House of Commons
Monday 16 March 2020
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts and Measures:
Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2020
NHS Funding Act 2020
Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure 2020.
I would like to make a short statement about the arrangements within Parliament in the light of the current circumstances due to coronavirus. All of us recognise the importance of Parliament continuing at such a difficult time because of the need to ensure proper scrutiny and address our constituents’ concerns. However, to reduce the risk to those who work on the parliamentary estate and those who visit, we have taken some proportionate and reasonable measures to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus.
The following are some of the measures that are in place: no banqueting or commercial tour bookings will be accepted, and existing bookings have been cancelled and refunds will be issued; no mass lobbies will be allowed; all-party parliamentary groups are asked not to invite non-passholding guests on to the estate; and all passholders should refrain from bringing non-passholders on to the estate unless they are here for parliamentary business. I will be reviewing all other access arrangements constantly.
In addition, I can announce that, to alleviate the pressure on our security staff, the Portcullis House public entrance will be closed to non-passholders with effect from this Wednesday. This is a fast-moving situation, and I expect to make further announcements later today or tomorrow morning. I will not be taking points of order on this statement.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I would like to start by paying tribute to Lance Corporal Brodie Gillon, a reservist combat medic with the Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry, who was deployed to Iraq with the Irish Guards and was tragically killed when a coalition base was struck by indirect fire. It was a cowardly and retrograde attack on forces that are there to help Iraq. Lance Corporal Gillon’s death serves as a stark reminder of the dangers that our armed forces face on a daily basis, and of their extraordinary commitment and bravery as they continue to protect our interests and others overseas. My thoughts—and, I know, those of the whole House—will be with her family and loved ones at this difficult time.
I join the Secretary of State and the whole House in those words.
The Government’s additional funding to eliminate rough sleeping is welcome. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could outline what is being done to support veterans who find themselves without a roof over their heads.
My hon. Friend asks an important question about many people who have served our country. I welcome the Government’s recent announcement of £112 million of additional funding to tackle rough sleeping. The Ministry of Defence works closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which leads on this issue. As well as the work that takes place across Whitehall, there are broad and deep networks of forces charities, regimental advisers and forces champions in local authority offices to offer support.
There were some excellent measures in the Budget for veterans and veterans care. Will the Secretary of State elaborate on national insurance contributions for employers, and on how and when those plans might be rolled out?
The Government will introduce a national insurance holiday for employers of veterans in their first year of civilian employment. A full digital service will be available to employers from April 2022. However, transitional arrangements will be in place in the 2021-22 tax year that will effectively enable employers of veterans to claim this holiday from April 2021. The holiday will exempt employers from any national insurance contribution liability on the veteran’s salary up to the upper earnings limit.
May I start by joining the Secretary of State in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Brodie Gillon, who was tragically killed in Iraq last week? The Opposition pay tribute to her service, and send our thoughts and prayers to her family and friends.
A report by the charity Forward Assist found that over half of the women veterans that it interviewed had experienced sexual assault while serving, with one in four having been physically assaulted. Will the Secretary of State agree to the charity’s recommendations by establishing an independent reporting system for women veterans who wish to report historical abuse and creating a women’s veterans department in the Office for Veterans’ Affairs?
The hon. Member raises a really important point about how we treat allegations of sexual assault or misconduct in the armed forces. He will be aware of the Wigston report. We will look to do an independent review of that one year on, which I think will satisfy some of the recommendations of the charity he mentioned.
May I echo the Secretary of State’s remarks about Lance Corporal Gillon, and go a bit further and thank all the uniformed and non-uniformed staff serving in his Department? We lean on them quite a bit, but we will be leaning on them even more over the coming time. In that vein, when it comes to coronavirus, I am happy to set aside the political sparring that we would normally have. Given that many veterans will fall into the category of those most vulnerable and at risk of contracting coronavirus, can he update the House on his Department’s strategy for supporting them?
Veterans, like the rest of the wider population, will of course come under the current central Government plans for dealing with coronavirus via the NHS. However, my Department—not only people working in the Department, but the serving personnel—will have its own measures in place to ensure that we perform our duty of care towards that workforce. As the hon. Member says, many in that workforce are the very people we will be relying on in future to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. Therefore, it is particularly important that our Ministers keep a close eye on their health.
I welcome what the Minister has to say on that. Can he give the House an assurance that he will move every mountain in government to work in particular with the charitable sector that supports veterans and their families as coronavirus becomes a bigger issue? More broadly, as we approach the integrated defence review, will he assure us that this pandemic will lead to a broader, more total defence concept of thinking, so that, unlike with the 2015 strategic defence and security review, pandemics are seen not to be low-risk but higher-risk, and we should have better preparedness for them?
As to the hon. Member’s point about the veterans community and keeping an eye on them, my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans is engaged with a whole range of those stakeholders on a daily basis. I cannot recommend enough the work he does in that area. Like him, I am a president of a Scots Guards association and, through that, keep an eye on some of the veterans in Lancashire who we have to cover that area. On the hon. Member’s broader point about coronavirus, we have lots of work to do. We will assess what we can deliver on the ground as we go, and I assure the House that we will leave no stone unturned in making sure we mitigate the impact on society, using all defence assets.
We are unstinting in our gratitude to the armed forces, who perform exceptional feats to protect this country. We rightly hold our service personnel to the highest standards of behaviour, but we also owe them justice and fairness. The Government will shortly introduce a legislative package to tackle vexatious claims and end the cycle of reinvestigations against our armed forces personnel and veterans.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer and welcome the introduction of the Bill to this place next week. The tabling of that legislation within 100 days of this new Parliament really does show the Government’s resolve to crack on and do the right thing. Will my right hon. Friend join me in asking the Opposition to put party politics to one side, support our troops and back this Bill?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the importance of protecting our troops from vexatious investigations that go round and round in a circle. To put this in context, there were more than 300,000 veterans who served in Northern Ireland, 147,000 in Iraq and 148,000 in Afghanistan. Of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, 0.03% were convicted of any offence while serving. That shows that our armed forces around the world observe the highest standards when doing their job and upholding the rule of law.
Bury, being the home town of the Lancashire Fusiliers, welcomes my right hon. Friend’s commitment to tackle vexatious prosecution of veterans. What guidance has been or will be given to the police and Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that our armed forces personnel are protected?
As a fellow Lancashire MP, I know the pride that Lancashire takes in its armed forces, and also the first-class men and women that the county contributes to our armed forces. Guidance to the police and Crown Prosecution Service is not a matter for the Ministry of Defence. However, I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Government are doing everything they can to provide our service personnel and veterans with the protections they deserve, and we will set out further details on Wednesday.
I look forward to the announcement on Wednesday, but will the Secretary of State confirm that his announcement will cover operations and issues that arise both internationally and domestically?
On Wednesday, we will introduce the Bill that deals with overseas operations. We will, however, accompany it with a statement from the Northern Ireland Office setting out what we will do to deal with the Northern Ireland veterans. They will be equal and similar to the protections we are going to look at for overseas.
Recruitment and Retention
I fear that to list all the steps we are taking to recruit and retain armed forces personnel might take longer than you will allow, Mr Speaker. Suffice it to say, however, that I can assure the House that this country will continue to have the world-class armed forces that it needs. There are a range of measures under way to improve recruitment and, crucially, retention, and those are kept constantly under review.
Carshalton and Wallington is home to 350 RAF Air Training Corps, and the cadets at the 350 Squadron are incredibly passionate about pushing themselves out of their comfort zone and achieving things that they did not think were possible. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that young people like those in the 350 Squadron see the value of the confidence, skills and experience that a role in the armed forces would provide?
I thank my hon. Friend for being such a champion of the air cadets, particularly in his constituency. All cadets learn many skills, but the cadet forces are not conduits into the armed forces. However, many cadets do go on to enjoy successful careers in the services, and long may that continue. As part of the cadets syllabus, we provide them with an awareness of the various career opportunities in the military and in other industries around defence.
Burnley has a long and proud tradition when it comes to service and recruitment into the armed forces. With that in mind, will the Minister agree to look at the viability of reopening the Burnley recruitment office, which was closed in 2013? That would make a valuable contribution to keeping Burnley’s tradition alive.
Armed forces career offices were reduced to increase efficiency and to reflect the modern society from which we are recruiting. Most recruiting activity occurs online, through chat facilities or through call centres, and it is vital that we maintain strong presences on social media and elsewhere on the internet, but we of course continually review the lay-down of our recruiting offices, and we will look again at the one in Burnley.
The Army Foundation College is located in my constituency. It provides a high-quality route into the Army for younger people, as it focuses on personal development and has a very well-respected education service. Does the Minister agree that the college plays an important role in Army recruitment and will continue to do so?
My hon. Friend is a champion for that fantastic college, and the Army is rightly very proud of it. The college provides an outstanding choice of qualifications and apprenticeships, as well as developing confidence, leadership skills and self-esteem. Whatever their background, young recruits become the Army’s future leaders, on average serving longer and providing more than half of our senior soldiers.
There have been problems with Capita in Army recruitment, so may I ask the Minister whether there are any plans for outsourcing recruitment for the RAF and the Navy?
Local authorities, the Ministry of Justice, the police and the Department of Health and Social Care all have the military mentioned in their contingency plans for tackling covid-19. Is the Minister satisfied that we have sufficient personnel to respond to the plans to tackle the virus here in the UK? If he is not, what plans does he have in place to bring military back from all non-essential operations overseas?
The Ministry of Defence plans for all things, whether it be for flooding or, indeed, for pandemic. We are planning for all eventualities in response to covid-19, and we are content that we have what we need within our resources to meet the likely requirements of the Government.
The proportion of all personnel reporting satisfaction with service life in general was 60% in 2010, but that has fallen to a mere 46% in 2019. Will the Minister set out what plans he has to rectify that, as we simply cannot afford to have more servicemen and women choosing to leave the forces because of a decline in satisfaction?
The hon. Gentleman raises a really important point. No matter what the successes in recruiting might be, without good retention performance, they are more than offset. To that end, we have been looking extensively at what we can do to improve retention, including through the excellent report recently written by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois).
As a long-term critic in this House of Crapita—sorry, Capita—I very much welcome the Minister’s emphatic answer that there are no plans to outsource royal naval or RAF recruitment. That is a wise decision. Will he bear in mind that, if we are to recruit and retain people in the armed forces, they must know that the Government will have their back if they ever get into trouble? Will the recently announced Bill on veterans protection fully reflect that principle?
The Army conducts annual assessments to ensure that it has the right equipment for the future. It is undergoing an ambitious capability transformation programme, including investing in new, fully digitised Ajax and Boxer vehicles.
If the range and capability of our battle tanks and armoured vehicles are inferior to that of our potential adversaries, it is difficult for our world-class armed forces to continue to operate in that sphere. Will the Minister assure the House that the Challenger 2 and Warrior programmes will be brought forward at the earliest possible opportunity, to ensure that our world-class troops have world-class equipment?
The hon. Gentleman is right: we need the very best equipment for our armed forces. As he is probably aware, the Army has no fewer than nine key projects for equipment modernisation, totalling some £17 billion over the next 10 years, and around 130 smaller projects. He mentions two in particular. On Challenger 2, we are well advanced through the assessment phase and will take decisions on that at a future date. On Warrior, we are on to the demonstration phase, which is going well, and we will be taking decisions in the future.
The recent National Audit Office report on the Government’s defence equipment plan showed that there is a potential funding shortfall of £13 billion, which will no doubt affect Army equipment as well as Navy and RAF equipment. Given that this is now the third time that the NAO has deemed the plan unaffordable, when will the Minister get to grips with this funding crisis?
We are getting to grips with it right now. We are grateful to the NAO for its work. I gently point out to the hon. Lady that the Department hit budget this year, last year and the year before. We constantly review budgets to make certain that the equipment plan is affordable. We have shrunk the gap significantly, and we had additional assistance from the Treasury last year. We will make certain that we are meeting the needs of the armed forces.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but we know that the Army has cancelled various anti-armour projects and reduced the number of tanks it will upgrade. There have also been recent reports suggesting that the Army is to face further cuts in the integrated review. Can the Minister guarantee that the review will not be yet another cost-cutting exercise, leaving our armed forces short of the equipment that we need to defend the country?
The integrated review is under way; it is nowhere near to bringing itself to any conclusions yet. The review looks at the totality of our place in the world, as the hon. Lady recognises, and how we operate as a country across the broadest spectrum. It is not a review designed to cut costs. It is a review designed to ensure that we know what we are doing in the world and that that is effected through really effective equipment—that is the purpose of the integrated review, and we look forward to its response.
May I ask Ministers to extend the gratitude of the Defence Committee for our visit to Army HQ in Andover on Thursday? It was an illuminating visit, and the issue of Warrior and Challenger—now two decades old—came up. The Minister mentioned the integrated review. Given what we learned and the fantastic efforts that are being made to support the nation in tackling the coronavirus, may I invite the Secretary of State and the Minister to delay the integrated review until the new year, to ensure that we do it properly, rather than rush it when the focus is elsewhere at the moment?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and to his Defence Committee for their work. The integrated review is important: it is important that we get on to it and move on with it at pace. We need to take firm decisions, and the swifter the better. However, as ever, we are mindful of events, and such things will obviously be taken into consideration if they need to be.
I thank the Minister of State for his recent visit to Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land at BAE Systems in my constituency, following the award of part of the Boxer contract to that consortium. On the issue of Challenger 2 and the life extension project, does the Minister of State think that Shropshire defence manufacturing will feature in his decision making, and will the decision-making maingate still be this autumn?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It was a great pleasure to visit his constituency and see at first hand the extraordinary skills in that constituency, and it was a great pleasure to meet many apprentices. As I said earlier about Challenger 2, we are in the assessment phase, and a decision on any next steps will be taken at a later date. I thank my hon. Friend for the question and the interest he always shows in the defence manufacturers in his constituency.
Service families are an integral part of the armed forces community. Our support for them includes children’s education, mental wellbeing, partner employment assistance and improved accommodation. Following the independent review by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), we will refresh the UK armed forces families strategy for 2020. The aim is to raise the profile of service families and the issues they face resulting from service life.
Some 48% of those responding to a survey from the Army Families Foundation said they had received no information about the MOD’s future accommodation model. Will the Minister commit to doing much more to make sure that personnel and their families are aware of changes to their accommodation?
The hon. Member is right to raise the challenge of the future accommodation model, or FAM. This is the future for military accommodation in this country, but we have a job of work to do to make sure people understand exactly what it is and, crucially, what it is not. That piece of work is ongoing in the Department at this time.
Recent reports have again demonstrated the difficulties that our Commonwealth personnel have had in dealing with the Home Office, particularly with respect to bringing their families to the UK. Will Ministers now make the case to their colleagues in the Home Office to exempt Commonwealth personnel—as I am sure the Minister would agree, they serve our country with duty and distinction—from the minimum income requirements that prevent them from bringing their spouses or partners and children here.
