heard. When the petitions were first established, these issues were extremely relevant and pressing to affected parties.

Although the lockdown measures were clearly necessary to save lives and prevent our health service from being overwhelmed, we must not ignore the fact that the restrictions were infuriating to many people. The general public are, after all, used to having the freedom to do what they want. It is important that Members of Parliament who voted for the restrictions understand that frustration. I certainly understand it, and over the past 12 months, I have seen many social media posts and emails from constituents expressing quite a lot of anger.

I must inform the Minister that many pointed out that they thought the restrictions were at times illogical, yet I personally understand that the Government had to work quickly in response to the challenges posed by the pandemic. That meant that any restrictions were bound to leave certain people feeling wronged. As with all legislation that has to be rushed through, loopholes and peculiarities inevitably emerged. However, I commend the Government for continuing to listen to the concerns of the public and Parliament. As a Back-Bench MP, I can safely say that my concerns and those of my constituents have been heard and often addressed.

Frustration with the restrictions was acutely felt by golfers, who at times wrote to me to state that it was unfair that they could go for a walk with a friend, yet not have a game of golf on a golf course. To some, such complaints may seem trivial, but for many people, activities such as golf or going to the gym are daily hobbies that give joy and respite from the everyday stresses of life.

I have spoken to many people about the need for gyms to be reopened. I again thank Liz Terry, who began one of the petitions, for taking the time to speak to me. Like many of my constituents, Liz made the very truthful point that, along with underlying conditions and age, one of the biggest causes of covid hospitalisation is having an inactive, unhealthy lifestyle. There is no hiding from that fact. The Prime Minister himself said that his hospitalisation was due somewhat to his lifestyle choices. For that reason, I sympathise with the view of Liz and other gym owners that the Government should support gyms and help this country to build back fitter.

As covid-19 has reminded us of the importance of having a healthy lifestyle, would it not be a good idea for the Government to establish a programme similar to the eat out to help out scheme? There could also be a temporary reduction in VAT to 5% across the physical activity sector. That would massively help the industry, and it would help our NHS by ensuring the population is much healthier.

Let me go back to what the Government were trying to achieve and continue to strive to achieve. We all heard the lines: stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. As I have said, the Government’s whole strategy focused on saving lives. This disease could spread only with human contact, and could spread especially quickly in indoor venues, so if we did not come into contact, it could not spread.

Trying to enforce minimal contact is not simple in a society and an economy as complex as ours. Even in a pandemic, some people have to go to work, such as NHS staff, our 999 services, our supermarket workers and their suppliers, the dustbin men, the postal workers, the bus drivers, the electricians, the plumbers and the social workers—the list goes on. In other words, our essential workers—the ones who keep this country running and churning away—could not stay at home. We needed them, so those of us who were lucky enough to stay at home were rightly told to do so.

Petition 566718 demanded that nurseries be shut. I understand that some members of staff in nurseries may be frightened of covid, but the evidence is clear: children aged five and under are much less likely to pass on the virus, and are not adversely affected by it. Equally, nurseries played a crucial role in enabling our key workers to carry on doing their vital work. Closing the nurseries would have forced many parents to make childcare arrangements or reduce their hours. That, I am afraid, would be wrong and unnecessary, especially as it is clear that nurseries are low-risk environments.

Throughout this pandemic I have had many meetings with the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and Ministers. They have stated that their strategy was to supress the virus until we get a vaccine. While I sympathise that the petitioners will have different opinions on how this strategy went forward, having an opinion without ultimate responsibility is a luxury. The Prime Minister does not have that luxury, but unfortunately has all the responsibility. We must not forget that.

Over 130,000 people have died. That is not just a statistic; these are people’s mums, dads, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. Meanwhile, businesses have gone bust. Before being an MP, I ran my own business and I know what it is like for people to put everything they have into a business. I can only sympathise with those who have built up something themselves, only to witness it fail due to circumstances outside their control.

I am pleased that over the weekend the Government announced that they will provide £100 million to 266 local authorities to support the recovery of publicly owned leisure centres and museums. However, as that covers only publicly owned venues, I would like to ask the Minister whether the Government have any plans to help gymnasiums through the reduction of VAT, to say 5%, or through a work out to help out scheme. As ukactive pointed out, such simple measures could stimulate growth in the sector, which was in a position of strength prior to the pandemic, and create a number of sustainable jobs to aid the country’s health and economic recovery from covid-19. Let us help our country not only level up, but physically get up and build back fitter.

18:26
Sam Tarry Portrait Sam Tarry (Ilford South) (Lab)
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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship for the very first time, Mr Mundell. I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing this debate at a crucial time for our country, as we look to emerge from this latest lockdown.

As we have heard, the covid pandemic has taken its toll, economically as well as on our nation’s health. Alongside the harm caused by the virus itself, there has been a knock-on impact on people of being confined to their homes for months at a time, unable to exercise in the way they were previously accustomed to. That has led to a rise in obesity and mental health issues, which has placed further strain on our NHS, as well as an increase in the challenging circumstances that millions of people across the country face during the latest lockdown.

There has also been an impact on the leisure and fitness industry, which, like many sectors, has been left in a perilous position after suffering a sharp drop in revenue over the past 12 months. Gyms and fitness clubs should be recognised as wellbeing hubs and given the support they need to survive and to help revive our nation’s flagging physical and mental health.

