Cladding: ‘We are coming for you,’ Michael Gove warns builders of flats in fire-risk dispute – as it happened
Early evening summary
- Labour has said that a leaked letter suggests the housing budget, and not new taxes for developers, may end up paying the £4bn cost of new protection for leaseholders living in flats with dangerous cladding. The shadow levelling up secretary, Lisa Nandy, made the claim in the Commons, where she said the announcement from Michael Gove was less substantial than he implied. (See 3.50pm.) Gove insisted the government was willing to use taxation to force developers to pay up. (See 3.54pm.) He also said the government would legislate to protect leaseholders not just from cladding costs, but from non-cladding costs too. (See 5.38pm.)
- Boris Johnson has said the government is “looking at the science” of moving to an isolation period of five days in England instead of seven for a positive Covid case, after calls to ease staffing shortages across the economy.
- The number of Covid patients in hospital in England and Scotland has continued to increase, according to newly reported figures, as the UK reported 142,224 Covid cases on Monday – the first rise in six days.
- Hospitals in England will be able to use private hospitals and staff under a deal with the NHS to maintain services as Omicron cases surge, avoiding delays in treatment for patients with illnesses such as cancer.
- Boris Johnson will not face a new investigation by the parliamentary standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone, over the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat, No 10 has confirmed.
- The UK has recorded 142,244 new Covid cases and 77 further deaths, the government has announced. That means the number of new cases over the past week is just 1% up on the total for the the previous week.
That for is all from me for today. But our Covid coverage continues on our global live blog. It’s here.
Commenting on Gove’s announcement, David O’Leary, policy director at the Home Builders Federation, told Radio 4’s PM programme said the solution to the cladding problem needed to go beyond developers and builders. He explained:
We are keen to work with the government - and we have [been] throughout the process - to find solutions. We would like to see other sectors brought into the discussion as well.
There are questions to be asked about the product manufacturing sector. Clearly there are some issues with testing and the testing regime on products on which we are reliant.
This a conversation that needs to go beyond property developers.
Gove says new protections for leaseholders to cover non-cladding costs too
This is from Jack Simpson, news editor at Inside Housing, on what he says was the most significant new revelation from the Gove exchanges in the Commons.
The point about non-cladding related costs being covered was not explicit in the department’s press release, or in the briefing issued in advance. Some of the criticism of the announcement (like Sadiq Khan’s, see 5.03pm) has said non-cladding costs should have been covered. But after Lisa Nandy, the shadow levelling up secretary, said in the chamber that non-cladding costs needed to be covered, Gove replied: “I agree.” The Labour MP Clive Betts, who chairs the Commons housing committee, raised the same point, and, again, Gove provided an asssurance. He said:
We will make sure that we provide leaseholders with statutory protection. That’s what we aim to do and we will work with colleagues across the house in order to make sure that that statutory protection extends for all of the work provided in order to make building safe.
Gove had made this point in some interviews this morning too, but the departmental press notice was more ambiguous.
And the Green party has also criticised the Gove announcement. This is from its co-leader Carla Denyer, a Bristol city councillor. She said:
Michael Gove’s announcement that developers will be expected to foot the bill for replacing dangerous cladding is welcome, but the issue is far from wrapped up.
He is relying on the goodwill of developers, far too many of whom have already shown themselves to be irresponsible and motivated by profit rather than safety ...
Developers must also be required to address defects in council and social housing. It’s completely unacceptable that these costs should fall on housing associations or councils whose budgets are already at breaking point.
Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayor of London, has said today’s announcement does not go far enough. A spokesperson for Khan said:
Today is a step forward and it is encouraging that ministers are realising that the cost of cladding remediation should not fall on leaseholders. But it should not have taken anywhere near this long ...
Leaseholders living in buildings with non-cladding related defects will be deeply disappointed and distressed that today’s announcement will do nothing for them, as they face eye-watering charges to make their homes safe. The mayor is also concerned that a lack of any new public money for remediation will lead to future cuts in budgets for much needed new social rented homes.
Michael Gove has announced that the government will spent £27m on installing communal fire alarms in buildings where there are currently “waking watch” patrols. These were required after the Grenfell Tower fire.
The Department for Levelling up, Housing and Communities has released an exchange of letters showing that Jeremy Pocklington, the permanent secretary, did not approve of this decision because it was not allowed under normal government spending rules. He told Gove:
In the normal course of events, these costs would be borne by the private sector, and waking watch costs are currently being met by leaseholders. This approach, therefore, does not meet the Managing Public Money test for value for money.