The Department is not going to start doing so, because this work started two years ago. This work is to alleviate the stresses, particularly the financial implications, for some of our Commonwealth individuals. I pay tribute to them: they add to our organisation in spades. We need to do more to make sure that they feel we treasure them, as we do. Conversations are ongoing with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) who is responsible for immigration; I met him again only last week. We are absolutely determined to meet this challenge—whether about the minimum income requirement or about visas—and I will have further details in due course.
Many families of Northern Ireland veterans are rightly concerned about the treatment of their loved ones, with the ongoing witch hunt against our former service people. Will the Minister confirm to the House that, in the forthcoming legislation, Northern Ireland veterans will take the highest priority because of their age and the imminence of any potential prosecutions?
Let me be absolutely clear with my hon. Friend: in line with our commitment, we are bringing in legislation within 100 days to start ending the process of vexatious claims and the cycle of investigations against our troops. As the Secretary of State has laid out, that will be accompanied by a written statement on Wednesday, giving equivalent protections to those who served in Northern Ireland. As my hon. Friend well knows, Northern Ireland issues are for Stormont House, but in this Government we are clear that lawfare is coming to an end, and that extends to those who have served in Northern Ireland.
One great support for armed forces families is the accommodation they live in. In Carterton, we have some REEMA housing that requires renovation and some MOD brownfield sites that need developing, which some Ministers at least have seen. Will the Department work with me to see how we can get this renovation and reworking carried out?
Absolutely. Service housing is a real challenge, especially after taking over an antiquated estate, and the serious challenges in the budgets associated with that over many years. The future accommodation model will provide an answer for some, but the No.1 reason why people leave the military, and an area where retention is difficult, is still the impact of service life on their family. We are determined to tackle that, and I would be more than happy to go and visit with my hon. Friend.
The Government are doing more than any before to ensure that that difficult transition from service to civilian life is as seamless as possible. We must remember that 92% of service personnel who leave go into education, employment or training, but there are those who find that challenge particularly difficult. I met the chief executive of SSAFA last week, and I currently meet other chief executives and charity leaders on an almost weekly basis. The Government are shifting the bar in our offer to veterans in this country, and I pay tribute to SSAFA, which is at the front of that.
Will my hon. Friend meet me, and others, to discuss a badge to be worn by members of the immediate family of those killed in action?
My right hon. Friend will know that the immediate next of kin of those killed in action receive the Elizabeth Cross, which was introduced by the previous Administration. I am always willing to have conversations about medallic recognition, and to consider what more we can do, so that people in this country recognise that we match our actions with the words we say from the Dispatch Box, regarding the feelings of a service family who have been through that process, and often sacrificed the greatest on the altar of this nation’s continuing freedom.
Two weeks from the end of this recruiting year we are close to achieving 100% of the basic training starts that the Army set out to achieve. That reflects the much needed efforts made to drive improvements in the recruitment process.
When Labour left office in 2010 there were 102,000 regulars in the British Army. In the subsequent decade of cuts and outsourcing, those numbers have fallen every year, down to 73,000 last October. Is the Minister confident that a full-time, regular British Army that could not fit into Wembley stadium a decade ago, but can now fit into the Old Trafford stadium, is sufficient to meet this country’s security needs?
Army recruitment this year is up 68.6% on last year, which demonstrates what a fantastic career our young men and women can still have in the Army. I am confident that the Army is more than capable of meeting the nation’s needs, and I am excited to see what comes out of the integrated review, regarding what our Army will look like in future.
Will the Minister join me in congratulating Yasmin Williams from Bangor on being the first female in the Welsh Guards Infantry? Will he suggest ways that the Army can meet its female recruitment target, and encourage other women, like me in my younger days, to take up that amazing career?
My hon. Friend is a fantastic advocate for women in the armed forces, and I was pleased—as I am sure she was—to see so many fantastic female role models being put forward by the Army, Navy and Air Force, as part of our defence celebrations on International Women’s day. There have been some fantastic successes for women in our armed forces recently. My hon. Friend mentioned the first female soldier in the Welsh Guards, and recently we had the first female to pass the incredibly tough—far tougher than I could have done—P-company test for the Parachute Regiment.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), is the Royal Army Medical Corps—both regular and reserves—and other parts of the armed forces, fully recruited to deal with the coronavirus outbreak? Will the Minister be calling into full-time reserve service all those who are not NHS workers, for example, in their civilian careers?
The hon. Gentleman asked me two questions. He asked whether we are recruited sufficiently in defence to meet the needs of coronavirus, and the answer to that is yes. I will write to him about what exactly will be the manning of the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Mental Health Support
The Ministry of Defence and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs recognise that maintaining good mental health and providing treatment when required is fundamental to maintaining a fit, healthy and effective military force.
Mental health problems can place a great strain on family relationships. There are fantastic organisations across the country, such as the Keighley armed forces and veterans breakfast club, that provide service personnel, veterans and their families with the opportunity to meet and talk on a regular basis. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that mental health support—particularly support to keep military families together—extends to service personnel families?
There is a range of help available, particularly for our service families. I am aware that a lot of the debate at the moment is about veterans, but our service families absolutely are on that level; indeed, the armed forces covenant talks about this nation’s debt to her armed forces and their families. The armed forces breakfast clubs are a fantastic idea. I went to the one in Plymouth a week ago, and I commend them for their work. There are lots of organisations out there in different parts of the country; the Office for Veterans’ Affairs brings them all together so veterans know where they and their families can turn at a time of need.
Young Offenders and Vulnerable People: Rehabilitation
The armed forces offer an exciting and fulfilling career, including to people from disadvantaged backgrounds and to young offenders who have completed their sentences. Outreach and engagement programmes include initiatives with young offender institutions to develop confidence and aspiration; the expansion of the combined cadet force, focusing on state schools; and enabling service personnel to volunteer with the Prince’s Trust to work with the most disadvantaged in our society.
The Army’s youth rehabilitation programme does good work in the Windsor constituency and across the country. Sadly, however, it is sometimes unable to help recently released offenders due to the lengthy rehabilitation periods imposed. It would be great to see many more young people who would benefit the most from military youth engagement take part, so may I ask the Minister gently whether he will look again at reviewing the current policy?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this excellent programme that the Army offers. While on licence, offenders remain subject to automatic custody recall for failing to meet licence conditions or committing any arrestable offence and therefore cannot be recruited, as I am sure he appreciates. However, he asks me about a fantastic thing. The Army, Navy and Air Force are brilliant vehicles for social mobility, and I am sure we would be keen to expand that programme in any way we can.
The Ministry of Defence is fully committed to its part in supporting the successful delivery of the Government’s ambition for the integrated review. The review is working on four main workstreams: the Euro-Atlantic alliance, great power competition, global issues and homeland security. Work in the MOD to support those workstreams has been ongoing since the election and is closely linked to this year’s comprehensive spending review.
I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that current events reflect the need for the integrated review, to ensure that Britain plays its part on the global stage with our partners and in the spirit of international co-operation, but does he think it is feasible to conduct a review that is expected to result in the biggest reform of our armed forces since the cold war in the present climate and over the current timescale?
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. The review’s stakeholders are the Foreign Office, No. 10, the Cabinet Office and ourselves. We will regularly review that decision. There is no ideological block or determination to carry on come what may. With this coronavirus growing, if it is the right thing to do, we will absolutely pause the review if necessary; if not, we shall move forward.
With cyber-security recognised as a tier 1 threat, it is important to ensure that all contracts outsourced by the MOD, whether defence procurement or service contracts, fully meet the necessary cyber-security provisions. Given reports suggesting that the cyber-security standards of some defence supply chains are low, what steps are Ministers taking to improve the situation as part of the integrated review?
The hon. Gentleman highlights a critical part of our cyber infrastructure. That is why nearly two years ago we founded the National Cyber Security Centre to work alongside the MOD, business and other parts of Government to focus, exactly as he recommends, on the weak points that are often exploited by hostile states and cyber-criminals. We are one of the few countries with such an organisation and I am confident that we are on the right track. We work tirelessly to ensure that those vulnerabilities are patched and stopped, and indeed that prime contractors, who own the supply chain, take their fair share of responsibility too.
If the integrated review comes to the conclusion, which it certainly should, that the defence part of the review requires more than 2% of GDP to be spent on conventional and related armed forces, will the Secretary of State and his team fight like tigers to ensure we get the extra money?
I could not agree more. I will absolutely fight for the right share, which is why we achieved 2.6% in the short spending review only last year, one of the highest departmental growth figures. The review is not cost neutral. Like my right hon. Friend, I have seen review after review, some of which are wonderfully authored but seldom funded, including one of the best reviews of my lifetime, the 1998 review by the then Member for Hamilton, Lord Robertson. He did an extremely good review and even that, according to the House of Commons Library, was not properly funded in the end. That is one of the big problems we are determined to try to put right.
In light of travel bans across the world, with increasing numbers of British citizens stranded and reports of limited support from the Foreign Office, will the military be deployed to help people to return home?
We have deployed military personnel on a number of return flights, for example from Wuhan. We have always made our assets available where possible, subject to medical advice and where the destination country is willing to engage. We always stand ready to help our citizens, wherever they are around the world. It is really important, however, that in this outbreak we ensure that we balance medical advice with an individual’s desire to come home. It may be that they are best suited to being treated where they are.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the strategic defence and security review will be aligned to a defence industrial strategy that places British manufacturing at the heart of defence?
It will certainly place prosperity and manufacturing at its heart. It will also place at its heart our very real obligation to give the men and women of the armed forces the best equipment we can, so they can fight with the best chance of success. There is always a natural tension where we are not providing that. The industrial strategy will hopefully indicate to industry where it should invest to ensure it competes with a competitive edge, so that the Ministry of Defence can buy from it for our men and women.
We aim to attract talent from the widest possible base across the UK, regardless of socio-economic background, educational status or ethnicity. The skills, education, training and experience provided enable recruits to progress as far as their aptitude will take them, and benefit from promotion based on merit.
New data reveals that there are nearly as many cadet forces in fee-paying schools as in the entire state system, despite just 7% of the UK population being privately educated. To ensure greater social mobility in our forces, will the Minister tell the House what his Department is doing to increase the number of combined cadet forces in state schools?
The Government are committed to establishing 500 new cadet forces across the country, with a big focus on state schools. We are absolutely clear that people’s socioeconomic background has absolutely zero to do with their opportunity to serve. The opportunities of service are there for everybody.
Armed Forces Capability
The Ministry of Defence has rigorous processes to assure, test and develop our capabilities to keep our country safe. This will be looked at again as part of a thorough wide-ranging analysis through the integrated review.
There is no doubt that space will play an increasingly important role in defence. In Cornwall, we are excited about that opportunity, because we will soon be launching satellites from Spaceport Cornwall. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the space domain will fully be a part of the integrated review?
We have established a space directorate, which is tasked with how to advance opportunities for the UK commercial space sector. I absolutely assure my hon. Friend that space and its potential will form a part of the integrated review.
Over the past decade, £430 million has been spent on the Army’s Warrior programme upgrade. Despite that, it is still only at the demonstration phase. Can the Minister indicate when a contract will be let? And will that contract be let only when the battlefield assessment phase is complete?
The right hon. Gentleman is right that there has been a long period—nine years—of assessment and demonstration of the Warrior programme. It is important that it is looked at and that we have the right kit to take the Warrior through to 2040 and perhaps beyond. I confirm that we are at the demonstration phase. Any future steps will be taken at the conclusion of that phase.
Can the Minister reassure hon. Members and tell us what steps he will take to ensure that the continuous at-sea deterrent continues to function during the covid-19 outbreak?
That is a perfectly reasonable question, but it will become familiar to my hon. Friend that we do not comment on CASD in this place. I thank him for his interest.
Ciaran Martin, head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, confirmed recently that Russian hackers attacked British media, telecoms and energy companies. The Royal United Services Institute has confirmed that the UK will not be able to replicate many of the security benefits of EU membership. Will the Minister give the House an assessment of the capacity we are losing by leaving the EU and outline the Government’s costed proposals for how the UK can unilaterally develop that capacity?
We have world-leading capabilities in cyber. I am comfortable and confident that, as part of the integrated review, we will put in place strong plans to further strengthen that work. In my contact with my European Union defence counterparts across the EU to date, they have been extremely keen to continue to work closely with the United Kingdom as sovereign equals. After all, we are the biggest spender on defence in western Europe, as the hon. Lady is aware.
The UK Government are working with the devolved Administrations, the World Health Organisation and international partners to keep the UK safe against the outbreak of covid-19. The men and women of our armed forces are deeply professional and always work to tackle threats to our security wherever they may be. This situation is no different. We stand ready to work with other Government Departments, secure in the knowledge that our armed forces bring calmness and resilience to any task. Meanwhile, the delivery of key operations and outputs will continue to be maintained.
Members across the House take huge pride in the people in their constituency who join our armed forces, but would it not give greater focus to our pride if figures were published regularly to show how many from each constituency join each year? Will the Secretary of State see if such statistics can be provided, so that the people of Chesterfield can take pride in the number of people from there who join our armed forces each year?
I would be delighted to try to get that important data to hon. Members. I would also like to try to get the data on how many people are leaving our armed forces and going back into our constituencies. As president of an association, I know how hard it is to get in touch with soldiers from my regiment to make sure that they get the assistance they deserve. I take the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, which I worked on for years but which was always blocked by data protection. Now I am the Secretary of State for Defence, I would be delighted to try to deliver it for him.
My hon. Friend is right. Martin-Baker produces the ejector seats for our F-35s that fly off HMS Queen Elizabeth. Diary permitting, I would be delighted to join her.
This weekend there has been widespread concern about the Government’s communication strategy on the coronavirus pandemic, including a number of anonymous briefings to the media, such as one on the role of the Army. As well as providing more detail about Operation Broadshare, can the Secretary of State explain reports that the Government are working on the assumption that at least 20% of personnel will contract the virus? What arrangements are in place to mitigate any impact that that may have on operations?
The hon. Lady raises an important point about media stories, some of which are entirely fictional. There is no Operation Hades, contrary to one report. There are absolutely no plans to send military personnel to guard supermarkets. However, despite our trying to clarify that with the media, there is still an intention in some parts of the media to continue to write these stories; indeed, there is some suspicion about where some of these stories are developed.
Of course we have made all sorts of assumptions that reflect, first, infection rates in the general population and, secondly, the unique aspects of the armed forces’ working life. We will make sure that we look after our armed forces and continue operationally.