The demand for this is clear; almost a quarter of a million people signed a petition on the UK Parliament website that calls for gyms to be opened as we come out of lockdown and for a work out to help out scheme to be funded. Such a scheme would see gym memberships, group exercise and personal training subsidised, to give people greater access to health and fitness services. That would give a timely economic boost to the leisure industry, potentially have a positive impact on the NHS in terms of reducing further strain in future, and help lift many gyms and fitness clubs across the country off their knees.

I have met gym, sports and other leisure fitness club owners in my Ilford South consistency, including Louis Lattuca, a franchisee of Anytime Fitness. They were all clear that this could be a huge boost to help them keep their heads well above water in the long term and to protect workers’ jobs when the furlough scheme comes to an end later this year.

This petition closely followed another, which called for gyms to remain open during the tier 4 lockdown, and was signed by a further 180,000 people. It is clear that people are desperate for an outlet to channel their frustration at being confined to their home or workplace, and to improve their physical and mental wellbeing in the process. That is why at ukactive’s national summit last November, Professor Chris Whitty himself stated that exercise and physical activity should play a key role in the UK’s recovery from the pandemic, as well as shape the way our future healthcare plans work going forwards.

Improved physical health not only has a positive impact on mental health, but considerable research, such as from Loughborough University in 2014, also shows that healthier people require fewer days off sick than those who do not keep fit. That can only benefit businesses around the country as we look get the economy moving again.

I know the benefit that exercise can have on the physical and mental wellbeing of an individual from my days in spit-and-sawdust gyms in east London, such as Wag Bennett’s in Forest Gate, where I first started lifting weights and where Arnold Schwarzenegger lived and trained while he was in the UK, and from helping to run a gym in Seven Kings in my east London constituency called Warrens Gym, when I was a young man. Now as a Member of Parliament, I play sport in my capacity as the vice-chair of the Commons and Lords Rugby Union Football Club, and am personally looking forward to getting back into the gyms this summer, and getting my bench press back up 120 kg as soon as I can.

Many sports clubs are at the heart of our communities and have continued to provide a crucial service during the pandemic. For example, Frenford Clubs in my constituency, which does so much for young and disadvantaged people when its doors are open, is now operating as the hub for Redbridge Covid Mutual Aid, which delivers food and vital supplies to some of the most vulnerable people in our borough. However, one of the gyms in my constituency has lost over half its membership over the past 12 months.

In my conversations with not just local gym owners but the chief executives of large leisure chains, I have heard some incredibly sad stories of people even committing suicide because they are so depressed that they cannot get back in and get their health back on track. Despite the Government’s announcing one-off grants worth up to £9,000 per property for the months of January and February, many gyms have not been able to apply because their revenue exceeded £50,000. Two in my constituency missed out by just £1,000 to £2,000, unfortunately. They should be rewarded rather than left without support. The sector is losing £90 million every single week, putting more than 100,000 jobs at risk.

Of further concern is the fact that many fitness businesses do not now expect to make a profit before 2023, with almost 40% of sports facilities surveyed by ukactive at risk of permanent closure. That is why I wrote to the Chancellor last month to request further financial support for the sector, as well as adjustments to business rates. Businesses invested to be covid safe. Although they may not initially have been able to let people through their doors in the same number as prior to the pandemic, having at least a controlled number will be beneficial in the future to a degree.

I echo the calls of many of my constituents in Ilford South to develop a national strategy to encourage people to exercise more and to promote physical and mental health, as called for in the petitions. Exercise will be at the heart of our nation’s recovery from covid, and key to restoring our nation back to fighting fitness.

David Mundell Portrait David Mundell (in the Chair)
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Thank you, Mr Tarry. I am sure that we all wish you well with your bench presses. I call Greg Smith.

18:33
Greg Smith Portrait Greg Smith (Buckingham) (Con)
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Thank you, Mr Mundell. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing and opening the debate. I wish to speak particularly on the petitions before us that relate to gyms and fitness. It may be obvious to most that, unlike the hon. Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry), I am not regularly found in a gym myself, but I know that they are very important to millions of Brits, not least the entrepreneurs who run them and the staff whose jobs depend on them.

All of us have appreciated the need for measures to control this virus and to save lives, not least our local gyms and fitness centres themselves. Across the board, they introduced comprehensive and robust covid-secure measures very early. Last October, I had the pleasure of visiting Intent 2 Improve, a gym in the town of Buckingham in my constituency, where I saw at first hand the measures that have been put in place to secure its members’ safety: hygiene, ventilation and social distancing measures.

However, as we all know, as part of the national lockdown restrictions that gym, and all other gyms and indoor and outdoor leisure facilities across our country, closed. Given their excellent track record on hygiene and safety, and the corresponding extremely low incidence of transmission of the virus in such settings, it was, I fear we must acknowledge, a bitter pill that such severe limitations were placed on opportunities for exercise in a safe environment.