Gove had to issue a “ministerial direction” to effectively order Pocklington to release the money. Ministers are perfectly entitled to use ministerial directions, but the system exists to make them think twice before going ahead with a proposal of questionable legitimacy. Explaining why he was going ahead, Gove said:
Waking watch costs are a national scandal and there is an urgent need to tackle this problem given the detrimental impact it is having on leaseholders. Whilst some building owners have already installed fire alarms, some with the help of the Waking Watch Relief Fund announced last December, I am persuaded that this £27m fund is the quickest and most effective way to correct this scandal which persists.
The Department for Levelling up, Housing and Communities has now put out a news release with details of what it says is Michael Gove’s four-point plan to protect leaseholders.
And here is the department’s summary of these measures.
Opening up the next phase of the building safety fund to drive forward taking dangerous cladding off high-rise buildings, prioritising the government’s £5.1bn funding on the highest risk;
Those at fault will be held properly to account: a new team is being established to pursue and expose companies at fault, making them fix the buildings they built and face commercial consequences if they refuse;
Restoring common sense to building assessments: indemnifying building assessors from being sued; and withdrawing the old, misinterpreted government advice that prompted too many buildings being declared as unsafe; and
New protections for leaseholders living in their own flats: with no bills for fixing unsafe cladding and new statutory protections for leaseholders within the building safety bill
Gove says as housing secretary he has learnt how some developers represent 'unacceptable face of capitalism'
Back in the Commons Gove says that, until he took this job, he was not aware of how some developers “play fast and loose with the rules”, for example by setting up special purpose vehicle shell companies to “evade their responsibilities”. He says they represent “the unacceptable face of capitalism”.
I was not fully aware, until I took on this responsibility, of how some within the development industry play fast and loose with the rules and set up special purpose vehicles, shell companies and so on to evade their responsibilities. They exhibit the unacceptable face of capitalism, I am afraid.
That’s a phrase first popularised by Edward Heath when he was prime minister. He was referring to Lonrho.
Here is the letter (pdf) that Michael Gove has sent to developers telling them he expects them to contribute to the £4bn cost of removing dangerous cladding.
And here is an extract.
I will open discussions through a roundtable that brings together 20 of the largest housebuilders and developer trade bodies, followed by ongoing negotiations with all those in scope.
In addition, given leaseholders and those affected by the Grenfell Tower tragedy are central to this process, we will be working closely with them throughout and will bring them to the table to discuss solutions at appropriate junctures. I do not intend for these discussions to take place behind closed doors.
I expect a public commitment to this framework by early March. At that point we must have a clear, fully-funded plan of action that we can make available to the public and to affected leaseholders. I am sure you are as committed as I am to fixing a broken system.
I want to work with you to deliver the programme I have set out. But I must be clear, I am prepared to take all steps necessary to make this happen, including restricting access to government funding and future procurements, the use of planning powers, the pursuit of companies through the courts and – if the industry fails to take responsibility in the way that I have set out – the imposition of a solution in law if needs be.
Jeremy Corbyn, the former Labour leader, says after the Grenfell fire, local authorities inspected their properties. But some private landlords did not. He says he spoke to leaseholders in his constituency recently who were stuck; they could not move. Will they be assured now all their costs will be covered?
Gove says he agrees with Corbyn. He says he does not want to over-promise, but he hopes they can move quickly. And he says he agrees with Corbyn about how local authorities responded more quickly than the private sector.
Robert Jenrick, Gove’s predecessor, welcomes the announcement. He says it builds on the plans to help leaseholders he produced.
This prompts jeering from Labour. Jenrick’s plans were seen by many as unsatisfactory.
Gove leaps to Jenrick’s defence. He says he knows how hard Jenrick worked to secure justice for leaseholders. If others knew that too, they would not be jeering, he says.
If you knew what I knew about how hard Robert had worked in order to try to secure justice you wouldn’t be trying to make a cheap point about it.
We all care about this issue, but few care about this issue as much, and certainly no-one in this chamber has worked as hard to try to help those people as he has.
Clive Betts, the Labour chair of the housing committee, asks whether leaseholders will get statutory protection from costs. And what will be the impact on social housing?
Gove says he wants to put the protection for leaseholders into statute. And he says he wants to ensure the new burden on developers does not affect the social housing supply.