This Government are doing more than any before in this area. We have set up the UK’s first Office for Veterans’ Affairs; we were the last Five Eyes nation to do so. I am clear that in the nation’s offering to her veterans, good mental health provision is absolutely critical. Next month we will launch, jointly with the NHS, a through-life mental healthcare plan, which I am sure my hon. Friend will be interested in.
I am very clear on two points. One is that we will stop at nothing to understand what is the best mental healthcare treatment that we can provide to our veterans in this country; the other is that obviously the classification of substances remains with the Home Office, and there are no plans to change that at the moment.
This £330 million sonar and mast contract is indeed good news. It will secure or create highly skilled jobs in Thales in Scotland, Greater Manchester and Somerset—and 30, I am delighted to say, in the constituency of my hon. Friend and neighbour in Crawley.
I thank the hon. Lady for her very important question. Clearly, we are watching Government advice closely, and it will be taken into account when considering how to proceed with those commemorations.
My hon. Friend has in the past raised this company, its work and particularly its apprenticeships with me. Diary permitting, I would be very pleased to visit it with him.
If companies such as David Brown are to be sustained, they need orders, as does the shipbuilding industry. Once again I ask whether we can start behaving like every other country. Will the Minister tell us from the Dispatch Box when he will start the fleet solid support vessels programme again, and tell us that these ships will be built in British yards?
The right hon. Member is a proper champion for British shipbuilding. After we ceased the competition, because it was delinquent the first time round, I have re-examined many of the terms and conditions of the contract, so he should watch this space.
On the subject of social mobility, you and I know, Mr Speaker, that the Royal Marines ensures that training includes not only officers but enlisted men, together. I think it is the only organisation in NATO which does that. Is there a lesson to be learned, and should other branches of the armed forces also engage in combined training?
I thank my hon. Friend for his interest in this important matter. Every service establishment where we conduct training is a mixture of enlisted men and women and commissioned ranks. We are always seeking to do more, although the division between the two is not a struggle that we persistently see.
Like the Minister, I attend our local armed forces breakfast clubs. One veteran there told me recently that he barely survives on benefit of £5 per week. Is the Minister not ashamed that those who have sacrificed so much are afforded so little by the Government?
I shall be more than happy to meet the hon. Member and speak to her about this case. I find it hard to understand why an individual would be receiving £5 a week, but if that is indeed so, I am of course prepared to look into it. We are determined that this should be the best country on earth in which to be a veteran.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the world-class military training at RAF Valley in my constituency, which prepares our fighter pilots for mountain and maritime operations throughout the world?
As my hon. Friend knows, she and I share a love of Anglesey and, indeed, RAF Valley, which is at the forefront of the training of our next generation of pilots. The priority that I have given the Chief of the Air Staff is to ensure that that operation is delivering on time and on target. As we know from the National Audit Office, it has a bad track record, having left a glut of some 250 pilots stuck in the system. However, I am pleased to report that that is improving, and I hope to have some better news in the future.
What additional support can be given to vulnerable veterans who are forced to self-isolate?
The Government are very clear about the fact that all possible help will be given to those who are self-isolating. A number of measures were released in the Budget last week, and there will be more in due course. We all have a duty to the most vulnerable in this country. However, I do not accept that that constitutes a large proportion of veterans, the vast majority of whom are greatly enhanced by their service.
The coronavirus will test the nation in ways that we have not seen since the war. I think that it is about when, not if, the armed forces will be mobilised. We know that they will rise to the occasion to help other Departments, but the threats that are there today will continue to exist. Will the Minister ensure that we do not drop our guard so that those who mean us harm do not take advantage while we are distracted by the coronavirus?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the main task of Defence, which is defending the nation. Only this morning I held meetings with senior officials and military personnel to ensure that both our routine and our units were in place to deliver, first and foremost, the priority of defending the nation. When we see changes, they will be in areas such as exercising and non-essential travel, so that we can ensure that the personnel concerned are there to support the rest of the country when it comes to the coronavirus.
In my constituency we have a number of veterans with mental health issues who find it very difficult to gain access to GPs who are equipped to deal with veterans’ mental health. What measures does the Minister suggest should be taken to ensure that GPs are equipped to do that?
I pay tribute to the work done by Dr Jonathan Leach with the Department. He has doggedly gone around making sure that our GP surgeries are veteran-friendly, and I plan to audit them to ensure that when a veteran does engage with those services, he is treated as I would want him to be. However, there is still work to be done. I shall be launching a veterans’ mental health programme in April, which will highlight clearly where veterans can gain access to state mental health care.
What future is envisaged for Team Tempest and the combat air strategy in the defence and security review?
As my hon. Friend knows, the future of air combat, on which we have published a review, is an incredibly important aspect of our future defence, but I will not speculate on individual aspects of the integrated review, because it would be inappropriate to do so. We should be looking at the whole process of defence, and all the capabilities that we need to keep ourselves and our allies safe in the future.
Her Majesty’s armed forces owe a huge debt of gratitude to Commonwealth citizens. On the issue of right to remain, can I ask the Minister what new protocols will be put in place between the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office?
Last week I met the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who is the immigration Minister, and I am absolutely determined to make sure that there are specialist teams—for example, there was an NHS cell in the Home Office that dealt with UK Visas and Immigration, and I am looking at measures to try to replicate that. We have made it clear that if those who have served their nation are entitled to remain we will facilitate that process.
May I ask my hon. Friend, in relation to social mobility and the British Army, how many serving officers went to a state school, and what we are doing to increase that proportion?
I recognise the question, but this simply is not the issue that it perhaps was 20 or 30 years ago. We have far more people from state schools going to Sandhurst and other military establishments. I am cognisant of the fact that we can always do more, but we have some extraordinary social mobility stories that I am more than happy to share with my hon. Friend. We are absolutely committed, regardless of someone’s socioeconomic background, ethnicity or anything like that, and the armed forces are perhaps the greatest exponent of social mobility in this country.
Given that the Government are on track to deal with the hounding of our veterans within 100 days of taking office, how many days will it take to produce an ex gratia plan for the compensation of the estimated 265 war widows who lost their pension on remarriage or cohabitation?
I have met my right hon. Friend a number of times to discuss this issue. Indeed, I have met the war widows groups. The Secretary of State made a statement to the House, and we continue to look at schemes on how we can help those who have lost their husband or wife in the service of this nation. We have made it clear that we owe them a debt of gratitude, and we will look to set up some sort of fund or payment that will rightly recognise their sacrifice for the nation.
Assaults on Retail Workers (Offences)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make certain offences, including malicious wounding, grievous or actual bodily harm and common assault, aggravated when perpetrated against a retail worker in the course of their employment; to make provision about the sentencing of persons convicted of such aggravated offences; and for connected purposes.
I bring in this Bill at a time of significant national importance. It is a change from the main subject for this week and coming weeks, but pertinent in the light of the significance that retail workers have in our lives and will continue to have in that period.
I would like to start by giving voice to Phillip, a Co-op staff member who had this to say about his experience of violence at work:
“I was hospitalised for over a week with broken ribs and a collapsed lung after being kicked to near death by three shoplifters who stole a £10 bottle of spirits, on another occasion a shoplifter clearly high on drugs had a medieval mace on a chain and was swinging it around attacking myself and a colleague, it struck my colleague’s face and ripped apart her cheek, tore off her nose and damaged her eye so much she lost sight in that eye, she never returned to work.”
There are people like Phillip and his colleague in frontline retail work the length and breadth of the country. That is what today’s Bill is about: the 3 million people who serve us day in, day out. It is about those shopworkers because they are quite literally under attack every single day.
Experience of abuse, threats and violence can have long-term effects on the physical and mental wellbeing of shop workers. That worry is exacerbated by the increasing use of weapons, especially knives, to threaten staff. If those were isolated, random acts of violence, they would rightly command our attention, but they are not: shopworkers and those across the retail sector face a daily barrage of threats, attacks and peril in all our constituencies, every single day. One such attack took place in a Co-op store in my constituency in January, in which Matt was subject to a terrifying and horrific attack. It is a massive relief that no one was permanently injured and that the perpetrator has now been jailed for three years.
The British Retail Consortium’s most recent annual crime survey, published at the start of the month, shines a light on the staggering scale of the situation, which is growing rather than diminishing. The survey shows over 400 incidents of violence or abuse against retail staff every day—a 9% increase on last year, despite a record £1.2 billion being spent by the industry on preventive measures. In Co-op stores alone across the UK, there has been a 420% increase in violent incidents and an astonishing 3,000% rise in abuse since 2017. We all know the retail industry plays an invaluable role in our country’s economy, contributing £96 billion annually and employing more than 3 million people. Retailers and their staff are a cornerstone of our local communities, yet every day hundreds of retail workers are suffering shocking abuse at work.
Despite the exponential rise in violence, we are seeing an ever-decreasing response from our police forces, so stretched by 10 years of cuts, especially to neighbourhood policing teams. The National Federation of Retail Newsagents highlighted that, drawing on the answer given to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) by the Ministry of Justice that showed that the percentage of shop thefts being dealt with by the justice system stands at 13%—barely one in eight incidents—down from 36% a decade ago. That is why for the second time in 18 months, I am putting before the House legislation to ensure that shop workers across the UK are afforded the protection they need and deserve.
As I do so, I feel well supported. Dozens of hon. Members offered to sponsor my Bill, and I have no doubt that I will lose friends in various parties by only being able to pick 11. A Member representing every single party in this place offered to be part of it. Special mention should go to my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) and for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) for their efforts already in this Session, as well as to David Hanson, who led our parliamentary charge in the previous Session. I follow him on this issue and, hopefully, in his style. David always focuses on critical issues, builds a broad base of support for his campaigns, and handles everything with class and grace—a model for us all.
What we need is legislation tailored to protect our shop workers and robust enough to deter those who would threaten them in their place of work. The Bill would introduce just that. Attacking a retail worker should be classified as an aggravated assault, and those convicted must face tougher penalties and increased sentences. That would send a clear message to perpetrators or would-be perpetrators that such acts will not be tolerated and that the punishment will fit the crime. The Bill would also send a clear message to retail workers that the Government and the law are on their side, providing them with better protections and ensuring justice for duty.
There are two key reasons why I am presenting this Bill. The first is the point of principle: I believe that when this House lays specific obligations to uphold or implement the law on a specific group of people, we should provide additional protection. We are familiar with the additional protection rightly given to our police officers, but hon. Members may be less aware that in 2005 additional protections, in the form of discrete offences, were extended to officials in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in section 31 of the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005. I think the same should apply to shop workers, because we in this place ask them to restrict sales of dozens of potentially dangerous products, particularly on the ground of age.
Those of us who have worked in retail know how difficult it can be to challenge individuals. Perhaps we remember when we were about the age of majority, meeting people from our school trying to buy something from the shop. No doubt we have all heard from constituents about how that moment of challenge is causing violent incidents in our shops. If we continue to expect shop workers to implement the law, and if we continue to put more burdens on them—no doubt we will—we should, as a point of principle, afford them additional protection when carrying out what are, in that moment, public duties. We ask that they do certain things; we should show them that we have their back when we do.
Secondly, often legislation can signal what the country believes is and is not acceptable and can reset our societal norms. A reset is clearly needed around violence and abuse in the retail sector, and we need to send a clear message that it is not part of any shop worker’s job to suffer abuse and violence. We must ask ourselves as legislators whether the experience of this shop worker is one we can accept:
“I heard a commotion and lots of shouting at the front of the store. When I went to investigate, I found a male who I had previously excluded from the store for shoplifting. He had run in and started kicking all the stock off the shelves. He was screaming and shouting, “What are you going to do now you fat bastard!”
The account continues:
“he then tried to grab me by the throat. I tried to block his arm and with the help of a customer he was removed from the store. He was threatening to come back and see me at the end of my shift at 10 pm.”
That shop worker has carried that experience of physical and mental abuse with them ever since.
I believe that putting in place new legislation to make certain offences aggravated offences can be the beginning of real change in the experience of shop workers, so that they feel properly cared for. As I say, we have a responsibility in this regard. Of course, new legislation would not function in isolation. Businesses have to continue to invest in protecting their employees because the primary responsibility for keeping shop workers safe when at work lies with those businesses. The work of the Association of Convenience Stores to support its members is worthy of great praise, but businesses, the likes of the Co-op or Boots, are making investments in their stores to keep their workers safe. That is welcome, but it must be continued. Equally, the resources need to be made available to the police and to the wider criminal justice system to implement new legislation such as this, and at the moment that is not happening.
In closing, what has struck me most powerfully while I have been working on this issue is that, whether it is businesses or unions, colleagues or management, big stores or local corner shops, everyone is united in their call for action. I have found exactly the same unity across party lines while gathering support from my colleagues. I was delighted when the Prime Minister committed in this Chamber to meet me and a number of affected shop workers, although I understand that that meeting will be delayed now. Next week, I am meeting the Minister for Crime and Policing, who I am glad to see in his place, to take the case further. I hope that today this House answers the call positively and that, in time, the Government will follow our lead.
Question put and agreed to.
That Alex Norris, Chris Elmore, Grahame Morris, Gareth Thomas, Alison Thewliss, Louise Haigh, Jessica Morden, Jeff Smith, Preet Kaur Gill, Jim McMahon, Mr William Wragg and Philip Davies present the Bill.
Alex Norris accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 April, and to be printed (Bill 112).
Ways and Means
Income tax (charge)
Debate resumed (Order, 12 March).
Question again proposed,
That income tax is charged for the tax year 2020-21.
And it is declared that it is expedient in the public interest that this Resolution should have statutory effect under the provisions of the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act 1968.
Before we welcome Ed Argar back to the Dispatch Box, I would just like to point out that when the three Front-Bench speeches have finished, we will be immediately instituting a seven-minute limit on speeches.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is currently at a Cobra meeting, determining the next stage of the Government response to the coronavirus. He therefore apologises for the fact that he is unable to open this debate. With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, he will be making a statement to the House a little later this afternoon. That will provide right hon. and hon. Members with the opportunity to question him on the latest position, so I urge colleagues to pause any specific questions related to coronavirus until that statement, when they will have the latest information.
May I also say that it is a pleasure to be back after last week’s precautionary self-isolation, following contact with a confirmed case and on Public Health England advice? It has subsequently advised me that, as I am symptom-free, I can return. Let me put on the record my thanks to PHE for the work it is doing for everyone at the moment, and to hon. Members and constituents for their kind words last week.
Coronavirus is the most serious public health challenge that our country has faced in a generation. Our goal is to protect life and to protect our NHS. Last week’s Budget showed that we will rise to that challenge. Under the plans laid out by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, workers will have a strong safety net to fall back on if they fall sick, businesses will get financial help to stay in business, and the NHS will get whatever resources it needs. All in all, the Chancellor announced last week a total of £30 billion of investment in the financial health of the nation.