I am sure that I am not alone in this House in saying that the consequences for the physical and mental health of my constituents of those closures has been significant. It has never been more important for the nation to take responsibility for its own health, thereby protecting the NHS. There is a clear correlation between covid complications, hospitalisations, the tragedy of losing life to the virus and obesity-related conditions. Even more concerningly, Office for National Statistics data shows that suicides have increased by some 20% since the first lockdown. It is indeed a tragedy that, alongside the pandemic, there is likely to be a mental health pandemic that, if left unaddressed, will have a long-term impact that is much more far-reaching and difficult to recover from.

It may once have been true that exercise was a leisure activity, but with covid and the mental health crisis this country now faces, gyms and leisure centres have become a lifeline for many people, including many constituents who have written to me to make that point and who have, equally, signed the petitions we debate this evening. The industry is one of the only sectors scientifically proven to be able to support our nation with underlying health conditions, mental health conditions and other physical conditions. It is and must be part of the covid solution. As such, I very much welcome the Government’s decision to prioritise the reopening of gyms on 12 April. However, I have become increasingly concerned that fitness studios are not being classified in the same band as gyms.

That has particularly impacted a small fitness studio in my constituency, The Energy Effect. Dozens of constituents have contacted me about their disappointment that this business will not be able to reopen on 12 April. Exercising together as a group brings immeasurable benefits to everyone—fun, laughter, friendship and health. I saw for myself last year the studio’s approach to mitigating the risk of covid transmission, with enhanced cleaning regimes, restricted numbers, clearly marked and spaced positions in which people do their exercises, and only ever personal equipment being used. Its model kept people as far apart, and as socially distanced and safe, as any other regular gym. In the time it was operating in person, there was not one confirmed case of covid transmission. The owner, Kirsty, has given everything to keep her clients going in these dark times. Day in, day out she has delivered online classes, with 24 a week to choose from. Her business has undoubtedly been a lifesaver for so many of her customers, but an online future is sadly not a sustainable future for that business. I put it to my hon. Friend the Minister that it surely cannot be fair that this fitness studio has to stay closed while a gym less than a mile away can reopen.

There has to be an equality of opportunity, and every small business must be given the opportunity to rebuild. The UK’s 7,000 gyms and leisure centres have been open only for very limited periods since the first lockdown. For that reason, I would also support a work out to help out scheme, as called for in one of the other petitions we debate today. A financial incentive would encourage people to renew long-lapsed gym memberships and to support their local gym and fitness centre. It could be via a tax incentive, a VAT cut or holiday, or something similar to the eat out to help out scheme that was so successful last summer. Some sort of grant on a pay per use basis would be good for those businesses as they make every effort to bounce back and good for our nation’s health. The alternative, I fear, would be swathes of gyms and fitness centres closing, thousands of jobs disappearing and more empty spaces in our towns and cities.

In the light of the petitions before us today, I urge the Minister to do all he can to champion further our local gyms and fitness centres and to ensure that there is a level playing field and a fair playing field for all. If we can get this right, it will undoubtedly save lives and livelihoods.

18:39
Florence Eshalomi Portrait Florence Eshalomi (Vauxhall) (Lab/Co-op) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing this important and timely debate. Over 1,000 of my constituents signed the e-petition to open gyms first as we come out of lockdown. Our gyms and leisure centres make it possible for people to exercise in a variety of ways all year round, regardless of the weather. Here in my constituency, we have facilities to meet everyone’s needs, from swimming or spin classes, to treadmills and indoor climbing walls. Like many other parents and carers, I am very much looking forward to when the soft play centres across many of our leisure centres open up again.

These facilities provide the physical space for people to exercise. Most of us here in central London live in small flats shared with many others. We do not have room to jump around or install a smart bike or rowing machine, let alone have the money to afford one. And not everyone feels comfortable or safe exercising outside, especially during the long winter months.

As businesses, our gyms have been hit hard financially. I was contacted by a small independent gym in Clapham that was struggling to get the financial support it needed. It came to me for help in accessing the bounce back loan scheme, having lost income from cancelled memberships and classes. It did manage to get the loan eventually, but that is typical of how many local gyms have struggled this past year.

I was able to visit another small independent gym, F45, in Brixton, in the run-up to Small Business Saturday on 5 December last year. The owner highlighted to me the challenges he was facing with rental payments due to the loss of income from membership fees and cancelled classes. He also highlighted the success in moving some of the more popular classes online to keep in touch with regular members.

Everyone knows that exercise is essential for our mental and physical health. We know that covid is more serious for people who are overweight and unfit. In my constituency, air quality is a big issue, and with covid being a respiratory disease it is even more important that we get people out and about exercising. So I urge the Minister to recognise the important role that these facilities play in helping people to stay fit and healthy, and to look at all additional support to help them as we come out of this lockdown.

00:04
Robbie Moore Portrait Robbie Moore (Keighley) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing this important debate. I would like to use my time to focus on the two petitions that relate to gyms. As I have said before in this place, gyms are incredibly important to people’s health and wellbeing. Therefore, their reopening is vital as we recover from this pandemic.

In July last year, as much of the country was reopening, my constituency was placed under enhanced local restrictions after the first lockdown. That meant that local gyms, such as NRGym and Hi-Energy in Keighley, were unable to reopen at the same time as gyms in the rest of the country. Of course, it was the same for all fitness and dance studios, such as the excellent AW School of Dance run by Andrea Wortley in Keighley and Pure Pilates in Ilkley, which is also an excellent business, run by Kirstin Ferrie. I have visited all those businesses to see how lockdown has impacted them.