UPDATE: Betts said:
If developers don’t pay for the measures in the house today or taxes aren’t raised and there are cuts to his budget as a result, is that going to come off social housing provision as well? What assessment has been done for the total impact on future housebuilding for social housing?
When it comes to making sure that we don’t have an adverse impact on social housing, or indeed on the work Homes England is leading on to bring together intermediate brownfield land for the private sector development, we will absolutely make sure we will do everything possible in order to make sure we have responsibility discharged on those who are ultimately those with the balance sheets and big bucks.
Gove said the largest housing developers in the UK had “made profits of £16bn” in the last three years, and these “significant sums” should be “devoted to ensuring the building safety crisis is met alongside the building supply pipeline in future”.
Felicity Buchan, the Conservative MP for Kensington, where Grenfell Tower is, says speed is essential. She welcomes Gove’s proposals, but says we are already four and a half years from the fire. She says she hopes it is implemented quickly.
Gove says he wants to move quickly.
Gove insists government is willing to impose new taxes on developers, despite what leaked letter says
In reply to Nandy, Gove says the chancellor has authorised him to use taxation as a threat to the industry.
He says the residential property developer tax shows the government is already willing to use taxation in this way.
UPDATE: Gove said:
We do need to have additional backstops and it is clear that taxes can, if necessary, play a part.
I don’t want to move there but we do have the absolute assurance that we can use the prospect of taxation in order to bring people to the table.
All taxation decisions are made by the chancellor. No chancellor, no chief secretary would ever say anything other than that.
But the fact that the chief secretary and the chancellor authorised me to use the prospect of taxation, the fact we already have taxation through the residential property developer tax shows that we’re prepared to take every step necessary.
Nandy says leaked letter shows housing budget, not taxation, is backstop if developers don't pay
Lisa Nandy, the shadow levelling up secretary, says Labour supports Gove’s desire to get developers to pay for these repairs.
But Gove has not explained how this will happen.
And she quotes from a Treasury letter to Gove saying that, if the industry does not pay up, the funds will have to come from his department.
So, although Gove is telling the public that taxation is the backstop option, that is not what he is telling his colleagues.
Overall, she says Gove’s statement marks a welcome change of tone. But the more she looks at the detail, the less it stands up.
UPDATE: This is what Nandy said quoting the letter from Simon Clarke, the chief secretary to the Treasury. She said:
Gove was told ‘you may use a high-level threat of tax or legal solutions in discussions with developers’ ... ‘but whether or not to impose or raise taxes remains a decision for me (the chief Secretary) and is not a given at this point’.
It appears what he’s told the public - that tax rises are the backstop - is not what he’s told the Treasury. This letter says ‘you have confirmed separately that DLUHC budgets are a backstop for funding these proposals in full should sufficient funds not be raised from industry’.
That is not what the secretary of state told the house a moment ago. So can he clear this up: has the chancellor agreed to back a new tax measure if negotiations fail or is he prepared to see his own already allocated budgets, levelling-up funding or monies for social or affordable funding raided?
Or is his plan to go back to the Treasury and renegotiate and legislate if he fails in March? If that is the case, it’ll take months and there’s nothing to stop freeholders passing on the costs to leaseholders in the meantime.
The letter was leaked to Newsnight.
Gove says leaseholders in buildings over 11 metres high will not have to pay to remove dangerous cladding.
He says amendments to the building safety bill will be tabled to help protect them.
Developers will be expected to pay, he says. If they do not, the government reserves the right to legislate.
Gove says medium-rise buildings are generally safe. He says the government’s guidence affecting them is being withdrawn because it is being interpreted in too cautious a way.
There should be more use of mitigations like sprinklers in medium-rise buildings, he says.
Gove warns builders of flats in fire-risk dispute: ‘We are coming for you’
Gove says the next phase of the building safety fund will open early this year.
Those who profited from building unsafe homes should pay to put them right, he says. He warns them: “We are coming for you.”
He says a dedicated team in his department will work on this.
And he says companies linked to those involved with Grenfell Tower are already being penalised.
UPDATE: Gove said:
We will also ensure that those who profited and and continue to profit from the sale of unsafe buildings and construction products must take full responsibility for their actions and pay to put things right.
Those who knowingly put lives at risk should be held to account for their crimes, and those who are seeking to profit from the crisis by making it worse should be stopped from doing so. Today I am putting them on notice.
To those who missold dangerous products like cladding or insulation, to those who cut corners to save cash as they developed or refurbished people’s homes, and to those who sought to profiteer from the consequences of the Grenfell tragedy - we are coming for you.