Many of those measures are extremely welcome, but is it not becoming clear that the economic impact of coronavirus is perhaps even greater than was anticipated, even last week? Perhaps now is the time to consider a temporary universal basic income for people who work as freelancers or who are self-employed, for the duration of the crisis.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I believe that the package announced last week is the right package, at this time, to meet the challenges posed by this situation. Without necessarily referring to the hon. Gentleman’s particular proposal, I note that the Chancellor continues to keep all interventions under review as the situation develops. At the moment, what was proposed last week remains the right approach.
I underline my support for the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan). The Minister asked us to wait to question the Secretary of State later, but I have a specific question about personal protective equipment. I am hearing a lot of concerns—shared throughout the country—about care homes, and particularly those involved in domiciliary care, as well as about some of the differentials between what is going on in private care homes and in public sector care homes. How is the Minister going to make sure that, working with the devolved Administrations, people throughout the whole UK get the PPE that they need, particularly in the care sector?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that, first, we are working across the four nations, because the situation needs an entire-United Kingdom response, and secondly, we are working extremely hard to ensure that all those who are on the frontline looking after people and keeping them safe get the protective equipment that they need. I suspect the Secretary of State will say a little more about that later this afternoon.
Will the Government look again at the issue of the hospitality, travel and leisure industries? Some of those businesses are losing not just 10% or 20%, as they might in a normal recession, but the bulk of their revenue. Do they not need some revenue-sharing with the Government? Could we have a scheme like the German one to keep workers in work for a bit when they have a major loss of demand? I have declared my interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—they are not in this particular sector.
My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the challenges for particular sectors that are posed by what is currently happening, and he is right to mention the hotel and hospitality trade. Alongside the measures set out by the Chancellor last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport continues to have discussions, not only within his Department and across Government but with the sector, about what can be done to ensure that it gets the appropriate support that it needs as a sector.
Just to follow up on that point, I have several cases of businesses coming to me and saying that their business-interruption cover is not being recognised by their insurance companies because coronavirus was not a notifiable disease at the time. If the insurance industry takes that attitude nationwide, many businesses—not only in tourism and hospitality—are going to go to the wall, and my constituents on the Isle of Wight will be especially badly hit.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Treasury, my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury and others are in conversations with the industry more broadly—I believe that more conversations are set to occur tomorrow—to ensure that businesses get the support that they need and are treated in a fair way.
Our investment in the financial health of the nation includes £40 million for literal vaccines, research and testing, because we base our decisions on the bedrock of the science. This national response is made possible because of our careful stewardship of the British economy over the past 10 years—because record numbers of businesses are making, selling and hiring; because millions more people are in work, earning and paying taxes; and because we have backed the NHS with a record long-term funding settlement.
This is a national effort and we will get through this together, as the Prime Minister has said. In Government, we will do the right thing at the right time, working through each stage of our coronavirus action plan guided by the science and the advice of our medical and scientific experts. We will stop at nothing to defeat the disease, but we will succeed only if everyone does their bit: washing their hands regularly; self-isolating for seven days if they have symptoms, such as a new, continuous, persistent cough or a high temperature; and looking out for their neighbours. In that spirit, may I thank the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), my constituency neighbour, and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for the constructive approach that they have taken since the start of the outbreak? They are doing their bit. They are good and decent people and public servants, and their approach is a prime example of how we can work together during this crisis.
One question I am getting from constituents who already have medical conditions is to do with their worry over any interruption to their supply of medicine and their treatment. What reassurances can the Government give to people with epilepsy, for example, that they are still going to get the medication that they need?
The NHS has robust procedures in place to ensure the continuity of medical supplies. In respect of supplies bought over the counter, I urge people not to stockpile, to behave responsibly and to buy what they need. In respect of prescription medicines, I can reassure the hon. Lady that we have very strong and robust processes in place to ensure that those medicines continue to be available.
I wonder whether we could consider the language that we are using around the at-risk groups of people. Very few people will self-define as vulnerable or elderly, and, in fact, people with underlying health conditions might not even realise that they are particularly at risk of infection. Can we think about the language that we are using and specifically issue guidance to those groups of people?
As ever, the hon. Lady makes a sensitive and sensible point. She is right that clarity in definitions and the language that is used is important. I do not want to pre-empt what my right hon. Friend may say in the House in a little while, but I think that she will see in the coming hours and days a greater degree of clarity for people and more information and guidance on that matter.
I will take one more intervention before I move on.
I thank the Minister for giving way. Clearly, we are very early into this, and we do not quite know what the business continuity impact will be or the financial impact on business. Do the Government have a framework by which they will operate and have discussions? For instance, when Virgin Atlantic comes forward and says that it needs financial support, what will be the framework of that support and what might the Government want in return for that investment?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which, almost to a degree, goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) about giving people greater clarity and understanding of how things will work and in what way. Because the matters are fast evolving, as he says, they continue to be under review, but we will ensure that we work with industry—including both the example that he gives and others—to give the support that people need and that is most appropriate. Again, I hesitate to say this, but I caution slightly, as I did at the beginning, and say that if he waits until the Secretary of State’s statement, which I think is at half-past five, he may well get more details on that.
Coronavirus is the biggest challenge facing the NHS today. With clean hands and calm heads, we can help tackle it together, but, equally, we will not allow it to divert us from the long-term improvements that patients and staff rightly want to see. As the founders of the NHS knew better than anyone, we can fight the war while also planning for the peace.
Let me now turn to the measures in the Budget that will secure those long-term improvements. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor committed £6 billion of extra spending to support the NHS over the lifetime of this Parliament. That comes on top of our record long-term NHS funding settlement—£33.9 billion more over five years—which we have now enshrined in law. Most of the extra £6 billion will go towards delivering our flagship manifesto commitments. They include starting work on 40 new hospitals, 50,000 more nurses, and 50 million more appointments in primary care—more buildings, more people and more services. Let me take each in turn.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I can say quite honestly that it is an impressive list of capital spending commitments that he is giving us today. He will be aware that the Office for Budget Responsibility has based its longer term debt forecasts on the assumption that 20% of those capital promises will never actually happen. Does he accept that view from the Office for Budget Responsibility?
The Office for Budget Responsibility is independent of the Government and sets out its opinions as it sees fit. We are committed to the hospital building programme. If the hon. Gentleman waits a moment, I will come to the detail of that capital spending.
The Budget increases my Department’s capital budget by £1 billion in 2020-21. That will allow trusts to continue investing in vital refurbishment and maintenance. Of course, we are funding the start of work on 40 new hospitals and the 20 hospital upgrades that are already under way. The work to plan and design those 40 new hospitals has already begun.
Halton General Hospital campus—which, as the Minister knows, is part of Warrington and Halton Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust—has been turned down twice for capital funding for much needed refurbishment work. I plead once again for the Minister to ensure that it is prioritised; I am still waiting for a meeting with him.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. As ever, he is a vocal champion for his constituents and his hospital. I say very gently that recent events have slightly impacted on my ability to schedule as many meetings as I might wish, but I remain committed to meeting him and talking to him about that particular project.
We want the new hospitals to be fully equipped with the very best modern technology, with touch screens, not clipboards, and systems that talk to each other. We also want them to be fully integrated with other local NHS organisations. But this is just the start, and we will follow this work up with multi-year capital funding through the spending review to be announced later this year.
Is the Minister looking to divide up hospitals—new ones and, indeed, the existing ones—into coronavirus and non-coronavirus, with people wearing protective suits in coronavirus sections? China has been building a number of hospitals within weeks specifically to deal with this problem, so will the Minister refocus the programme he is outlining and bring it forward to address the coronavirus crisis?
I suspect that Chinese building regulations and similar are possibly a little different from the processes in this country when it comes to speed, but the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. These hospitals, though, will be built for the future of our country—for the next 10, 20 and 30 years. He alludes to an important point and one that I was touching on in my speech, which is that we should ensure that our new buildings are adaptable and can be adapted to the changing needs of medical emergencies and the long-term demographic trends in this country. On that front, yes, we are building hospitals that are fit for the future, whatever that future may throw at us. But the issue he is raising is perhaps a little more short term than the length of time it will take us to build some of these hospitals.
Let me turn to people—the 1.4 million-strong team who make up the most dedicated workforce in the world. What is the one thing most NHS staff would change if they could change one thing? What is the best present we could give our nation’s nurses? [Interruption.] I will not be led astray by the Opposition. The answer is more nurses—more nurses to share the burden of rising demand, and more nurses bringing their compassion and determination to their work in the NHS. Over the next five years, we will deliver 50,000 more nurses for our NHS. We will do so by retaining and returning existing NHS staff, and by recruiting more nurses from abroad, but crucially by attracting more young people into the profession in the first place. The Budget delivers that by providing new non-repayable maintenance grants for nursing students of at least £5,000 a year for every undergraduate and postgraduate nursing student on a pre-registration course at an English university, with more for students with childcare costs or in disciplines such as mental health where the need is greatest. More than 35,000 students are expected to benefit.
In the coming months, the British people will have even more reason than usual to give thanks to our nation’s nurses, and we will work to repay them by making the NHS the country’s best employer—more supportive, more inclusive and more concerned with the wellbeing of staff as well as patients, an NHS that cares for its carers. We will set out how in our landmark NHS people plan.
We will also tackle the taper problem in doctors’ pensions, which has caused too many senior doctors to turn down work that the NHS needs them to do. Thanks to action in the Budget and the work of the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, from April the taxable pay threshold will rise from £110,000 to £200,000. That will take up to 96% of GPs and up to 98% of NHS consultants out of the scope of the taper based on their NHS income. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for his work on delivering that.
Turning to staff in primary care, the Budget funds 6,000 more doctors and 6,000 more primary care professionals in general practice, on top of the 20,000 primary care professionals already announced. Why? It is because we want every NHS professional working at the very top of their skills register; because there are brilliant physios, pharmacists and healthcare assistants who can offer great treatment and advice for people seeking primary care; and because we can improve patient access to the NHS while freeing up GPs for those who need them most.
While we welcome the numbers of professionals in the range of clinical areas that the Minister has outlined, can he tell me the numbers in each of those clinical specialisms and say when they will be ready to start work? When will they be fully trained and where will they come from?
I set out in my remarks just now exactly where they would come from—from a variety of different sources. We have already seen, from the latest numbers for nurse recruitment, for example, many thousands more recruited in the last year. We are succeeding in delivering on our pledge, and we set out very clearly in our manifesto the timescales within which we would deliver.
That brings me to my third point—NHS services. I have said that I want the NHS to pursue two long-term policy goals to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is committed. They are five extra years of healthy life and increased public confidence in the service. The coronavirus outbreak demonstrates that we have to target both. It is an explicit goal of our policy not just to tackle the disease, but to maintain public confidence. We take the same approach more broadly in healthcare. We want people to live healthier for longer, and we want people to be confident that the NHS will always be there for them, that it will treat them with dignity and respect, and that it will feel like a service, not an impersonal system. We want people to know, for instance, that they can always see a primary care professional whenever they need to. The Budget funds our manifesto commitment to create an extra 50 million appointments a year in general practice.
I am grateful to the Minister for meeting me last week and very glad that I did not have to follow him into isolation. We had a good discussion last week and talked very much about those health inequalities and the necessity for more people to have more healthy years. I was grateful to him for being kind towards North Tees and Hartlepool and talking about a new hospital for Stockton. If there is a bit of capital to get that under way, I hope he will come up with it soon.
The hon. Gentleman and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) are both strong advocates for Stockton and for the hospital there. I very much enjoyed our discussion. I am glad that the self-isolation rules are such that the hon. Gentleman did not have to follow me into it, but I am very happy, as I said when we met, to pick up on that discussion further in the future.
We also want people to know that the NHS will treat them fairly in their hour of need. That is why we care about hospital parking. Thanks to this Budget, from next month we will start the roll-out of free hospital parking more broadly across our hospital estate for disabled people, frequent out-patient attenders, parents with sick children staying overnight and staff working night shifts, delivering on our manifesto commitment.
The hon. Lady tempts me a second time. How can I say no?
I thank the Minister; it is a very quick one. Can that list of those eligible for free parking also include any students on a placement at the hospital—for example, nursing students or occupational therapists?
The hon. Lady will know that the four categories I have just referred to are the four categories we explicitly referred to in the manifesto on which we were elected. As she knows, if she wants to write to me, I am always happy to receive and respond to letters from her on that issue.
The last measure I want to point to may have escaped notice last week, but it is an incredibly important part of putting the “service” into national health service. Too many people with autism or a learning disability are being treated as in-patients in mental health hospitals instead of being helped to live in their communities. In our manifesto, we committed to making it easier for them to be discharged from hospital. This Budget makes good on that commitment. It creates a new learning disability and autism community discharge grant that will be available to local authorities in England. That is new money and all local areas will receive a share of that funding.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. On that point concerning people with autism and learning disabilities in assessment and treatment units, can he advise on the arrangements that are being made during the coronavirus pandemic to ensure that those people currently in in-patient provision will not suffer additional isolation and further breaches of their human rights as a consequence of restrictions that might be put in place?
The hon. Lady makes an important point, which is that throughout this challenge that we face as a country, we must ensure that everyone is treated with dignity and receives the care and support that they deserve. I was about to say that I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have heard what she said, but given he is in Cobra, he might not. I will ensure that he does. I will mention the matter to him, and in the context of the future tranches of guidance that will be coming forward in future days, the hon. Lady may want to raise the issue with him specifically later.
Modern buildings, more staff, an NHS that continues to truly serve its patients and a national response to coronavirus—that is what the Budget delivers. We can tackle this emergency while putting in place the long-term improvements that NHS clinicians are asking us for. We can fight the war against coronavirus as a united country, but we can also build the peace. We will stop at nothing to protect life and to protect and invest in our NHS. I commend the Budget to the House.
I point out that the statement on coronavirus will now be coming at 6 pm.
First, I welcome the Minister back to his place after his period of self-isolation. I am sure that all parts of the House will agree that the current coronavirus crisis has demonstrated beyond all doubt just how important our public services are. We all know that this is a very serious time and that our constituents will be concerned. I know many are frightened by the way the crisis has escalated over the past week or so, so I start by sending our condolences to all those who have already lost a loved one including, sadly, one gentleman in my constituency. I also send our gratitude to those who are already working flat out to do their best to limit the impact of coronavirus, whether they are in the NHS, the rest of the public sector or the private and voluntary sectors, which are making a vital contribution as well.
As the Minister will know, we are supportive of the national effort to contain and delay the spread of the virus, and it would be irresponsible of us as an Opposition to make any attempt to exploit the pandemic for party political gain. I thank the Minister for his kind words in that respect. Equally, it would be irresponsible of us to ignore the concerns being raised by the public, the scientific community and the sector more widely. It is critical that we ask important questions on their behalf, especially when the limits of public service will be tested like they have never been tested before.