Instead of these businesses being able to reopen on 25 July last year, they had to wait until the following September to welcome back their members. That was despite gyms and studios being proven to be some of the safest places to visit. I saw that at first hand when I met Julie Cardus-Anderson, the owner of Hi-Energy, last October. That fitness studio, like many others, had gone to great lengths, and at cost, to make itself covid-secure. Each exercise area had its own sanitation station, specialist fans were installed to improve ventilation, and the maximum capacity had been halved from 20 to 10—all to try to make the environment more covid-secure. Despite that, Hi-Energy and all fitness studios across Keighley, Ilkley, Silsden and the Worth valley faced months of forced closures. That makes Government support for those businesses absolutely crucial.

Initiatives such as the furlough scheme have provided vital support to gyms that have been forced to close over the past year. I am pleased to hear of the Government’s announcement of the restart grants in this month’s Budget, which will provide an extra £18,000 for leisure and gym businesses. That will bring much certainty to those businesses so that all can eventually open safely, but there is never any substitute for being open. I am delighted, therefore, that gyms will be able to start opening in step 2 of the Government’s road map to easing the restrictions. The road map states that gyms will open no later than 12 April, but it is vital to ensure that that happens. I share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) about other fitness environments and fitness studios being able to reopen on 12 July. I want all fitness studios, dance studios and gym environments to open on the same day. We cannot overestimate the importance of going to the gym and the impact that that has on our constituents’ mental health and wellbeing.

This pandemic has made us all think differently about the importance of good physical and mental health. The reopening of gyms and dance and fitness studios is crucial in our recovery. I very much look forward to that happening across my constituency and the rest of Britain.

18:46
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) [V]
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Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to speak on this issue, Mr Mundell. I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for setting the scene so well. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), and I thank him for his contribution.

The delicate balance of withdrawing from lockdown is never easy to find. The Prime Minister has outlined a very specific road map for England, but in Northern Ireland we are finding it very difficult to provide steps out, and that is beyond frustrating for very many people. We have spent much of the last year under restrictions that do not sit well in a community that treasures freedom, yet we have done so because we were asked to do so.

We have all sacrificed to protect those we love. However, there is no doubt that it has taken a huge toll on relationships within the home, relationships outside the home, working relationships and, worryingly, mental health. Mental health issues are important for everyone, and wellbeing is critical. I am fortunate to live on a farm, which means that whenever I go home, I can go for a walk every day. I have had the opportunity to do that, but many people are stuck in a house or a flat with family living on top of each other. It must be extremely difficult to try to make do.

One hon. Member referred to suicide, which has been unfortunately prevalent in my constituency. There was a story in The Mail on Sunday yesterday about suicides among young men in particular. We express great concern about that, and we look for what must be done to try to make things better.

Today, I am speaking out on behalf of those who own gyms and boxing clubs, and I particularly want to mention dance classes. One of my constituents, a young lady called Hannah McKillen, started her dance class about six months before the lockdown came in. It was quite a move for her. I understand very clearly the issues for her and what we need to do. I hope and believe that we will come out of this very soon—the sooner, the better.

A constituent who is a dance instructor wrote to me today. She is surviving on universal credit. She just bought her house before lockdown, and she finds herself financially restricted in what she is able to do. We really need to have those things back in place.

I received an email from a 77-year-old constituent, about golf. He says he cannot understand why he is unable to take part in a sport that is socially distanced and essential for his mental as well as physical health. He writes: “I am a 77-year-old golfer. I am really disbelieving when golf courses can open on 1 April, but only allowing for two-balls. Four-balls from two families is really, in 99% of cases, a two-ball. On the golf course we are keeping social distancing. Only one person to a golf buggy. Flags stay in the hole and no one handles them. Bunkers are in play but there are no rakes for players to touch. Only one person at a time allowed to the pro shop. The clubhouse is closed. Players arrive 10 minutes before their tee time, so there are not a number of players queueing up, and at the end of the game they touch elbows, fully clothed. We do not exercise, and I believe the golf gives me (a) exercise and (b) something to look forward to.”

That came from a very fit 77-year-old who clearly understands what it means to get exercise. It is difficult for me to explain the situation to such constituents—there are many others like him—who credit their great health in their later years to their games of golf. They also say there is a benefit to their mental health, in terms of preventing isolation. I believe that a reasoned approach such as the road map needs to be utilised more fully, and consideration should be given to such sports as outdoor swimming that provide benefits with little risk of transmission.

I am incredibly grateful for the wonderful job that has been done on the roll-out of covid vaccines throughout the UK. I thank the Prime Minister and the Government for taking good steps at the right time, unlike other nations. Now we are reaping the benefits, and the economy will shortly reap them as well. We may be in a unique position, coming out of all the lockdowns. We have vaccinated our most vulnerable and, indeed, the roll-out for 50-year-olds is fairly well advanced. Success is seen with the decrease in deaths. While the goal remains nationwide vaccination, I believe that the completion of vaccination of the vulnerable gives us the freedom to allow sensible steps. I think that people want them, and I hope that they come sooner rather than later, to allow all children back into schools, golfers back on the course with safety measures, and sea swimmers the safety of swimming close to others.

