Leader of the Opposition Questions
Starmer started his set of questions by asking the Prime Minister about the government’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests. He questioned the Prime Minister on the seeming failure to implement large parts of the Lammy Report or the report into the Windrush Scandal.
The Prime Minister responded by saying he understands the strong feeling about the death of George Floyd. He said that the government was already implementing parts of the Lammy Report, including by increasing the number of BAME employees in the Prison Service and overseeing an increase in the use of body-worn cameras. He also said the government was trying to reduce unconscious bias in the charging of BAME criminal suspects. Notably, at the end of the answer, he appealed to his Conservative base, stating unequivocally that we should ‘back our police’.
Starmer was weak in his initial response to Johnson’s answer. He simply repeated that the recommendations of the Lammy Report should be implemented in full. He then moved onto the Public Health England report on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities and the recommendation of the report that the government should already be attempting to mitigate this risk. He questioned why the government had not already acted on the report.
Johnson immediately questioned the premise of the question, outlining the ways that he believed that the government had already begun to act on the enhanced threat to BAME communities. He noted that, in particular, that front line professions (in which BAME persons play a key role) were getting expanded and targeted testing. Johnson was swift with this response, but it lacked depth – focusing only on an issue that relates to all front line staff, not BAME communities in particular. This left a clear hole in his answer.
Starmer, similar to his last question, did not focus on the holes left in the PM’s response and allowed the PM to get off the hook for his weak response to the last question. He then turned to the overall numbers of people who had died of COVID-19 in the UK, with the government figures now topping 40,000 and ONS figures topping 63,000. Starmer asked why the PM was proud of the government’s response when these figures compared so badly to other countries.
Johnson replied by saying international comparisons were not helpful and only after the end of the pandemic could such comparisons be made. Johnson said that he strongly disagreed with Starmer’s characterisation saying he is extremely proud of achievements like building NHS Nightingdale and that he is proud of the British people for their conduct during the crisis.
Starmer said that it “just doesn’t wash” to not compare the response with other countries. He called on the PM to learn from the things that they did differently that led to a lower death toll. He then turned to school reopening policy. He asked why the government had not been able to reopen schools. He said that parents had lost confidence in the government’s approach and inequality would rise as a result of the six months of schooling that children had lost. He told the House that he had suggested to the PM that a national task force were set up so everyone could work together on this and asked if the PM would take him up on this.
Johnson replied, similarly to last week, that he had tried to work with Starmer but that Starmer had deviated from their discussions. Johnson then criticised Starmer for flip flopping, saying that he was opposed to children returning to school and now appears to be for it. In making this point Johnson is again implying that Startmer is politicising the crisis. Johnson said the government’s approach to school reopenings was rightly cautious. He challenged Starmer for some support over the fact that 70% of schools have seen some children return this week.
Starmer said that the PM had never discussed the letter he sent him in any form. Starmer noted that plenty of comparable countries were getting their students back to school. He said the PM should stop ‘flailing’ around trying to blame others. He said that one month ago the PM made his announcement about school returns without consultation, warning or scientific backing for his proposal. Starmer said the Children’s Commissioner had criticised the government’s strategic plan. He asked why the government could not replicate their efforts over NHS Nightingale with schools.
Johnson responded by claiming the Leader of the Opposition could not work out whether schools were safe enough or not safe. He critcised Starmer for trying to have it ‘both ways’ (again, implying the politicisation of a crisis). He said that all of Parliament wants kids to return to school, but it should be when they are safe. He asked Starmer to confirm if that was what he wanted too?
Starmer immediately criticised the PM for his ‘rehearsed attack lines’. He said he wanted as many children back to school as soon as it was safe – saying he had been saying this consistently. Starmer then called on the PM to extend the National Voucher Scheme to make sure that students who cannot attend school still get Free School Meals. He said the Welsh Government have confirmed that they will fund this scheme through the Summer and that the Education Secretary had ruled this out yesterday. He asked the PM to reconsider this policy.
Johnson said that it was not usual for Free Meals to be provided over the Summer Holidays but that the government were announcing £63 Million Pounds of welfare assistance to be used by councils to help disadvantaged families. He said the government had done its best to support these families during the crisis. He finished by criticising the ‘wobbling and tergiversation’ of the Labour Party before listing the things the government had done in the crisis.
In a welcome move, MPs were able to again ask questions remotely. This allowed all backbenchers the chance to participate, as they should be able to in PMQs. In truth, Starmer let the Prime Minister off too easily in the first two questions. He should have pressed the PM on what he was doing specifically for BAME communities. On schools, the PM won the day. He was able to leave the impression that Starmer had flip-flopped on the issue and was challenging the government now only for its own political ends. Johnson has shown himself to be far from an outstanding PMQs performer, but Starmer simply has to do better than he did today.
SNP Leader Questions:
Blackford appeared via the chamber’s monitors from back in his Scottish constituency. He recounted the PM had told the Liaison Committee that he does not actually read the scientific papers he is given. He suggests that it is therefore no wonder that it took the government so long to act on quarantine measures – claiming it was too little too late. He asked the PM to confirm which scientific papers he had read on the 2 metres social distancing rule.
Johnson said he had read a signficant amount about all issues, including the 2 metre rule. He said that the 2 metre rule should be kept under constant review.
Blackford said the Cabinet had discussed reducing the 2 metre rule, despite the SAGE group suggesting it was important in stopping the spread of the virus. He noted that Professor Chris Whitty had suggested the 2 metre rule would have to stay for as long as the pandemic continued. Blackford said that people were losing faith in the government and asked whether the PM would continue ignoring the experts?
Johnson responded by saying that people were being extremely compliant despite all the myths propagated by the SNP and other parties. He said that there were a number of different views about the 2 metre rule, but as the number of overall infections came down the likelihood of catching it regardless of the 2 metre rule would come down dramatically.
Johnson handled Blackford comfortably. Blackford aimed to make a clear political point, accusing the PM of not listening to his advisors. In doing this, he sacrificed the chance to ask the PM more probing questions. With hindsight, it is probably something he regrets.
Best Backbench Question:
Ed Davey stated that a black person is 47 times more likely to be stopped and search under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1994). He said that being black appeared to be enough of a suspicion in itself. He asked whether the PM would reduce stop and search powers and end the injustice it brings for black and minority communities.
Johnson responded by saying that is important that stop and search was carried out ‘sensitively and in accordance with the law’. He said that body-worn cameras had helped make the progress more transparent. However, he said that Section 60 powers could be very important in preventing violent crime. He did not address the concern of Davey that stop and search was used disproportionately.
Most Cringeworthy Backbench Question:
Conservative Backbencher, Alan Mak, asked the Prime Minister about a science project in his constituency that the PM clearly wanted to raise anyway. The PM appeared suspiciously well prepared…
Mak: “Britain’s new Advanced Research Projects Agency is vital to securing our status as a science and technology superpower, particularly as we recover from coronavirus. Will my right hon. Friend commit to protecting its funding and its independence, so that there are no obstacles to delivering transformational breakthroughs from clean energy to new vaccines?”
Johnson: “Yes, and I thank my hon. Friend; he is absolutely right. We will be funding the Advanced Research Projects Agency to the tune of £800 million, and it will be tasked with supporting really revolutionary breakthroughs in this country. It is the UK—from the splitting of the atom to the jet engine to the internet—that has led the world in scientific research, and under this Government we intend to continue.”