We know that many aspects of life will have to change or stop altogether, albeit temporarily, but it is hoped that accountability, transparency and the ability of Opposition parties to scrutinise Government decisions will continue. We are under no illusions that, at this time, our ability to do that comes with a particular responsibility, so I hope the House will understand that I will focus mainly on the challenges of the immediate crisis facing us and ask some of the many important questions that have been raised. I appreciate that there will be a statement later, and I will understand if the Minister refers some responses to that, but we will have slightly more time in this debate to discuss important concerns that have been raised with us by many in the country.
Let me turn to the Budget, as this is a financial debate. We have previously acknowledged the extra funding announced in the Budget for the NHS and social care as part of the covid-19 response. That is something we have long called for, but there remain unanswered questions about how that funding will be precisely allocated. Can the Minister tell us exactly how the extra funding will be allocated and what will happen once the money is depleted? The NHS said last week that it needs to scale up intensive care beds sevenfold. That new pot of money is going to run out at some point, and it will need topping up. Will another Budget be necessary then, and what will the process be for determining resources at that point?
While we welcome the extra funding, we are aware that it is in the context of the NHS already facing extreme pressure, as usually happens over a busy winter period. We know from the last NHS winter report two weeks ago that 80% of critical care beds were occupied and that 93% of general and acute beds were also occupied. We know that the proportion of people being seen within four hours at A&E is the lowest on record, and the target has not been met since July 2015—the best part of five years. We know that the number of people on waiting lists in England is the highest it has ever been—nearly 4.5 million people are on a waiting list for treatment—and the waiting list target has not been met for nearly four years. Sadly, some cancer targets have not been met for over six years.
Those figures should tell us that the NHS is already stretched to capacity and that we are not starting from the optimum position. But it also tells us why the Government’s strategy of delay is one that has to be supported. Even if we take at face value the Government’s insistence that they have provided enough NHS resources to deliver the commitments in the long-term plan, we must surely all accept that the covid-19 outbreak will lead to an increased demand on trusts, meaning that resources in the system will have to be reallocated. Should trusts be expending time and resources on working on control totals and end-of-year accounts at this precise moment?
Will beds from the private sector be made available to covid-19 patients, and at what cost? What will the process be for trusts that have particularly large outbreaks and increased demand? Is any audit being undertaken of disused hospitals or other public sector facilities that may be required at some point? For example, is there any way that the brand new Royal Liverpool Hospital building could be brought on stream more quickly? Are the Government sourcing more ventilators, and when can we expect to see those available? Many manufacturers export all around the world. Will steps be taken to ensure that the NHS is at the front of the queue when those goods are produced?
I want to say a few words about the workforce. We know that, before we entered the crisis, the NHS was already short of over 100,000 staff, including 43,000 nurses and 10,000 doctors. The impact of staffing shortfalls manifests itself across the whole spectrum of NHS performance, as I have just outlined. It is therefore more critical than ever that those people who work in the NHS and whose good will we rely on already get adequate protection. It is evident that, in order for patients to have the best care possible, the NHS must support its staff to ensure that they stay well and can provide that vital care. That means a continuous supply of the right equipment and facilities. Personal protective equipment is vital in that respect. I hope we will hear, either in the Minister’s response or the statement later today, about what is being done to secure supplies of equipment and whether there is enough capacity in the system to ensure continued supply.
We would also be grateful for more information on the plans mooted to get retired staff back into the health service. Will some of the money announced in the Budget be used to deal with the anticipated increase in the wage bill that that would mean? Can we have an explanation as to how those people would be protected given that, by definition, the majority of them are likely to be over 70? What oversight will be put in place to ensure that they are delivering safe care if the revalidation process is to be suspended for retired returnees? Those on the frontline who I have spoken to are concerned about identifying the point at which an individual has been away from practice so long that it becomes impractical to reintegrate them in a safe and effective way. Will guidance be issued on what that point might be? What consideration has been given to those in the existing workforce who might be in a more vulnerable category because of their age or an underlying health condition?
A major concern is the lack of clarity about when people should be tested. We are hearing of many frontline NHS staff displaying symptoms but not being tested. What does that do for morale, if nothing else? The World Health Organisation has said that we should be continuing to test and contact-trace those suspected of having the virus. As a matter of importance, we should have a full explanation of exactly why we are currently diverging from WHO advice. It has been reported that labs are overwhelmed and tests are now taking several days to come back with results. Is the current ambiguity on testing policy a question of capacity rather than anything else? Will the Government be putting more resources into those labs, and if so, when will this materialise? It seems to us that continued testing is vital not only to stop the spread of the disease, but to understand when its peak has been reached. It may also be that efficient and accurate testing means fewer people having to self-isolate unnecessarily, which of course has an unnecessary economic knock-on effect.
A GP has been in touch with me today to say that they were in close proximity to a patient who is likely to have coronavirus and have been sent home to self-isolate, but they have not been tested. How on earth will they know, when they do return to work, that they are not a risk to others? Surely testing should be extended to such vital GPs.
My hon. Friend makes very well the point that I was making. It is evident that if that particular GP does not have the virus, it would be better for us all if they know that sooner rather than later, so they can get back in and treat patients. It is also worth restating at this point that people who have suspected symptoms should not be turning up at their GP practice because that is one of the ways, unfortunately, that we will spread the virus.
The case that has been outlined is very important, but we also need to remember that social careworkers, who will be visiting all the people in their care in their homes, are also placing their patients at high risk, but at the moment there are no plans I have heard about to test those social careworkers. I should say, by the way, that many of them are paid just over the minimum wage, and there is a real question here. We say that we value the NHS and that we value these community workers, but I am not sure a lot of them feel that way at the moment.
I will be dealing with the concerns about the social care sector in a little while, but the points my hon. Friend makes are absolutely valid and they certainly require a Government response.
We should think about protecting NHS staff not just in terms of the doctors, nurses and other frontline staff, but in terms of the cleaners, porters and all the other essential staff who are needed to keep a hospital running and who also play a vital part in infection control. We often hear about the importance of data, and it seems to me that this is a particularly clear example of where data have a huge role to play. If the data are not collected on a regular and consistent basis, surely we will not be in the best position to take the right action.
Yesterday, it was announced that UK medical schools have been urged to fast-track final year students to help fight coronavirus. Can we have an explanation of how this will work, and how will we ensure that graduates still face rigorous testing to make sure they provide the best quality care for patients? There is certainly a role for them to play, but trusts need clarity about its limits so that they can plan ahead. Are staff on maternity and paternity leave being encouraged to return to work early, and would they be able to do so without losing any untaken leave?
Does my hon. Friend agree with me—I asked Defence Ministers this question—that we should be calling up full-time reserve service members of the Royal Army Medical Corps and the medical corps of the other armed services, if they are not already NHS workers in their civilian lives? There are people with excellent training and excellent skills, and they and their facilities should be brought into use as soon as possible.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I think it shows the spirit of this place at the moment that we are all coming up with very important suggestions. No stone should be left unturned in using all the resources at our disposal to tackle this virus.
As we move to the later stages of the Government’s plan, do we expect to see the cancellation of elective surgery, which will only make those record waiting lists grow further? It is fair to say that that would not be a surprise, but a reduction in elective surgery will have a knock-on impact on trust finances in the longer term. I would be grateful for some clarity about what contingencies will be put in place to help trusts financially in these difficult times, especially when they are collectively in deficit to the tune of almost £1 billion already. Is there also a case to defer loan repayments that are currently made by trusts back to the Department for a period of time?
There was a great deal of surprise and disappointment at seeing no mention of public health in the Budget. Public health directors are currently preparing local responses to covid-19. They need to expend significant sums of money on that, yet they do not know what the public health allocation will be for the next financial year, which starts in just over two weeks. I am sure the Government understand what an invidious position that puts them in, and we urgently need those allocations to be published. Will the Minister say when that will happen? Will he assure the House that the funds will be sufficient to help local authorities deal with these issues?
Has any assessment been made of the extra demands placed on public health budgets regarding preparatory work? It is likely that the knock-on economic effect will severely impact on council finances. Fewer people will use services that they currently pay for, such as leisure facilities, and it is likely that council tax collection rates will drop. There will almost certainly be unanticipated expenditure from covering staff sickness, and that is before we get to social care.
Is my hon. Friend aware of whether the Government are continuing to pursue the idea of herd immunity—namely letting the virus transmit almost unchecked through the population, which would put overwhelming strain on beds, social services, and so on, or are they trying to minimise transmission by asking people to move and assemble less, and then get resources and testing in place? I am worried that they are still attached to the social services model, rather than to evidence-based experience from China, and elsewhere, regarding ways to control this virus.
That is a perfect question to put to the Secretary of State—he will be here shortly—and my hon. Friend raises an important point about the messages being put out. All sorts of stories are coming out in the press, not all of which are necessarily accurate, and it is important that we do our utmost to ensure a clear and consistent message across the board. I am not sure whether or not herd immunity is a Government policy, but I am sure the Secretary of State will take the opportunity, if he is so minded, to put that matter straight once and for all.
On confusing messages coming from Government, will my hon. Friend help me seek clarity on advice for people who self-isolate? Can they still go for walks outside? Can they go outside to walk family pets if they go on their own, or are they to be contained within their property? There seems to be a mixed message about what constitutes self-isolation.
Again, we need a definitive answer on that from the Secretary of State. I appreciate that things are evolving rapidly, and sometimes what was considered best practice a few weeks ago might have changed in light of the evidence. It is incumbent on us to hear the advice directly from the Secretary of State, and then we can send the same message to our constituents, so that there is no more confusion and ambiguity.
My hon. Friend was excellently covering council income, but one area I am concerned about, and have heard nothing about, is council rents. Many council tenants are at risk of losing work or being forced into self-isolation, and they might not get paid. I appreciate the Government’s work on statutory sick pay, but that will not be enough to pay council or housing association rents. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that many people could be at risk of arrears unless the Government support councils in addressing that issue?
My hon. Friend is right: a whole raft of issues will have an effect over the coming months, and although housing revenue accounts are separate to main council budgets, we still need to have that balance. Over the past decade, as a consequence of welfare reform, we have seen how councils and housing associations have adopted policies to deal with that loss of income from a number of changes to the welfare and benefits system, and we must keep that dialogue open over the next few months. We certainly could not expect full collection rates at this time, and we must work with people to understand the limitations of that. We will talk to the Government regarding any legislation that comes forward in due course.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; he is being extremely generous. Does he share my concern that, beyond rent, many households are just a payday away from poverty, so people will be sent into debt that they may never get out of in their adult lives? Surely, the Government need to do far more to help households that are really on the edge.
That is a very fair point. We are only beginning to understand just how precarious a lot of people’s household incomes are in this economy. It is going to take concerted Government effort to support people, but it is also going to take everyone in the private sector who has a debt with an individual holding off enforcing that debt while this crisis comes through. Again, that is something we need to work on. I am afraid I will not be able to take any more interventions.
Social care has been mentioned a couple of times already. Unfortunately, once again, we have a Budget in which social care is not addressed. Local authorities have had £8 billion cut from their adult social care budgets over the past decade, leaving people struggling without any care at all. Our social care system is already at breaking point, and it is likely that the spread of coronavirus will test it even further. Without proper measures to protect people in care homes and those who receive care in their own home, there could be tragic consequences. It is crucial that social care receives the same attention from the Department as the NHS. We expect to see a plan to advise people in social care along the lines we have discussed.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) mentioned, those in the social care sector have raised particular concerns about the availability of personal protective equipment. That equipment, which is crucial to protect staff and patients, is just as necessary in social care settings as in the NHS. I have heard from local care companies about difficulties sourcing hand sanitiser, to name but one example. As equipment runs low, how will care staff, including those who are self-employed, have the equipment they need to continue to keep patients safe?
However, the biggest concern for the social care sector is whether it will have the staff it needs to deal with this crisis. As we know, there are already 122,000 vacancies across the sector, leaving staff feeling under immense pressure. We know they already feel pressure, due to staff shortages, to come into work when they feel unwell, but in this case it is vital that they stay at home if they feel unwell. How will the Government ensure that there are enough staff to care for patients when we have far more people in the care sector who are unwell and self-isolating?
A quarter of social care staff and almost half of all home carers are on zero-hours contracts. For some care staff, there is no guarantee that they will be entitled to sick pay, despite today’s announcement. That is particularly true of those who work for multiple agencies or work irregular hours. It is vital that those staff, as a key part of the workforce, feel fully supported if they become unwell. We need a guarantee that all social care staff will receive statutory sick pay. All workers need reassurance from the Government that they will receive sick pay if they are unable to work.
Over the past few days, a number of nursing homes and care homes have made the difficult decision to close their doors to visitors. They made that decision themselves, in the absence of clear guidance. Families are now unable to see their loved ones, and they will want reassurance from the Government that that is the safest call. Will there be guidance on that issue for the care sector?
Inevitably, social care providers will face difficult choices over the next few months. Many will face higher costs. Last year, more than half of social care providers handed contracts back to local authorities because of financial pressures. That causes immense pressure on councils and, of course, worries for the families of people receiving care. It seems inevitable that we will face that situation again soon. Will local authorities and care providers get the financial support they need if cost pressures become too much to deliver safe care? At this difficult time, we must ensure that care services continue to provide the vital support that people need.
What about those who provide care for a loved one outside the system? Inevitably, there will be people who are not able to provide care for a period. The state has no official role to play in that situation, but those people will still need help and support. How will that be addressed?
In conclusion, providing well-resourced and well-funded public services is vital to tackle the spread of this disease, but of course that is not the whole picture. Every member of society will have to play their part. We will all have to recognise that the impact could be felt for many years to come, but we should take heart from the fact that we have a truly national health service and the capacity to rise to whatever challenges we face, so we are better positioned than many to take on this challenge. That will only be true, however, if we can be confident that the services people will rely on in the coming months are robust enough to deal with the storms ahead.
A decade of underfunding has not left us in as strong a position as we would like, but it seems that in the hour of need that may change. We will support the Government in any attempt to boost funding across the board, but we will not be afraid to point out when we believe measures are not enough. Beyond funding, we want messages from the Government about the action they are taking to be clear, consistent and quick. We all have a responsibility in this place to get that message across. Her Majesty’s official Opposition stand ready to give that message as well.
The seven-minute limit will not come in until after Peter Grant, but I know the next Member will bear in mind the fact that this debate is oversubscribed.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. Harold Wilson said that a week was a long time in politics. During Brexit we found out that a week was even longer, but the Budget, only last Wednesday, seems a lifetime ago. Even when listening to the Chancellor, I still harboured hopes of a long-planned personal visit to New York this weekend, but for all the reasons we see around us that is simply not able to happen. Three weeks ago, I was in Rome for the Scotland-Italy rugby match. At that point, the talk was of difficulties in the north. No one envisaged that instead of the crowds in St Peter’s Square or outside the Colosseum there would be nobody.