We need to look towards telling shopkeepers they can open, with strict number guidelines. The economy needs that, and it can be done as safely in a shoe shop as in Tesco. We can take those steps because of the success of the roll-out. Now is the time, as we come into the milder weather, to map out carefully how we can safely go forward. People are waiting for direction and for the return of normality. Sweeping generalisations are not enough. They need the detail, and I believe we and the Government must provide that for them. They all need to understand the logic behind all the decisions and the timescale for the much-awaited return.

18:53
Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP) [V]
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It is a pleasure to take part in the debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am happy to participate today, and I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for opening this wide-ranging debate.

It is important to acknowledge the various concerns and frustrations of all the signatories to the five petitions that we are considering. The extent of what we are debating, from repealing the coronavirus legislation—because the Coronavirus Act 2020 is seen as an existential threat to our rights and freedoms—to closing all early years environments as a way of protecting staff during lockdown, demonstrates the breadth of the worries and uncertainty that the pandemic has created in our lives. The concerns in the petitions reflect the complexities that must be considered as a way out of lockdown is plotted, because we know we cannot continue in lockdown indefinitely or until the vaccination programme is completed.

Conversely, we also know that easing restrictions too fast could mean a rise in transmission of the disease and going back to significant mortality and morbidity and the risk of overwhelming our NHS. Therefore, while acknowledging the petitioners’ concerns during the debate, we should recognise that Governments globally have had to make some difficult choices over the past year. Unfortunately, the difficult choices endure because the virus is not yet gone. As it mutates into potentially more harmful variants—we have witnessed countries entering a third wave—current decisions continue to require a consideration of competing challenges.

The SNP Scottish Government’s covid-19 strategy intends to suppress the virus to the lowest possible level and keep it there while striving to return to a more normal life for as many people as possible. Additionally, the Scottish Government have made clear their prioritisation of education and a phased return for early learning, childcare and schools. I mention that in relation to e-petition 566718: “Shut all nurseries and early years settings during lockdown”. In Scotland, as in other countries, that was impossible as some had to remain open for childcare provision for our key workers at the forefront of our covid-19 response.

In their phased return of all children to nurseries and early years settings, the Scottish Government took advice from the advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues, which examined the occupational risks of covid-19 infection, hospitalisation and death. The available studies found no evidence of any difference between school staff and the wider workforce in terms of the risk of infection from covid-19. None the less, in order to help educational settings remain as safe as possible and implement safety mitigations, the Scottish Government are providing local authorities and schools with an additional £40 million as part of a wider £100 million package to accelerate school recovery, and will work with local authorities to support young people’s wellbeing in other ways, for example by providing more opportunities for outdoor learning.

Many councils are using some of the funding to monitor and improve ventilation in schools. Additionally, the Scottish Government offer twice-weekly lateral flow testing for all school staff in primary, secondary and special schools. Recent developments with the vaccine roll-out and the increased contagion of covid-19 led the Scottish Government to update their strategic framework, which sets out how they plan to restore in a phased way greater normality to our everyday lives.

Normality for many is playing golf regularly. I refer here to e-petition 557167: “Allow golf to be played with appropriate safety measures”. In Scotland, golf is permitted as an outdoor informal exercise as long as safety restrictions are adhered to. For example, although everyone should stay as close to home as possible, from 12 March four players from two households can travel up to five miles from their local authority boundary to play golf in a physically distanced way. Also, if a course has a designated covid officer, up to 15 adults can participate in organised golf if they live within the local authority area. This decision took the nature of golf into account, recognising the benefits of outdoor activity and consistent evidence that the risks of the virus transmitting outdoors are low.

Similarly, outdoor gyms can be open in Scotland, which goes some way to addressing e-petition 563904: “Keep gyms open during Tier 4 lockdown”. However, I can understand why outdoor gyms might not always be appealing, given our weather conditions. The Scottish Government know that indoor gyms and fitness facilities provide important services that help improve the physical fitness and mental wellbeing of those who attend, but it was impossible to keep them open while areas were facing high infection rates. Related to that is e-petition 567492: “Open gyms first as we come out of lockdown & fund a Work Out to Help Out scheme”. I am sure the petitioners will be pleased to know that the Scottish Government have not prioritised the opening of pubs ahead of gyms and swimming pools, and have made grants available to help businesses reopen progressively.

On e-petition 313310—“Repeal the Coronavirus Act 2020”—Scottish National party MPs have serious concerns about the lack of parliamentary scrutiny of the powers in the UK’s Coronavirus Act, and we raised them on Second Reading. That is why the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 contains a range of measures to ensure scrutiny of Scottish Government decisions. Also, where possible, provisions in the Scottish coronavirus legislation have been suspended or have expired when they have either fulfilled their purpose or the Scottish Government have listened to compelling views supporting change.

This has been a wide-ranging debate. I think it is fair to say that we are on the road out of lockdown. Perhaps it is not as fast as some would like, but there is a delicate balance to be struck and we must get it right. To that end, for continued suppression of the virus in the UK as we come out of lockdown, I urge the UK Government to follow the Scottish Government’s example on hotel quarantines. The recent Public Health England study showing that quarantine-free travel corridors contributed to the spread of coronavirus in the UK last year highlights the need for the change. Travel from those European countries accounted for 86% of imported cases between May and September, so I sincerely hope that the Minister and the UK Government will think again on that.