Gove is now into the substance of his statement.
He say leaseholders are sharing a “desperately unfair” burden.
He is clear that industry should bear the costs, he says.
Before the statement Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, criticises the fact that details of Gove’s statement were leaked to the media at the weekend. He says he hopes Gove will order a leak inquiry.
Gove starts by saying he has asked the permanent secretary in his department to conduct one.
And here is more detailed preview of what Michael Gove will say by Jack Simpson for Inside Housing.
Michael Gove's Commons statement on cladding
Michael Gove is about to give his Commons statement on cladding.
And here is my colleague Peter Walker’s preview story of what Gove will announce.
This is from the Health Service Journal’s Lawrence Dunhill, with new Covid hospital figures for Greater Manchester.
The latest Covid infections data from Scotland suggests the alarming surge in cases linked to the Omicron variant has now peaked, with officially recorded positive cases and test-positivity rates now falling.
The daily figures for Monday from Public Health Scotland show a continuing rolling seven-day average fall in test-positivity and in positive cases overall, with 11,827 new cases recorded overnight. The agency warned, however, that there were hold-ups in case reporting from laboratories, which could skew the daily figures.
Prof Linda Bauld of Edinburgh University, a social policy adviser to the Scottish government, warned last week that official testing data would become less relevant after ministers relaxed the rules around PCR tests last Wednesday. She told PA: “We’re not going to be able to use daily positive cases as a marker any more. The government is looking with Public Health Scotland about how we report that and we reflect it.”
Even so, the agency’s modelling, updated last Friday, forecast the Omicron wave would peak later this week before sharply declining this month – peaking earlier than Scottish government ministers had feared.
In late December and early January, Scotland posted a series of daily records of 15,000-17,000, peaking at 20,217 – a figure thought to be inflated by some delayed results.
Monday’s figures also show, however, that hospitalisations and admissions to intensive care are continuing to creep up, illustrating the normal delay between infections and hospital admissions.
There were 1,432 Covid-positive people in Scottish hospitals on Sunday, of which around 60% were admitted because of the virus rather for another medical reason. The total number of people in intensive care moved up slightly, from 63 reported on Sunday to 65. There were no new deaths reported.
Keir Starmer made his comments about Labour’s proposed windfall tax on energy companies (see 1.07pm) in a pooled interview for broadcasters. It covered various other topics too.
- Starmer said Boris Johnson would have “very serious questions to answer” if he did attend a lockdown-busting party at Downing Street last year. But, asked if Johnson would have to resign in those circumstances, Starmer did not go that far. “Let’s see what the findings are and then go from there,” he said. But he said Johnson had already lost “huge authority”. He said:
The prime minister has lost huge authority with the public because of these allegations of parties in Downing Street. To stand at a press conference, instructing the country to comply with restrictions - which really impacted families across the country - whilst at the same time there’s emerging evidence of parties in Downing Street does diminish his authority, his moral authority, to ask others to comply with those rules.
- Starmer said he would back the isolation period being cut from seven days to five days - provided the scientific evidence justified that.
- He welcomed the help being announced today for leaseholders facing crippling costs to remove dangerous cladding - although he said it was “very late”, and the plans were “still very vague”.
- He said he was opposed to MPs getting a pay rise in April. He said:
I think that MPs do not need a pay rise and we should all be saying that we don’t need that pay rise and it shouldn’t go ahead. The mechanism is independent but I think it’s for me, as leader of the opposition, to say that I do not think we should have that pay rise.
Russian oligarchs’ use of London to launder their fortunes is to come under renewed scrutiny after the Conservative-controlled foreign affairs select committee agreed to re-examine the government’s apparent inability to crack down on the practice, my colleague Patrick Wintour reports.
No 10 plays down prospect of free lateral flow tests being abandoned soon
Here is a summary of the main points from today’s Downing Street lobby briefing
- No 10 said that it hoped evidence would be available “soon” to justify cutting the isolation period from seven days to five days. (See 12.41pm.) Conservative MPs are pushing for the isolation period to be cut, and more than half of cabinet ministers are said to be in favour too. A five-day period would bring England into line with the rules in the US. But in the US people who leave isolation after five days are expected to wear masks around others for another five days – a proposal that some of those demanding a shorter isolation period in the UK may be less willing to embrace.