As a Member of Parliament, I am often asked about the most difficult issue and time I have had to deal with. For me, the answer is very straightforward: the 2001 foot and mouth crisis, which affected my constituency deeply. I want to be very clear that I am not making any comparison between that disease and coronavirus. The comparison relates to the impact of an event of that scale on businesses and their continued prosperity, and on the wider community. There was also, as a report from Strathclyde University and others identified, the impact of isolation. During that period, very stringent measures were taken and many farmers had to be isolated on their own properties and could not leave. The report, two years later, made very clear the long-term consequences of isolation. We need to take those findings on board and think about them. We need to learn the lessons of such events, with measures that might come into place. I am sure those issues will be debated when we have more focused debates on coronavirus.
The businesses most affected by those circumstances were the self-employed and contractors, so we need to give those groups the maximum possible support. The hospitality industry was also very badly affected. One lesson from that experience is that small businesses need grants not loans. I remember taking part in a demonstration—I know that that will surprise you, Mr Deputy Speaker—outside the offices of Scottish Enterprise Dumfries and Galloway with colleagues in small businesses to make just that point. Grants, not loans, were needed to see them through. Rates relief is to be welcomed and I welcome the package of measures the Scottish Government have announced, but it is capped and we need to look again at whether that is appropriate.
The other big players are the banks. From my perspective, the situation that we face will be easier to deal with because it affects the whole United Kingdom, so the banks that are based outwith the south of Scotland and that are being asked to support businesses understand what is happening on the ground. We need that unity of purpose from the banks. Hon. Members who have dealt with the banks know that they always say the right thing, but doing it is something else, especially when the computer says no. We need to make sure that they follow through on their commitments, and on the positive tone that the Chancellor set in the Budget.
We need a uniformity of approach from the Government at all levels—the UK Government, the Scottish Government and local government. The underlying philosophy of all those institutions must be that we want to keep our businesses going and that we are not jobsworths who want the returns in on the exact date. That is why I welcome what the Chancellor said about VAT holidays and flexibility with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. I am sure, however, that hon. Members on both sides of the House have experience of HMRC not being particularly flexible, so we need that to be followed through. That unity of purpose from government will be vital.
As has already been said in an intervention, the hospitality and tourism industry is the most vulnerable in a constituency such as mine. Often, as I found out during the foot and mouth crisis, businesses that have done well and are planning for the future are the worst hit. For example, the Gretna Green Famous Blacksmiths shop in my constituency, one of the most visited tourist attractions in Scotland, has won numerous awards for its attempts to attract Chinese visitors. A large number of Chinese visitors go to that location, but not any more—there are none. Its business model has already been seriously disrupted by these events. It is a bigger business, not a small business, but it needs help and support too, if that sector of the economy is to survive after these events.
Hotels in my constituency were already in difficulty; many, such as the Moffat House hotel, have closed. One local hotelier told me that they were facing a perfect storm of events, of which, at that stage, coronavirus was not one. I appeal directly to the Scottish Government on that issue, because the way that our business rates system in Scotland works for the hospitality industry, and particularly hotels, is still not right.
As I indicated, there are lots of lessons to learn. I hope that there is still the institutional knowledge in the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government to learn lessons from 2001, and that the Government can take some of those lessons on board, particularly in relation to isolation, as I said.
I welcome the Budget as a whole for Scotland, in particular the £640 million of additional funding for Scotland, which was £172 million more than the Scottish Government had anticipated. By any analysis, the Scottish Government got extra money. In my experience, they have not always welcomed, or even acknowledged, extra money—indeed, sometimes it was the wrong kind of money, even if they did acknowledge it. I hope that on this occasion, and in these circumstances, they will acknowledge the extra money.
As I said, I am pleased with what the Scottish Government have had to say about spending on business support in relation to coronavirus, but I would also like the money that is coming forward to be spent on infrastructure. Back in the ’90s, before the Scottish National party was in power, and when it held the constituency of Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, as it then was, the A75 and A76 were described as the most important forgotten roads in Scotland that needed to be substantially upgraded. Of course, since 2007 there has been an SNP, or SNP minority, Scottish Government, but that investment has not been forthcoming. I use this occasion to plead for the needs of the A75 and A76. I am sure that there is somebody in the SNP who remembers those previous commitments.
Obviously coronavirus is significantly affecting today’s debate, and rightly so, because it is the issue that most affects our constituents at the moment, but I want to highlight one other issue on which I wrote to the Chancellor ahead of the Budget, together with 15 Conservative colleagues, the Association of Convenience Stores and the British Retail Consortium: access to cash. It is a big issue; in a crisis, many people like to have some cash available, so that they have flexibility in how they approach difficult circumstances. There is a crisis in access to cash, and it affects large rural constituencies such as mine in particular, but also many other communities.
Some of the most deprived communities in our country bear the hardest impact. I had not realised until relatively recently that the average withdrawal from a cash machine is around £10 or £20. A fee of up to £3 to take £10 out of a cash machine is a very significant mark-up. A report has indicated that about 8 million people in our country are not ready to cope with a cashless society. A cashless society may come; indeed, when I travel from my constituency to central London, I feel that central London is, in many ways, a cashless society—in which there are, ironically, hundreds of cash machines. We need to do something about this issue. I welcome the Chancellor’s promise in his statement to legislate to secure the long-term future of cash, but it is very important that the steps that he takes are the right ones.
I am pleased to see the Minister nodding; I hope that he will nod when I say that those steps should include reversing the arbitrary cuts to the LINK interchange rates paid by banks to fund the network; exempting free-to-use ATMs from business rates; and recognising that ATMs are the only infrastructure through which we can guarantee national access to cash. Of course, cashback at convenience stores and other places has a role to play, but it is very important that we have a sustainably funded network of cash machines throughout the whole country, given the many branch closures we have seen in our constituencies—particularly Royal Bank of Scotland branch closures in Scotland.
I agree with the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). The consequences of these events—such as the foot and mouth crisis that afflicted much of the south of Scotland 20 years ago—go on for years. They do not just end when someone declares that the crisis is over. They go on for a long, long time for the businesses, individuals and communities that have been affected. We do not just pledge support to those individuals and communities today; we pledge it to see them all the way through the consequences. I think that that will mean revisiting some of what was announced in the Budget and some of what was announced by the Scottish Government, and if that is necessary, so be it.
I commend the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) for his comments, and thank him for the measured tone in which he delivered them. It has been noticeable over the last few days that things have been a bit more calm and sensible here even when we have disagreed politically; perhaps we could keep that going after the public health crisis has passed.
I noted that the right hon. Gentleman could not resist having a wee dig at the Scottish National party Government for not having done up his bit of trunk road yet. Obviously I cannot speak for the Scottish Government, whose spending decisions are made in the Scottish Parliament, but I have had a quick look at the Scottish Parliament’s website, and I have the contact details of the MSP for Dumfriesshire, which I can pass on to the right hon. Gentleman later. He is some chap by the name of Oliver Mundell. [Laughter.] I do not know whether he is still holding surgeries, but I can probably find his phone number for the right hon. Gentleman.
I am pleased to be able to speak on behalf of the SNP today. Our position is a bit different from those of many other parties, in that we will be keeping out of many of the detailed discussions about which health trusts and local authorities receive funding, because we have a devolved national Parliament to make those decisions on our behalf. As the previous three speakers made clear, although today’s debate is about the funding of public services, we cannot ignore the rapidly changing public health challenge that faces all four nations in the United Kingdom—and, now, the majority of nations in the world.
The statement that will be made later by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will be the right occasion for detailed questioning about the Government’s approach to those health challenges, but I want to consider some of the significant, and even potentially fundamental, changes that the economy will undergo as a result of them. The right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale—the former Secretary of State for Scotland—commented on the permanent change that the foot and mouth outbreak made to the economy of rural Scotland 20 years ago. This is much bigger, and its impact on the economy throughout these islands will be much bigger, and will probably be permanent.
My hon. Friends who spoke in last week’s debates will have specified which of the Government’s emergency actions we fully support—and there are a great many of them—as well as some instances in which we would like to see more being done, and a few in which we think that the action is simply going in the wrong direction. I hope that, at all times, the discussion of those matters can be kept as civilised and as temperate as it has been over the last few days. The situation has changed significantly since my colleagues made those comments on Wednesday and Thursday last week, and it has changed significantly since the Chancellor’s Budget speech. It is vital for the Government’s response to those changes to be not only sufficiently robust, but sufficiently flexible.
I am encouraged by the degree of co-operation on the part of the UK Government—through Cobra, for example—in agreeing on our combined and shared response to the public health issues, and I hope that we can see a similar degree of proper engagement when it comes to how to deal with the economic challenges. It must be said that, on those matters, the UK Government have not always engaged positively and constructively with the devolved nations in the past.
Let me give just one apparently small example of the way in which the coronavirus outbreak is already affecting my constituency. Like many other constituencies—perhaps most—we are blessed with a huge number of brilliant, independently owned cafés and restaurants. “Restaurants” sounds quite grand, but I am talking about places that can hold, at the most, 20 or 30 people who come in for a plate of soup and a bacon roll for their lunch. Their collective contribution to my communities and to all our communities, not just economically but socially, is impossible to measure. Several of them have changed hands recently or have been established for less than a year, while others have been on the go for decades. Obviously, I am not privy to any of their individual financial affairs, but I doubt that any of them would survive for two, three or four months without any customers—if that is how some people are interpreting Government advice, that is what those businesses would have to put up with. Clearly, it is not as bad as that, but it is an indication of the fact that those small businesses will need some severe Government intervention, and some of them will need it very soon indeed. I am happy to support them as much as I can.
There are various examples of that happening. The Hug and Pint, a fantastic little venue on Great Western Road in Glasgow North, has had to announce that it is going to close tomorrow. It has set up a crowdfunding campaign, as have various enterprises on the folk music scene in Scotland. Will my hon. Friend commend those initiatives to try to encourage business? People would have been going there in other circumstances for a pint anyway, so perhaps they can spare that money to help some of those small businesses through the most difficult period.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. That is sometimes an indication of how important many of these businesses are in their local communities. Neighbours do not just see them as a business and they will support them. The difficulty is that, if neighbours, customers and clients lose their jobs and suddenly find that they have to get by on a wholly inadequate social security system, they will not be able to afford to put £4 or £5 over the bar in the local community-owned pub, whether or not they get a couple of pints in return.
I support many of these businesses as best I can—some of them are very co-operative, allowing me to hold advice surgeries on their premises—but if I do what a lot of colleagues are doing and begin to cancel surgeries, and if I do not go to the local coffee shop and sit for an hour or so talking to people, no one else will do that. By making that decision—I understand why people want me to make it—I might well be hastening the time when many of these valuable businesses can no longer continue. If they close temporarily now, some of them will not reopen.
It is not just cafés, catering and hospitality businesses—the same goes for locally owned hairdressers, bakers, craft shops, one or two-person printers and many other businesses. Independent retail businesses may be small individually, but cumulatively, they represent the financial wellbeing of a vast number of people on these islands, many of whom stand to lose not just their job and livelihood but the very home in which they live. For many of these establishments—I am thinking especially of small bed-and-breakfast businesses and guesthouses—their business is their house. Many others have mortgaged their house to finance the business. They stand to lose everything apart from the clothes they stand up in if things go wrong, and they will need help quickly.
I welcome the emergency measures that the Chancellor announced last week, but I do not think that they go far enough. I fear that a great many small and valued businesses in my constituency, and in all our constituencies, will close and never reopen. At the other end of the scale, we have heard severe warnings from some of the biggest and most iconic transport operators in the UK and elsewhere. British Airways, for example, has warned that its survival is not guaranteed if it gets it wrong.
This morning, my journey to Edinburgh airport was the quietest that I can remember in five years as an MP; I do not come down on the train all the time. The car park where I usually struggle to find a space was deserted—you could have played five-a-side football without bumping into a car. The flight on which I often struggle to get a seat was 30% full. That is not sustainable. What I prefer to do when it is realistic is come down on the train. If I had done that, I would have seen another drop in business, although I do not know whether it is as big. Train operators are struggling as well.
Hotel bookings in London and many other places have crashed. Comparing prices on hotel websites with what they were three or four weeks ago, I see they are a half or a quarter the price, or even less. Those businesses cannot survive that, and there are tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of jobs at stake. It is not about bailing out the billionaires who own those high-profile businesses. It is about protecting the rights of tens of thousands of workers whose livelihoods are on the line.
Despite the torrent of platitudes from the Government, and despite the welcome measures announced last week, many of those hundreds of thousands of people face being thrown on to the mercy of a social security system that was utterly unfit for purpose before this crisis, and will be even more unfit to deal with the challenges that it will face. While the changes that have been announced are welcome, we need a lot more, and we are going to need them an awful lot quicker.
Detailed spending plans for Government Departments are going to be published, but there are worrying indications that the Budget is stretching public finances to the absolute limit. Page 5 of the report from the Office for Budget Responsibility says that public sector debt is likely to increase by £125 billion in four years’ time. That is assuming 20% of the promised capital spend does not happen. We cannot rely on economic growth to make the debt less painful to repay in five or 10 years’ time than it would be now, because Brexit is going to slow our economic growth by at least 4%, even if we get a good deal. The OBR commented that
“Public finances are more vulnerable to adverse inflation and interest rate surprises than they were”.
It strikes me that the fundamental problem of the Blair-Brown Government was that, in effect, we had a Chancellor of the Exchequer who by instinct was a Keynesian but who tried to do Thatcherite economics, and it failed. Now we have a Government packed full of Thatcherites and they are having a wee shot at Keynesianism, and I do not think that will work either.
As my hon. Friends have highlighted, the OBR also warns us that its
“forecast assumes an orderly move to a new trading arrangement”,
first with the European Union and then with the rest of the world. Given that the minds of the UK Government and of all our current and potential trading partners are, quite understandably, fully occupied by covid-19 and will be until after the June 2020 deadline by which the Government say they need to have at least the basics of a trade agreement in place, surely the Government will now finally admit that enshrining the end of the transition period—December 2020—in law was an act of criminal recklessness. They might not have known what crisis was going to happen in the intervening period, but it did not take a genius to work out that something might go wrong.