Businesses and individuals must continue to be helped through the remainder of the restrictions. With health measures and covid restrictions being devolved matters, I stress that while restrictions continue in any part of the UK, support must continue as well. While we welcome the extension of furlough at the spring Budget, it should continue for as long as it is needed. There must also be sector-specific support for aviation, hospitality and tourism.

Due to the highly infectious nature of coronavirus, general anti-coronavirus measures may be needed until a sufficient proportion of the population is vaccinated, and unlocking must be driven by data, not dates. In terms of vaccinations, that may mean about 70% of the population and, moving forward, many restrictions remaining in place for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. With the recent news of disruption to supplies of vaccines in the UK, it is possible that the roll-out may be delayed. If that is the case, the dates for unlocking the last steps of lockdown may need to be postponed. The UK Government should, like the Scottish Government, endorse a data-driven approach to the end of lockdown and not persist with set dates, because they previously over-promised.

19:01
Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship virtually, Mr Mundell. I also thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), who introduced the debate so well on behalf of all of those who signed the five petitions. It is a tribute to the parliamentary petitions system that triggered the debate that people do participate. They want to sign petitions and draw issues to our attention, and he captured the importance of that well. It is a good thing that we in the House of Commons develop the system so that, even under these extremely challenging and different circumstances, the public can be heard and have their say. As was just said, even if people’s instincts are different, everyone can be heard and everyone can participate, and that is a good thing.

My hon. Friends the Members for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) and for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) gave good descriptions of one of the petitions and the frustration that many of us have felt about being unable to be physically active during the lockdowns in the past year. It has been the most frustrating time and we all want that to change. Though many of these measures have been necessary, there is no doubt that they have been deeply frustrating for many people, as the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) also explained well.

I will take a few moments to talk through the Opposition’s priorities and to acknowledge the frustration that people have felt, whether that is about gyms or going for a round of golf, with their normal lives having been massively interrupted. We all understand that it has been necessary because it is a matter of life and death, but we should not underplay the cost that has been borne. I have a few questions for the Minister as to how we will help the country recover.

No one understands this more than me. The football team that I play with here in the Wirral, the Wirral Valkyries, are regularly counting down the days until we can get back out on the pitch again. All of us know that being physically active in our lives is extraordinarily important.

With regard to the restrictions, the Opposition have set out the approach that we felt the Government ought to take. First, we should follow the science. This has been a challenging period in which all of us have had to get our heads around reading the epidemiology and what that might lead us to need to do. We were slow to act twice in our response to the epidemiology, and that should be a lesson learnt. No doubt when we get to the eventual inquiry, I am sure the science will be pored over, and at what point decisions could have been taken for better impact.

I pay tribute to all gym owners and those operating leisure facilities up and down the country who have been right on top of the need to keep their facilities safe, when they have been able to open. To help them open quickly, they have left no issue unturned when it comes to making sure that gyms and other leisure services are safe—as much as they can be—even in spite of complications with things like the way in which gyms are ventilated. I know that they have all worked really hard.

For that reason, the second priority is that we should all be honest with people. As politicians, we all know that there are hard choices to make. In previous debates in Westminster Hall, we have discussed such issues and where some of the choices lie. Whatever a person’s political feelings, we want everyone in the country to understand that none of this is easy. I do not think that anyone thinks that the choices are simple or straightforward. In order to help people understand why the decisions are being or have been taken, we need a level of transparency.

This is where I want to talk about the future. One thing that we have learnt from the covid crisis is that some of our public health data is not as good as it could be. I do not think that we understand the state of physical and mental wellbeing in the country as well as we might. We have lots of survey information, but understanding the health picture of the country and how people want to help themselves be fitter will help us make a plan for the future, to deal with the consequences of some of the lockdowns, which people have mentioned, such as the knock-on impact on physical and mental health.

Our fourth priority is families. In earlier debates, again, we have spoken about the importance of participation in sport and physical activity, particularly for our children. Over the past year there has been a level of frustration as we have tried to ensure that children have been able to participate in sport as soon as possible. That is an important priority.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South spoke of gyms as wellbeing hubs, and this is where we need to move the discussion on. Some of the people who signed the petitions want to see our country have a better state of health and wellbeing. Members have mentioned “lifestyle choices.” I do not know about others, but I would question that language. We are learning more and more about the connection between mental and physical health, and about some of the facilities around us being able to help us have a better level of physical health, which gives us better mental health, as well as having good mental health in a way to support our physical health. We are learning more and more about the interconnection of the two.

In order to improve the health of the nation, we need a national plan as we come out of the lockdown, to address many of the concerns that have been expressed. I therefore want to finish with a few questions for the Minister, to start that conversation. First, what steps are the Government taking, particularly in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, to properly understand the underlying state of public health, particularly around the connection between physical and mental health? Obesity strategy after obesity strategy do not seem to have got us very far. How are we really going to understand the underlying issues?

Secondly, in doing that, will we be able to join up our fractured mental health system? Too many people get into a crisis because they do not get the early support to make sure that their mental health is as good as it can be. We previously experimented with physical fitness by prescription, but that seems to have dropped off the agenda. Will the Minister say where he thinks we are headed, in policy terms, on that front?