- The PM’s spokesman played down the prospect of access to free lateral flow tests being ended any time soon. He said that although the government’s roadmap out of lockdown envisaged free lateral flow tests being abandoned eventually, there were “absolutely no plans” for that at the moment. “There’s no doubt that the use of lateral flow devices are both interrupting chains of transmission and saving lives,” he said. It was “too early to say specifically when we will have moved from the point where we’ve got extremely high prevalence currently, and when it will be right to consider a different approach”, he added.
- The spokesman said Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, had notified No 10 that she would not be investigating the Downing Street flat refurbishment. Stone apparently accepted that financial support relating to a ministerial activity (ie, refurbishment of the Downing Street flat where the PM lives) was something to be declared in the ministerial register of interests, not the MPs’ register (which she polices).
- The spokesman refused to deny that Johnson attended a BYOB drinks party in Downing Street during lockdown last year. (See 11.18am.) Asked why Johnson would not answer a question on this when he was asked about it earlier, even though he must have know whether or not he attended, the spokesman said that in his response Johnson was making the point that this was a matter for Sue Gray, the civil servant investigating a series of allegations about lockdown-busting partying at No 10.
- The spokesman said Martin Reynolds, the PM’s principal private secretary, is staying in post. Johnson had full confidence in him, the spokesman said. There has been speculation that Reynolds, who reportedly organised the party revealed by the Sunday Times yesterday, is being lined up as the fall guy and will be moved to another job. The spokesman said that he had seen the “speculation”, but that Reynolds was staying in position. (From the tone of the exchanges, it sounded as if the spokesman meant staying ‘for now’, but he did not use those words.) Earlier today Dominic Cummings, the PM’s former chief adviser who first revealed that the party in the Sunday Times story took place, posted this on Twitter earlier saying he expected Reynolds to be given an ambassadorial post. Cummings also suggests that Jack Doyle, the PM’s communications director, and Dan Rosenfield, the PM’s chief of staff, will be forced out by the partygate scandal.
- The spokesman said Johnson would like to see the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority exercise “restraint” over MPs pay. Ipsa has already authorised a 2.7% pay increase for MPs which will take effect in April, when voters also start having to pay the national insurance increase. Asked if the PM thought that was right, the spokesman said:
I would say we would expect restraint on matters like this given the current circumstances, but beyond that I think it’s right that we let Ipsa set out their proposals as an independent body.
Given that the increase has already been announced, it is hard to see what calling for “restraint” might mean. Ipsa was set up specifically to stop MPs having to decide on their own pay.
- The spokesman would not say if the PM had read Piers Morgan’s debut column in the Sun today calling Johnson a “shambles”. He said he had not discussed it with the PM. For Guardian readers who have not read it either, this is how it starts. It takes the form of an open letter to Johnson. Morgan starts:
You’re a shambles. I don’t say that lightly.
You’re the prime minister of my great country and as such, I fervently want you NOT to be a shambles.
But all the current evidence suggests that by the dictionary definition of that word – “In a state of total disorder” – you’re officially a shambles.
In fact, that’s the modern, more generous meaning.
Back in the 16th century, a “shambles” meant a “place of terrible slaughter or bloodshed” which, trust me, is where you’re now heading politically if you don’t buck your ideas up pretty damn sharpish.
Starmer accuses PM of 'vacuum of leadership' as he restates call for windfall tax on energy companies
Keir Starmer has restated Labour’s call for a windfall tax on oil and gas firms to pay for measures to help people pay their fuel bills. He said:
Energy bills are going through the roof. That particularly impacts the elderly and the vulnerable and the government is doing absolutely nothing about it, they are asleep at the wheel.
So we have put forward a plan that will reduce energy bills for all households by just under £200 and reduce it for those who are most in need - on lower and middle incomes - by 600.
So we’re stepping into the vacuum of leadership that the government has left with a plan to actually reduce bills, because this is a really important issue for so many families, particularly this winter.
Johnson refuses to deny report he attended 'BYOB' drinks do at No 10 during lockdown
In an interview this morning Boris Johnson refused to deny a report in the Sunday Times (paywall) that he and his wife, Carrie, attended a “bring your own bottle” Downing Street drinks party during lockdown in spring last year.
In their report yesterday, Tim Shipman, Caroline Wheeler and Gabriel Pogrund wrote:
The party on May 20, 2020, was thrown by Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s principal private secretary, the most senior civil servant in Downing Street. Three sources say Reynolds emailed officials inviting them to a drinks party and adding “BYOB”, which stands for “bring your own bottle” — removing any doubt that it was a planned party.