Although the Government announcements on public spending have been welcomed in many quarters, and rightly so, if we look at the hard facts behind those announcements, we find that the long-term sustainability of our public services is, if anything, less secure after the Budget than it was before. That is not helped by an illogical and immoral approach to immigration, which will contribute to a 0.3% drop in GDP over four years. Ludicrously, that immigration, or rather anti-immigration, policy takes more money out of the public purse, because even the lower-paid migrant workers—the ones the current Secretary of State for Scotland was so shamefully contemptuous of last week, accusing them of coming here to work on low wages just to take advantage of our benefits and our services—pay three times as much in taxes as they take in benefits. So by deliberately stopping them coming here, by deliberately stopping them earning and paying their taxes, the UK Government are deliberately creating an additional black hole of £1 billion to £1.5 billion in our public finances.
Today, I heard the head of Scottish Care, who represents Scotland’s private sector care providers—and yes, I have issues relating to some of the private care providers in Scotland—say how moved he was by so many workers in the sector offering to move away from their families and become residents in care homes or hospitals for several weeks, just to make sure that the people they care for do not lose out if several members of staff have to phone in sick. They are the very workers whom the Government regard as burdens on our public services. As for the idea that hard-working, low-paid NHS workers should have to pay an extra flat-rate tax of £624 a head just for the privilege of continuing to work in our NHS, I cannot describe it in language that you would allow, Mr Deputy Speaker, because there is no parliamentary language robust enough to properly describe the sheer immorality of that proposal.
The Government will want to make a big noise about the new capital spending they announced—as I said, we will see when it actually happens—but we need to remember the very low baseline they are starting from. The National Education Union has pointed out that, in England, 3,731 schools need immediate repair and a further 9,972 will need significant work within two years at most, but the Treasury figures in the Red Book show that the Department for Education’s capital budget next year will be £100 million less than it is this year. How is that going to help? In contrast, the Scottish Government have replaced or substantially upgraded 928 schools since the Scottish National party came to power, and I am delighted that two thirds of all pupils attending secondary school in my constituency do so in schools that are less than seven years old. In Scotland, teacher numbers have increased for the fourth year in a row—[Interruption.] I hear muttering from the usual suspects on the Tory Benches. In Scotland, there are 7,485 teachers per 100,000 pupils; in England, the equivalent figure is 5,545.
I want to look at what the Government’s priorities appear to be. Working-age benefits are going up by 1.7%. If that was 1.7% on top of a similar increase every year for the past five or six years, it would not be too bad, but it is 1.7% on top of nothing for far too long. How can we defend a 1.7% increase in working-age benefits when MPs are getting 3%? I will not defend that to my constituents and I defy anyone in here to try to defend it to theirs. Perhaps one emergency step the Government need to take is temporarily to put Parliament back in charge of MPs’ pay rises and have this place unanimously agree that we are not taking a pay rise this year unless it is going to be at least matched by that for the lowest-paid workers in our society.
The new financial year starts in 16 days’ time. The Scottish Government, if they are lucky perhaps, have only just had confirmation of the full Barnett consequentials of this Budget—I am not convinced they have even got that yet. When we look at the potential impacts on the devolved finances of the covid-19 emergency, and we try to disentangle what additional funding is coming to the Scottish Government and what additional funding is not additional at all, as it has already been announced, it becomes quite difficult. I suggest to the Minister that this indicates that the current financial settlement—the fiscal settlement between the UK Government and the devolved Governments—needs to be completely revised, because it simply does not give the Scottish Government the flexibility they need to respond to this crisis in the same way as the UK Government need to be able to respond.
I saw a comment recently that pointed out that it is sad that it has taken a public emergency and a public crisis to force the Government to do some of the things they should have been doing previously. Even now, in responding to a public crisis, they have not acknowledged the tens of millions of private crises that have been going on in these islands in the past few years under this Administration. Far too many people are still living in poverty and that number will increase significantly as a result of the coronavirus crisis. It is essential that the Government look at their spending and taxation plans, initially to make sure that as many as possible of those whose domestic finances are severely disrupted by this crisis are back on their feet financially as soon as possible. The Government then have to acknowledge that we are starting from a position where far too many people on these islands are living in poverty or close to it, and that for that to happen in the fifth, sixth or seventh biggest economy in the world, depending who you believe, is utterly shameful. For any Government to be presiding over those levels of poverty 10 years after coming into office is something they cannot be proud about.
We now have a seven-minute limit.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am glad to be called to speak in this Budget debate, and it is good to see the Minister for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), in good health on the Front Bench. In the brief time available, I wish to highlight three things in the Budget that we will need to follow in the weeks ahead: the science of the coronavirus; science and technology policy generally; and retaining skills and jobs at this time.
It is essential that our policy and practice throughout this crisis should be based on the science. We are fortunate in this country that in Professor Whitty, as chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, as chief scientist, we have two people of learning, authority and integrity, with direct personal experience of the management of epidemics. It is crucial that their advice continues to be followed in the way that it has to date.
I wish to raise two particular issues. The first is that the foundation of our scientific excellence is constant and unimpeded challenge. The peer review system we have and the replicability of empirical research demand that. So it is important in the days and weeks ahead that we do not see it as disrespectful or distracting for the scientific community to question the basis of actions and advice. Such questioning is essential, it is how science moves forward and it is the foundation of the excellence we enjoy in this country, so we need to avoid, in this House and in external commentary, treating any difference of opinion or challenge as being in some way calamitous, as it is the way we get to the right answer. It would help if the Government would publish the membership of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which has a particular duty to scrutinise and test the evidence. That will be important to know, but it would also be good to know when the Government intend to publish the evidence on which decisions have been taken. When will that be available? I know it is going to be published, so it would be helpful to know when.
The second challenge is that this is a dynamic situation, as all epidemics are. It is essential that advice and practice can and do adjust according to the real-time findings of research on the outbreak—according to what works and what does not. Such adjustments must not be derided as U-turns, in the conventional political way, but should be seen as the normal progress of scientific inquiry. Given the intense and absolutely understandable public interest, we need constant explanations of changes when they take place.
Several Members have mentioned the policy on testing. For the past few weeks, the House has been told about the expansion of testing capability: it is important to understand the reason for the change in emphasis in the policy, and I hope that the Minister or his colleagues might be able to provide that to the House. Along with the Health and Social Care Committee, my Select Committee will play a responsible role in backing 100% the scientific approach, while playing its part in ensuring that Parliament understands the reasons for the steps being taken.
Were it not for the entirely appropriate attention paid to the coronavirus over the past week, more attention would no doubt have been drawn to what is an extraordinarily positive Budget for science and research. Just over two years ago, when I was the Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, we published the White Paper on industrial strategy. One of the key commitments made was that the UK should build on its strengths as—in an uncertain world—one of the key powerhouses around the world in innovation and science, which is one of our principal assets. Despite that world leadership, we were at that time devoting less than 1.7% of national income to research and development.
We made a commitment in the industrial strategy to raise the proportion that we spent on R&D to 2.4%—the OECD average—by 2027, and beyond that to 3% thereafter. The publicly funded research budget was increased by nearly a third, from £9.5 billion to £12.5 billion in 2021-22—the biggest such increase in UK history. I remember the battles with the Treasury—before the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) was there—and the struggle to achieve that commitment, so it is a momentous achievement to have not only reiterated that commitment to 2.4% but to have increased the funding available, and not to the £12.5 billion that I was able to secure but massively to £22 billion by 2024-25, including a commitment to private investment through an increase in the R&D tax credit. There is much to be welcomed in that commitment. My Committee will scrutinise the prospective use of the funds, but they are warmly to be welcomed.
It is important to emphasise that our excellence is not just confined to science and technology; we are renowned internationally for our creativity in the arts and humanities, and social sciences are an important source of innovation and growth. I commend in particular the work that Sir Peter Bazalgette led on boosting the contribution of culture in our regional towns and cities through the creative clusters programme, which I strongly back.
Finally, I wish to say a few words about jobs and the continuity of employment. We have, during the current crisis, heard of the challenges of the hospitality industry. I draw attention to the Earl Grey tearoom in Southborough in my constituency, which has faced a problem that has been described by Members from all parties: the coronavirus is not included among the conditions in the Earl Grey’s business-continuity insurance. That issue must be addressed urgently by the Government, to provide reassurance to businesses right now. There is no time to be lost.
Skills that are crucial to the continued expansion and flourishing of the manufacturing industry could be lost if the disruption of supply chains means that, for example, components are not available. I hope the Government will look carefully at what is being done in other countries to finance, jointly with industry, part-time working so that skills can be retained in industries—including manufacturing and beyond—so that when the crisis passes, as I hope it will soon, businesses can continue to make progress, just as they have already, based on the excellent skills that have been acquired.
A dark cloud is descending on our world, threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions of people across the globe. We have only to see what is happening in Italy to recognise just what could be coming to our own country. The health service, the police service and social care, already stretched by 10 years of austerity, are stretched even further. None the less, now is not the time to panic, nor is it the time to engage in politics as usual. There needs to be a unity of purpose across the House, particularly on two key objectives. The first is to protect our people, especially the elderly and vulnerable. The second is to minimise the impact on our economy, ensuring that, nationally and internationally, a global recession does not happen, and does not become a global depression.
Last week, the Chancellor said that manufacturing was going through a tough period. That may prove to be an understatement. We were facing a tough period before the advent of the virus. According to the Office for National Statistics, we started 2020 with a flatlining economy, and
“yet another decline in manufacturing, particularly the drinks, car and machinery industries.”
That is why Make UK, the old Engineering Employers’ Federation, rightly called on the Government yesterday to step in to limit coronavirus damage to prevent further drastic decline in manufacturing and large-scale job losses.
There were a series of positive messages in the Budget, which I welcomed—no doubt about it. Crucially, though, the Government need to do more during the next stages. It was welcome that the Budget included measures relating to the environmental transformation of the automotive industry, by which I mean the move to electric cars. For the next stage, it is important that we see further significant moves, of the kind that the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has called for, on tax-free electric vehicles—£5,000 off VAT on vehicles alone—which would greatly boost the production and sale of electric vehicles. It was my own experience that led me to that view. During the global crash in 2008, when I was deputy general secretary of the old Transport and General Workers’ Union—we later became Unite—Tony Woodley and I were involved in negotiations with the then Labour Government on emergency measures, one of which was the scrappage scheme. As a consequence of that scheme, 400,000 cars were built. That avoided what could have been a catastrophe in the automotive industry. In the first six months of the scheme, notwithstanding what was happening in the global and domestic economy, we saw a 31% increase in the registration of new cars. Had it not been for that scrappage scheme, we would have seen the closure of those car plants.
With my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), I was also involved in the negotiation of the Kickstart programme, which saw 115,000 homes built, some 110,000 jobs safeguarded and the saving of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses that would otherwise have gone to the wall. Those big measures were critical at the time. This Government need to think big going forward. Crucially, they need to bring together the voice of the world of work. The employers and the trade unions need to discuss the key next stage objectives especially, as the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) said in his excellent speech, in relation to short-term working. That has been called for by the SMMT, the aerospace, defence, security and space industries, Unite, the TUC, and the GMB.
I am talking about employers’ organisations and unions coming together to argue that such arrangements have the ability to protect the industrial capacity of British manufacturers. In particular, they pray in aid the German model, which was first used in 2008, significantly expanded and then followed by other countries such as Japan, Belgium, France, and Austria. That scheme created a fund to pay workers up to 60% of their foregone net wages if factory production were temporarily cut. The scheme allowed employers to cut production temporarily without cutting jobs, thereby maintaining vital capacity. It was credited by the OECD for saving 500,000 jobs in German industry. Back then, unemployment held at 7.5% in Germany—a rise of just 0.2%. The country therefore managed to preserve the capacity to undertake the rebuilding of the economy. Jobs were saved, pay continued, and experience and skills were retained.
That model is being used successfully in response to covid-19 in Denmark, where the Government have brought together unions and employers’ associations, and agreed a deal for affected industries whereby the state pays 75% of workers’ wages and employers pay 25%. Workers also give up five days of paid holiday, and in exchange there are no lay-offs. In the words of the Prime Minister of Denmark:
“If there’s a big drop in activity, and production is halted, we understand the need to send home employees. But we ask you: Don’t fire them”.
Only this afternoon, a major employer in my constituency that has invested massively in increasing its capacity—I cannot name the company—has said that it desperately needs short-term measures to preserve that capacity, if it is to be able to rebuild after the immediate challenges posed to the economy.
Although there are welcome measures in the Budget, the Government need to be more ambitious at the next stages and to work with the world of work. There is no question but that the threat posed is enormous and real, not only to life and limb, but to our economy and ability to recover. What we do now will determine whether we have recession or depression. The role of the Government, working with the world of work, is key to that process. I urge the Government to rise to that challenge.
There are three maiden speeches on the Government Benches, and the usual conventions apply. Although we can be flexible when the time limit hits zero, that limit is not elastic.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to deliver my maiden speech during this debate; it is good to see you in the Chair as I do so. There have been a number of eloquent and thoughtful contributions today, and I hope that I do not change that too much.
On 12 December I made history in Burnley by being the first Conservative to be elected since 1910—109 years since the last. I thank the people of Burnley, Padiham, Hapton, Worsthorne and Cliviger for putting their trust in me and sending me down to this place. It is a huge honour.
I also pay tribute to my predecessor, Julie Cooper. Julie was a committed local politician, having served as leader of the council before taking up her seat here. She was committed to something else that I hope to carry on: ending hospital car parking charges. She campaigned vigorously on that issue, and I look forward to working with the Government to make that aim a reality, as we committed to doing in our manifesto and as the Minister mentioned earlier.
My constituency of Burnley has existed in various forms since 1868. It encompasses not only the urban centre of Burnley, which is the beating heart of the constituency—famous for a premier league football club and Burnley Miners social club, where, the House will be delighted to know, more Benedictine is consumed than anywhere else in Britain—but also the town Padiham, which has its own distinct feel and community spirit. That spirit has never been more important than in 2015, when the town suffered from severe flooding. Then there are the rolling green fields of the villages of Hapton, Worsthorne and Cliviger, where we have a thriving rural economy.
I have heard many colleagues speak of how their constituency is the best in the country, but I am confident that once they have all visited this gem of east Lancashire, they will agree that it is Burnley that takes that glorious title. Burnley is not a place of what once was, but a place of what will be. It has some of the most entrepreneurial people in the country, with more than 425 businesses starting up just last year, a college with a centre of engineering excellence and an Oscar-winning sound company. Above all else, it has a community that works hard every day—not just for themselves, but for each other.
When it came to writing my maiden speech, I asked the House of Commons Library if it could provide me with copies of those given by my predecessor, which it duly did. The only problem was that they only went back to 1918, which is eight years after the last Conservative was elected in Burnley. But I was not deterred. I went on and did my own research.