Thirdly, what steps are the Government taking to boost participation? The Sport England strategy released at the beginning of this year prioritises participation and dealing with some of the issues that lockdown has created, but will the Minister say what the Government want to prioritise now, particularly around social and economic disadvantage, which we know has a significant impact on people’s health? We still find challenges in women’s participation, particularly black women and those from other diverse backgrounds, and also for people with disabilities, who face significant challenges in making sure that they are able to be physically fit and healthy in the way that other people are.

Finally, Members mentioned people’s housing having an impact on their physical fitness. As some petitioners mentioned, that ability to be outside and enjoy open green space is highly important. Whether it involves understanding what the data tells us about public health and the role of physical activity in that, or whether it involves exercise by prescription or some of those planning issues, we need that joined-up plan for public wellbeing. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

19:12
Nigel Huddleston Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Nigel Huddleston)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for bringing this debate on a range of important subjects that cross multiple Government Departments. I really appreciated the way he eloquently articulated the concerns of the petitioners, as well as those of his constituents. Each petition has been signed by at least 100,000 people—some by many more—which speaks volumes about the importance of these industries and sectors to people right across the country, and it is therefore an honour to respond.

These petitions have been grouped but, as I said, they cover multiple Government Departments. Although I am representing DCMS here today, I assure hon. Members that Ministers and officials in other Departments are listening too. It is also worth noting at the outset that, since these petitions were initiated, the Prime Minister has announced a road map that will lead us out of the current lockdown in England—subject, of course, to the latest data and scientific advice. I mention that because the road map is relevant to each of these petitions. It seeks to balance our key social and economic priorities while preserving the health and safety of the country. It gives us a prudent and pragmatic pathway out of national restrictions, and it also supersedes the tier system to which some of the petitions debated this evening refer. May I also say that I appreciate the tone of today’s debate? I think that our constituents appreciate it when we take the party politics out of things. There is a great deal of agreement across parties on the issues raised, and I think we all share similar goals in these matters.

The first petition calls for the repeal of the Coronavirus Act 2020. It is no exaggeration to say that the pandemic has had a profound impact on the lives of everyone in the UK. The Act, passed in March 2020, is vital because it provides the legislative framework for managing the pandemic. It also introduced emergency powers to support individuals and businesses and enabled critical public services to function during the pandemic. For example, the Act successfully removed unnecessary barriers to allow suitably experienced people, such as recently retired NHS staff and social workers, to rejoin the workforce during the pandemic. It also provided financial support to individuals and businesses, and it enabled essential public services to function.

The Government made a commitment that powers will be in place only as long as is necessary and proportionate for managing the current pandemic. Where measures have been put in place, they are often subject to additional checks and balances, such as sunset clauses or fixed review points. Petitioners will be interested to know that debates will take place in both Houses of Parliament this week, on 25 March, on the non-devolved aspects of the Coronavirus Act, and votes will be taken on their renewal.

I turn now to the second e-petition, which calls for all nurseries and early years settings to be shut during lockdown. It was with great reluctance that we restricted attendance at early years settings during the first national lockdown in March last year. However, the restrictions put in place as part of the most recent national lockdown enable us to continue to prioritise keeping nurseries and childminders open, supporting parents and delivering the crucial care and education needed for our children. Early years settings have therefore been open to all children since 1 June 2020, and there is no evidence that the early years sector has contributed to a significant rise in virus cases within the community. Current evidence suggests that pre-school children are less susceptible to infection and unlikely to be playing a driving role in transmission.

The petition specifically raises concerns about the risk to nursery and early years staff. The Department for Education has worked extremely closely with the Department of Health and Social Care, and with Public Health England, to develop guidance, including a system of controls, for early years settings to follow. This aims to create an environment for children and staff where the risk of transmission of infection is substantially reduced.

The guidance includes, for example, enhanced cleaning, regular hand-washing, staff wearing face coverings in communal areas, minimising mixing within settings, and the isolation of the close contacts of positive cases. Rapid testing is also a key part of the controls, and all years staff can now access lateral flow home testing. We continue to listen carefully to the latest scientific and medical advice, and we keep our guidance under review to make sure the right controls are in place.

I turn to the three remaining petitions, which dominated today’s debate and are more relevant to my role as sport Minister. The first calls for golf to be allowed under appropriate safety measures, the second calls for gyms to reopen now and the third calls for a work out to help out scheme.

The importance of sport and physical activity to the nation’s physical and mental health has never been more apparent. That was mentioned in the speeches given today by the hon. Members for Ilford South (Sam Tarry), for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), by my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham (Greg Smith) and for Keighley (Robbie Moore), and by all the Opposition spokespeople, so everybody recognises it.

Sport and physical activity are a powerful defence against the covid-19 pandemic, and that has been reflected in the Government’s approach in each of the lockdowns, with the importance of regular exercise being recognised and highlighted. Grassroots sport has been prioritised in the Prime Minister’s road map above the return of every other part of the economy, as was recognised by my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham and for Keighley. Our national life is going to come back stronger and healthier as a result of this focus.

The road map introduces a step approach to the return of outdoor and indoor sports areas across England, including the reopening of golf courses, gyms and exercise studios. Most immediately, and subject to the latest data, sport returns from 29 March, which is when outdoor sports facilities can reopen. That will broaden the options for outdoor exercise and recreation for us all. I know that all who signed the petition to allow golf to reopen will be pleased to know that they can take to the greens and fairways again in England in a week’s time—including in four-balls.

The SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), spoke about the importance of sport in helping with our physical and mental health, and he mentioned the economic importance of sport, including golf. We had a similar debate recently in Westminster Hall, highlighting the hundreds of millions of pounds that sport brings into the economy. Golf tourism alone is worth well over £400 million, and I assure hon. Members that in my combined role as Minister for sport and tourism, I am very aware of that.

Formally organised outdoor sports for all ages can also restart from 29 March, including team sports, individual sports and organised sports participation events. These will not be subject to the gathering limits, but should be compliant with guidance issued by national governing bodies. We appreciate the work that national governing bodies have conducted over the last year to create that guidance, while working very closely with Government.

Step 2 will commence no earlier than 12 April, when we will see the reopening of some sections of our indoor economy, including gyms and fitness centres for individual use. Exercise classes will be able to resume as part of step 3 of the road map, no earlier than 17 May. Unfortunately, we cannot open everything at once, although I hear the appeals of hon. Members who wish exercise classes to reopen as soon as possible. I believe this is a reasonable step forward. Of course, the intention of all in Government is to try and get as much open as possible as soon as possible, but in a safe way.

On that note, I would also like to express my appreciation for and applaud the work done by the gyms and leisure sector, as mentioned by many hon. Members today. The sector has put considerable time, effort and expense into making sure that facilities are safe, and that is hugely important in building members’ confidence as well as showing that it wishes to protect staff. I welcome the return, in a secure manner, of the many hundreds of thousands of people who are absolutely passionate about going back to their gyms. I cannot wish to compete with the hon. Member for Ilford South in his bench pressing, but I think we all share his passion to see gyms open again as soon as possible.

I understand why so many have supported the petition to introduce a work out to help out scheme—in a similar vein to the Chancellor’s eat out to help out scheme, which was launched last summer—to support the fitness and leisure sectors through this time. People are, understandably, very keen to do their bit to help struggling gyms and fitness centres, as well as keeping fit themselves. I understand the sentiments behind the proposal, but the Government have provided support in other ways, including through tax reliefs, cash grants, employee wage support and loans, to ensure that these facilities survive and can open again as part of step 2 of the road map.

Hon. Members have suggested other measures, and we have had conversations with ukactive and others about whether the current VAT cut for tourism and hospitality could be extended to the leisure sector. I could never make commitments or promises on behalf of the Treasury, as you well know, Mr Mundell, but I can say that conversations are taking place. Such things are, of course, always subject to Treasury decisions. This is a challenging area, but I hear the appeals made today by hon. Members, ukactive and others, as I am sure do the Treasury.

The Government have provided more than £100 million to support 266 local authority leisure centres, and Sport England has provided more than £220 million to community sports clubs to promote them and ensure that these facilities can open. The Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), who I have a great deal of respect for, raised several questions about priority. We have seen throughout the last few weeks the Government’s emphasis on sport and physical activity. I assure her that that is a focus of mine, too, as would be expected of a sport Minister.

The hon. Member was right to mention the work of Sport England, the arm’s length body for grassroots sport, which promotes sport and activity levels across the country. Sport England plays a pivotal role in the Government’s sport and activity strategy, and it will continue to do so. It has articulated its 10-year plan, which we completely support, and the Government will be articulating their strategy. Today, for example, I spoke to a Minister in the Department for Education about the importance of sport and physical activity at school. We will also be refreshing the school sport and activity action plan. There will be lots of work and focus from Government, across Departments, as we continue to focus on the importance of physical and mental health and the benefits of sport and physical activity.

I am delighted that sport and recreation are at the forefront of hon. Members’ minds as we begin to open up our society and economy after the devastation and destruction of coronavirus, which has impacted all our lives. The pandemic has also been an opportunity to reflect on the sort of country that we want to build in the future—the sort of Britain that we wish to rebuild. As sport Minister, I will work hard to make us as healthy and fit a nation as possible so that we come back stronger than ever. I look forward to working with colleagues on both sides of the Chamber to achieve just that.

19:24
Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher [V]
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I thank all hon. Members who have taken the time to speak in this important debate, and I thank the Minister for taking the time to address the concerns of the petitioners and signatories. It has been a pleasure to lead my first Westminster Hall debate.

I particularly thank the hon. Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry), who rightly pointed out that, as healthier people take fewer days off sick, a national strategy that promotes exercise will benefit businesses and individuals as we come out of the economic downturn. Furthermore, I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith), who spoke of the positive impact of exercise on mental health. I am delighted that he agrees that the Government should strive to set up a work out to help out scheme.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was right to commend the Prime Minister. We have now vaccinated over half the adult population of the UK and continue to make great strides in the fight against coronavirus. I know that the Government’s road map will come as welcome news to all who started and signed the petitions; it confirms that the Government are committed to removing restrictions as soon as it is safe to do so. I thank all the petitioners and signatories once again for all their hard work in keeping themselves and others as healthy as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petitions 313310, 557167, 563904, 566718 and 567492, relating to the Government’s Spring 2021 Covid-19 roadmap.

19:26
Sitting adjourned.