The email is key evidence in a sleaze inquiry being run by the Whitehall enforcer Sue Gray, which is now threatening to force the resignations of several senior members of Johnson’s team.
The suggestion the prime minister himself attended the event – not denied by No 10 – makes this allegation more serious for Johnson than other recent revelations ...
The first lockdown was introduced in late March 2020. It was only on 1 June that year that people were allowed to mix outside in groups of up to six, and it was not until 4 July that two households were permitted to mix indoors or outdoors.
Asked this morning if he had attended the party, Johnson replied:
All that, as you know, is the subject of a proper investigation by Sue Gray [the senior civil servant investigating allegations of No 10 lockdown-busting partying].
Asked if he had been interviewed by Gray, Johnson replied: “All that is a subject for investigation by Sue Gray.”
There are no urgent questions in the Commons today, and just one ministerial statement, the Michael Gove one on cladding, at 3.30pm, the parliamentary authorities have announced.
No 10 says it hopes evidence will 'soon' be available to justify cutting isolation period to five days
At the Downing Street lobby briefing the prime minister’s spokesman was also asked about the possibility of the minimum Covid isolation period in England being cut from seven days to five. Boris Johnson confirmed earlier that this was being kept under consideration. (See 11.18am.) The PM’s spokesman went a bit further, saying the government would like it to happen “soon” – provided the scientific evidence justifies the change. He said the UK Health Security Agency was continuing to look at whether the scientific evidence justified cutting the isolation period to five days (ie, whether that could be done without risk of still-infectious people being released into the community). He said:
If it is possible to go further, we would want to act quickly, but it needs to be based on the latest evidence. And that work is still ongoing. We certainly have not received any further updated advice.
Asked whether he expected the rules to be changed within days, or weeks, or months, the spokesman said he could not say. But he added:
It is something we want done soon. But what is important is that we don’t prejudge the conclusion, and that we allow those that are looking at this to consider the evidence base and provide thorough advice.
PM not facing probe from parliamentary commissioner for standards over flat refurbishment, says No 10
The Downing Street lobby briefing has just finished. As my colleague Heather Stewart reports, the PM’s spokesman said that Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, has told No 10 that she won’t launch an inquiry into allegations that Boris Johnson’s declarations about the refurbishment of Downing Street flat broke the MPs’ code of conduct because she considers it a matter for the ministerial register of interest.
I will post more from the briefing shortly.
The Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen has said the isolation period should be cut from seven days to five days.
Bridgen is one of the large number of Tory MPs anxious to ease the existing Covid restrictions quickly and his view is probably widely shared by colleagues. Earlier today John Redwood, the former Conservative cabinet minister, posted this, referring to today’s Telegraph story. (See 11.18am.)
Labour says Johnson and Gove have broken their Brexit promise to scrap VAT on fuel
Labour has again accused Boris Johnson and Michael Gove of breaking a promise they made when they were leading the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 to get rid of VAT on fuel if the UK voted for Brexit. In interviews this morning Gove (see 10.40am) signalled that getting rid of VAT now would be a mistake because it would be better to target help on those most in need (Johnson made the same argument last week), and in his own TV clip Johnson also said it was people on low incomes who needed help most. (See 11.37am.)
Ed Miliband, the shadow climate change secretary, said:
Both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove promised to cut VAT on energy bills. But when push comes to shove, when families and pensioners really need support, they’ve broken that commitment.
While Michael Gove backpedals, Rishi Sunak is missing in action.
Labour would give families security by immediately cutting VAT on energy bills now - part of our plan to save households around £200 or more, with extra support for those feeling the squeeze the most, paid for by a windfall tax on oil and gas companies facing record profits.
Johnson and Gove made their VAT promise in 2016 in a joint article for the Sun. Here is an extract.
In 1993, VAT on household energy bills was imposed. This makes gas and electricity much more expensive. EU rules mean we cannot take VAT off those bills.
The least wealthy are hit particularly hard. The poorest households spend three times more of their income on household energy bills than the richest households spend. As long as we are in the EU, we are not allowed to cut this tax.
When we Vote Leave, we will be able to scrap this unfair and damaging tax. It isn’t right that unelected bureaucrats in Brussels impose taxes on the poorest and elected British politicians can do nothing.
Boris Johnson has posted a message on Twitter this morning welcoming the news that Virgin Media O2 customers will not face roaming charges when they use their phones in the EU.
As Faisal Islam, the BBC’s economics editor points out, Johnson’s tweet does not mention the fact that other operators are reintroducing roaming charges, as they are allowed to now that the UK has left the EU.
Johnson confirms ministers looking at how to help people manage rising fuel costs
In his pooled interview Boris Johnson was also asked about the cost of living crisis. He made three general points.
Johnson confirmed that the government was looking at what it could do to help people with their energy bills. He said that he understood how difficult it was for people and that he had discussed this with the chancellor, Rishi Sunak. He did not say what the government might do, but he hinted that help would be focused on people on low incomes. “We’re certainly looking at what we can do,” he said. He added:
We’ve got to help people, particularly people on low income. We’ve got to help people with the cost of their fuel. And that’s what we’re doing.
- He stressed that this was an international problem. He said:
This is the result of global price spikes as a result of the economy coming back from Covid ...
There’s a general inflationary pressure caused by the world economy coming back from Covid. In the US, I think, inflation is likely to be the highest it’s been since the early 80s. The eurozone is experiencing exactly the same thing. Here in the UK we’re seeing the same problem.
- He said that the government was already spending £4.2bn on programmes that were helping people pay their fuel bills. He mentioned cold weather payments, warm homes discounts, winter fuel payments, as well as grants to councils to help them support people in need. And he said the government wanted people to be aware of the support already available.
Johnson says government considering case for cutting isolation period from seven days to five
Boris Johnson has recorded a pooled broadcast interview at a vaccination centre this morning. He used it to play down suggestions that free lateral flow tests might be abandoned any time soon, as a report claimed yesterday (it has always been the plan to give them up eventually), but he did suggest the government was open to the possibility of cutting the minimum isolation period from seven days to five days. Only six days ago Sajid Javid, the health secretary, ruled this out.
Here are the main points Johnson made on Covid.
- Johnson said the government could consider the case for cutting the minimum isolation time from seven days to five days. Last week Javid said the government was not looking to change this. But today Johnson said there was an “argument to be had” about this issue. “The thing to do is to look at the science,” he said. Asked if he was speaking to ministers like Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, who yesterday said cutting the isolation period to five days would be helpful, Johnson said that he was, and that ministers were looking at this. According to a report by Charles Hymas and Harry Yorke in the Telegraph today, and 60% of cabinet ministers, are also in favour of shortening the isolation period. They report:
Rishi Sunak and ministers from the main economic ministries believe cutting isolation from seven days could help reduce staffing shortages caused by the omicron variant, the Telegraph understands.
One government source suggested 60 per cent of the Cabinet were in favour of the move, although they stressed that such a move would have to be sanctioned as safe by scientists.
- Johnson suggested lateral flow tests would continue to be distributed for free “as long as they’re very important”. Asked if the current arrangements would stay in place for just weeks, or months, he replied: “I think we will use them as long as they’re very important.”
Gove claims 'red wall' and low tax Tories not in conflict, because higher spending will fund tax cuts later
Here are the key points from Michael Gove’s various broadcast interviews this morning.
- Gove, the levelling up secretary, said that lateral flow tests would remain free “as long as we need”. But he said it was impossible to say how long that would be. Yesterday it was reported that ministers are preparing to stop distributing them for free.
- Gove said that he was wrong to think tighter Covid restrictions were needed when the cabinet debated the issue before Christmas, and that Boris Johnson was right to take the opposite view. (See 9.35am.)
- Gove said that Britain was moving towards a situation where restrictions would be unnecessary because people were used to living with Covid. But we weren’t there yet, he said. He told Sky News:
We are moving to a situation - we’re not there yet - but we are moving to a situation where it is possible to say that we can live with Covid and that the pressure on the NHS and on vital public services is abating.
But it’s absolutely vital to recognise that we are not there yet and as the health secretary has reminded us, there will be some difficult weeks ahead.
And later he told the Today programme:
And I think one of the things that we do need to think about is how we live with Covid, how we live with this particular type of coronavirus. There are other coronaviruses which are endemic and with which we live, viruses tend to develop in a way whereby they become less harmful but more widespread.
So, guided by the science, we can look to the progressive lifting of restrictions, and I think for all of us the sooner the better. But we’ve got to keep the NHS safe.
- He insisted the government was spending enough to deliver its levelling up agenda. “That budget is there to be used, deployed and allocated to support levelling up,” he said. He was responding to a question about a Times article (paywall) by Ben Houchen, the Tory mayor for Tees Valley, who suggests that voters have yet to see evidence that levelling up is happening. Houchen says:
Voters are also realists — they know that levelling up is not something that will be delivered in just a year or two, it will be a decades-long project. But they do need to see progress, and this means steel going up to deliver new factories, spades in the ground for new energy infrastructure, and cranes in action as new bridges are built out over waters. These are all the visible signs that people need to see to bring confidence that real, lasting, progress is being made.
- Gove dismissed claims that there was a tension between “red wall” Tories like Houchen, who want to see more government spending in their areas, and Conservatives like Lord Frost, who want lower taxes. Asked if Houchen and Frost would be able to agree on what the government should be doing, Gove replied:
I imagine they would be in full agreement, they would be a nest of singing birds ...
There are choices that do need to be made. But, ultimately, we’ve made those choices. We’ve committed to the public spending required in order to generate economic growth, and as we will in due course get that economic growth, we will also in due course cut taxes.
One of the things I think everyone - certainly everyone from the Conservative party, but I think actually, most people in politics - would agree is if we can have every part of the United Kingdom operating as effectively economically as London and the south-east currently do, that provides not just opportunity for more individuals, it also provides more for the exchequer as well.
- He signalled that he was opposed to cutting VAT on energy bills - even thought the Vote Leave campaign he jointly led promised this as a Brexit dividend in 2016 - saying that government support for those needing help with energy bills should be focused “on those who need it most”. A VAT cut would help everybody, particularly those with larger houses and larger bills.
- Gove said that, if developers did not agree to pay for the removal of dangerous cladding, the government would if necessary raise the money from them via taxation. He told Sky News:
We want to say to developers and indeed all those who have a role to play in recognising their responsibility that we want to work with them.
But if it’s the case that it’s necessary to do so, then we will use legal means and ultimately, if necessary, the tax system in order to ensure that those who have deep pockets, those who are responsible for the upkeep of these buildings, pay rather than the leaseholders, the individuals, who in the past were being asked to pay with money they didn’t have for a problem that they did not cause.
- He also said leaseholders will not have to pay large sums to remedy fire defects in blocks of flats that go beyond cladding.
- He said it was not right for builders to claim they were complying with government regulations when they installed the cladding responsible for the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy. He told LBC:
There were lots of steps that were taken which put people at risk, and without wanting to pre-empt what the independent inquiry into Grenfell will conclude, I think it is ... you would be hard-pressed to say that putting, essentially, sheets of liquid petrol encased in metal on the side of a tower block was the right thing to do.
I think it’s fair to say that, actually, those who argue that they were compliant [with regulations] in doing that, I don’t think have a very strong case. I think you’d have to be a very, very, very selective reader of the evidence there in order to draw that conclusion.
Gove claims he was wrong about need for tougher Covid restrictions, and PM right to reject them
Good morning. Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, was making a rare appearance on the morning interview round today. He was mostly talking about the announcement about the £4bn support package for leaseholders hit by excessive cladding-removal costs, which will be the subject of a Commons statement later. But he was also asked about Covid, and in an interview on the Today programme he effectively admitted that he was wrong, and Boris Johnson was right, when the cabinet considered the need for tougher restrictions for England in the week before Christmas. When it was put to him that he had favoured tighter restrictions, but that developments since then suggested they were not needed, he replied:
From some of the things that I’ve said and written people will know that, in the spectrum of opinion, I was at the more cautious end. Perfectly legit to draw that inference. But the prime minister, who’s had so many different things to balance, publicly that we would be able to get through this with the booster campaign. So if more were required, then we would be ready to put in additional measures. We always keep that under review. But his judgment has been vindicated.
The interview almost did not happen because Gove got stuck in a BBC lift on his way to the studio, prompting numerous jokes about his need personal need for a more efficient levelling up strategy. This is from the BBC’s Jack Lamport.
I will post more from Gove’s morning interviews shortly.
Here is the agenda for the day.
11.30am: Downing Street holds a lobby briefing.
Morning: Boris Johnson is doing a visit, where he is expected to record a pooled TV interview.
3.30pm: Alok Sharma, Cop26 president, gives evidence to the Lords environment committee about delivering the Cop26 agenda.
After 3.30pm: Michael Gove makes a statement to MPs about a £4bn package to help leaseholders facing crippling cladding-removal costs.
I will be covering UK Covid developments here today, but for wider coronavirus coverage, do read our global live blog.
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