Gerald Arbuthnot was elected to this place in January 1910, the second Conservative for the seat. Although I could not find his maiden speech, I did find many of his other contributions. The topics of those contributions may sound familiar to those of us here today—improvements to the railways, furthering trade with other countries and reducing crime. So while the world may have moved on significantly over the past 100 years, the issues remain the same. Gerald Arbuthnot did not serve for very long as an MP, losing his seat at the second general election of 1910, in December of that year. It is a fate I am hoping to avoid—I say that as I look to our Front Bench. On leaving this place, Gerald Arbuthnot sadly lost his life in the battle of the Somme, but I was pleased to see that the Parliamentary war memorial was recently updated to include his name, which had been missing for too long.
Having looked back, I now want to look forward, at what I hope to achieve for the people of Burnley while I sit here representing them. I have already spoken about the entrepreneurial spirit we have in Burnley—the businesses that currently power our town, from Safran to Burnley football club, along with the new ones that are sprouting up all the time. In coming here, I want to do my bit to make their lives easier, encouraging even more to set up, drawing on the engineering prowess of the town, the digital skills that we are growing by the day and the fortitude of those who live there. The UK is consistently ranked as one of the best places in the world to start a business. My job is to ensure that Burnley is the best place in the UK to do so.
I also want to work with those who are already in Burnley, supporting them as they capitalise on the free trade agreements that this Government are negotiating, not just with our European allies, which is vitally important, but around the world. I am a member of the Select Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, and the Government should know that I plan on scrutinising their efforts to do exactly that—making sure that, in delivering a free trade agreement with the EU, we also deliver on our promises to the British public.
I am incredibly proud that this Budget, delivered by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor last Wednesday, shows that we are still the party of enterprise. It provides the support that businesses in Burnley need to invest in new technology, to undertake the research and development that will keep us cutting edge, and to employ the people who will power innovations of the future. That is because we on these Benches know that the way to improve life chances and reduce inequality is to get business booming. But that also relies on equipping our young people with the skills they need for the future. As I said on the campaign trail, one of my aims as the Member of Parliament for Burnley will be to ensure that when our young people leave school or college, they have the digital skills they need for the 21st century, not the 20th century. My right hon. Friend the Education Secretary can therefore look forward to me being a constant voice on this topic.
As I wrote in my weekly column in the local newspaper last week, sitting here as the Budget was announced, I felt incredibly proud to be the Member of Parliament for Burnley. It deals first and foremost with the significant challenge that we as a country and the world face as a result of covid-19. It is right that at this time we all commit to providing the NHS with whatever resources it needs to tackle the disease and protect life. The cross-party consensus on that shows that, when it is needed, this place can come together and do what is necessary. I hope that we will continue in the weeks and months ahead.
But the Budget also delivers for our other public services. The extra funding for our schools, increasing per pupil amounts, will make a real difference to the lives of children across Burnley, ensuring that people’s life chances are not shaped by circumstance, but by ability. The extra police funding will result not only in more officers on our streets, but in better equipment for those whose job is to protect us. Then there is the extra investment in our infrastructure, because it is that infrastructure that gets us to work or university, transports our goods across the country and gives us access to the digital world.
Mr Deputy Speaker, it has been a pleasure to speak in this debate, and in particular to give my maiden speech.
What a great pleasure it is to follow the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham). I congratulate him on that. He touched on the historical context of his predecessors and the tragedy of one of his predecessors losing his life at the Somme, but he also gave us a sense of Burnley—not only the urban area, but the area that stretches out on to the hills and up on to Cliviger. That is not far, Mr Deputy Speaker, from your constituency, and it is a beautiful part of the Lancashire hills. I congratulate him on his maiden speech and welcome him to this place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) talked about his time prior to his service in this House as deputy general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union and then Unite. What he did not mention was that at that point, he was my boss, and I always try to follow what he suggests. He was urging us at this time of national and international crisis not to be too political in this House, so I will do as my former boss suggests and try to take some of the criticism out of the Budget.
In a sense, this was two Budgets. There was the Budget that would have been given in normal circumstances, but then there are the emergency resolutions and the emergency provisions that were brought in to tackle the coronavirus crisis. Opposition Members welcome those provisions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) indicated earlier, and we will work with the Government on that. One concern that we have within this context is that after 10 years of cuts to public services that are already pared to the bone and running basically on the good will of public sector workers, public services will be under particular strain.
I want to mention a couple of areas in the short time available to me. The first is social care, and I was concerned that there was no provision in the Budget for additional social care money. Furthermore, there were no answers to the social care crisis that we are facing and have been facing for a good while. As the cost of social care rises, the chronic lack of central Government funding is pushing families to breaking point.
Unpaid carers are on the frontline of the social care crisis, taking care of family or friends who would not cope without their daily and sometimes hourly support. By cutting the amount of cash provided to councils, the Government are gambling on the good will of carers, friends and families to plug the numerous holes in our deficient and sometimes ineffective social care system. The situation is unsustainable, causing stress and in some cases mental health problems for carers due to the physical and emotional exhaustion of their caring role. Social care is getting more expensive. Children’s needs are complex, with some costing £4,000 a week. Families cannot face those costs, nor can local authorities.
My second subject is particularly relevant to Chester and is the status of heritage cities. Chester prides itself on its rich Roman history. Walking along the Roman walls—when they have not collapsed—or through the historical city centre is an experience that attracts around 8 million visitors annually to my city and my constituency. When Cestrians come together to celebrate and protect our heritage, great things happen. The recent reopening of Chester castle after seven years of closure is a huge step forward. I am delighted that visitors will be able to visit the top of the Agricola tower and see the city skyline this summer, current crisis permitting. Assets such as the Roman walls, Dee house and the Old Dee bridge form a part of English history and must be preserved for future generations, yet the Government have taken the rug from underneath local authorities, causing great difficulty, particularly for heritage cities such as Chester and York.
Chester does not receive any special funding to maintain crucial heritage assets. For example, the only support the council gets to maintain the Roman walls is taken from the local transport budget or its own asset recovery. A limited amount is provided by Historic England, but not a penny is allocated directly from Government. That means that Cheshire West and Chester Council, our local authority, is being forced to choose between protecting our ancient city and providing basic services for the people who live within the walls.
Communities should have the opportunity to celebrate their culture and history, but funding has been so deeply eroded that historic sites will not be able to be maintained. We cannot run a modern society on the cheap. The cuts have consequences, and if I have a major broad-brush criticism of the Government, it is that money is taken away from local authorities, which then have to put up council tax to pay for the deficits. When those local authorities put up council tax, they are blamed for it and have to take the political hit for something that is not their fault. Ministers talk about an increase in spending power for local authorities, but that increase is almost entirely as a result of council tax going up, and the political criticism is then given to local authorities.
It is not just Labour councils that are suffering; Conservative Members know that the cuts are making the lives of their constituents worse too. With less cash, fewer services and limited support, every single council in the UK is struggling. I urge Ministers to address the question of social care, which is dragging councils down by millions, so that at least some equity in funding can be returned to the local authorities that deliver so many vital local services.
It is a pleasure to call Nick Fletcher to make his maiden speech.
Thank you for letting me speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. A maiden speech and no interruptions—oh, I do wish I could have one at home! I would like to start by telling you a story. It starts a little sombre, but stay with me, because it does brighten up. If you’re sitting comfortably, I will begin.
I am going to tell you the story of a 10-year-old called Tommy. Tommy goes to school every day, like most other kids. He sits in his class with some other 10-year-olds. He doesn’t like it too much, but it’s okay. Tommy’s handwriting is pretty good—it is better than mine—so a teacher somewhere in the last six years has done a good job. However, Tommy is in a special class now—not special good, but special because Tommy gets bored and messes about. He messes about more than most. Tommy knows he is in a special class, and although never directly told by the adults in his life, he pretty much knows he will get nowhere.
When asked, Tommy says he does not do much outside of school, so you press a little further and ask again, only to find out that Tommy smokes weed—not good for a 10-year-old, is it? He doesn’t really want to, but it impresses some of the young men who stand outside his school gate and around the shops waiting for kids like Tommy to come along.
So what does Tommy’s life look like at home? Well, let’s just say it is dysfunctional—no good role models here. The man who gave Tommy some cannabis is 22 and drives a car. Tommy thinks he is pretty cool. Tommy spends more time with this man than he does with anybody else. This is Tommy’s role model. After a year or two, Tommy starts running errands and carrying a bit of drugs. He likes to impress his role model. We all like to impress, don’t we?
Fast-forward a few years and Tommy is now 16, doing quite a bit of dealing—he is quite the young man on the street. People know Tommy, and he likes the attention. He starts carrying a knife. His mum tells him off because she’s seen it. He tells his mum to go away, but he doesn’t say, “Go away”—he uses the words that the adults in his life use. The police are watching Tommy. Everybody is watching Tommy. Tommy has a girlfriend. His girlfriend—a sweet little 16-year-old—starts taking a bit of drugs because Tommy does. She likes to impress. We all like to impress, don’t we?
I do not need to continue for you to know how this story ends—not much of a story, is it? It is not a good story, but guess what? This is what happens when we have the wrong role models and we try to impress the wrong people.
There is another story. There is another Tommy who is 10 and in a special class, and whose writing is better than mine, but when asked what he does after school, he tells you he plays football and he’s good at it. He is no longer a special kid for the wrong reason; he is special for the right ones. His teacher tells him that he is going to do great things. He has a great role model at football, who tells Tommy to go to the gym when he is not playing football, where there is another great role model. Tommy’s school organises a visit to the airport, to see a bomber called the Vulcan. Tommy enjoyed the trip to airport and wants to learn to take a plane apart and put it back together again. Now we have Boeing in Doncaster, and Tommy gets an apprenticeship. Tommy’s life is looking great. Isn’t that a better story?
It’s not just about Tommy. It’s about Rachel, Mia and Muhammad who work at Yorkshire Wildlife Park, Polypipe or the new hospital. It’s about having great role models. It’s about everyone raising their game. It’s about teaching kids that there is a right way and a wrong way, and that having dreams and goals are necessities in life, not luxuries.
It is about following what you believe in, like one of our many notable folk in Don Valley, William Bradford from Austerfield, who sailed on the Mayflower to follow his dream on a pilgrimage to the new world we now call America, some 400 years ago. It is about giving a town pride in itself. Can you imagine how the people of Don Valley felt when a castle was being built at Conisbrough in the 11th century? That was the last time we had some serious investment in Don Valley. It is around the same time that we last had a Conservative MP. Oh no—bear with me; we have never had a Conservative MP.
Can you imagine how the people of Doncaster will feel if and when a new hospital is built, when flood defences are put in place so their homes are not flooded every 10 years, and when a new rail link is built to Doncaster Sheffield airport, which will attract huge business and create thousands of jobs and homes? We need these big projects to raise the aspiration of our young, to raise the hopes of our families, and to let people know we care and that they are not the forgotten communities any more. But most of all we need to hold ourselves accountable, to take responsibility for our actions and become great role models—and that must start with me here. That costs nothing; well, I am from Yorkshire.
My predecessor and I differed on policy, but we did have one thing in common: she, too, cared for Don Valley. I know this as I heard many a kind word on the doorstep about Caroline Flint when I was campaigning, and that continued on my arrival here. “What seat are you?” you all asked. “Don Valley,” I replied. “Oh, that was Caroline’s. We liked her.” I said, “I know.” Caroline gave 22 years of her life to this place and the people of Don Valley, and on behalf of Don Valley I say thank you.
I know Caroline cared, and that is what I am going to do here: care by giving Tommy hope—hope of a better life—and this Budget will help do just that. With the doubling of flood defence spending, letting families keep more of their money, investing in infrastructure and new hospitals, and giving £8 million for football clubs, Tommy stands a chance. We are heading into some unknowns, and I appreciate that. However, as a businessman, I have read and listened to many gurus, but my favourite is the late Jim Rohn, who stated that in life, “it’s not the direction of the wind, it’s the set of the sail that counts”. So let us set our sail right, and let us get behind this Government and be positive about everything we say and do, and this includes dealing with the issue of the moment. By being the voice of reason, keeping calm, keeping to the facts and staying on course, we will come through this together.
Finally, I said in my acceptance speech that winning was nothing short of a miracle. I believe in miracles, and I believe in God. I know not everyone does and I know many see Christianity as a stumbling block to their way of life, but please remember it is my way of life. It is the reason I believe I am here—not to judge or condemn, but to listen, to help, to be kind, to forgive and forget. I therefore have two asks. First, will all the people here and back in my constituency forgive me when I get it wrong—and I will? But, secondly, and much more importantly, however long we are here, let us keep room for God in this place. If we do keep space for him in the hearts and minds of the people who believe, I know this country will continue to be the greatest place and continue to be a place that you and I are proud to call home. After all, I believe Christ is the greatest role model anyone can have.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher). He delivered an excellent maiden speech, and I look forward to listening to many more speeches by him.
This Budget has been dominated by the coronavirus crisis we are currently facing, and rightly so. Coronavirus represents an unprecedented challenge for the UK, and now more than ever, we need to strengthen the safety net available to the most vulnerable in our society. As a coronavirus pandemic unfolds, more and more people will be in need of this social safety net than ever before, especially those who are not eligible for sick pay or who have unstable jobs. For many of these people, the initial five-week wait for their first universal credit payment could cause real hardship. Indeed, it is well documented that that wait is already pushing vulnerable people to food banks, trapping many in years of debt, and making outstanding issues with housing, ill-health, disability and domestic abuse significantly worse.
Like many colleagues, I welcome the Government’s £500 million hardship fund to help local authorities deal with the coronavirus outbreak, but I remain concerned that thanks to a decade of austerity and cuts, local authorities lack the capacity or resources effectively to distribute that funding. The coronavirus outbreak exposes a deeper crisis faced by the UK—the crisis in our public services, which the Budget sadly failed to address. Over the past 10 years, consecutive Conservative Budgets have created and curated a social emergency. As a result, our social security system is punitive, complex and as mean as it has ever been.
In numerical terms, the emergency we face is truly shocking: today, 4.5 million children are growing up in poverty; this morning 281,000 people woke up without a roof over their head; and one in every 50 households is forced to use foodbanks in order to eat. Last week’s Budget was lauded as the most generous in decades, but in reality it does nothing to relieve the hardships inflicted on my community by 10 years of austerity, universal credit, the bedroom tax and the benefits freeze.
The Chancellor has let down my constituents by taking no significant action to tackle the inbuilt injustices that plague universal credit. Last week’s Budget said nothing about abolishing the two-child limit, the five-week delay to universal credit payments, or the benefit cap, even though each of these actions would have an immediate positive effect on my constituents, including the 52% of children living in poverty in Manchester, Gorton. Why will the Government not commit to any of those measures?
On a more positive note, the Budget took some important steps on the road to tackling the housing crisis we face in the UK, including in Manchester, Gorton. I welcome the Government’s announcement of more money to support rough sleepers, their commitment to the affordable homes programme, and the lowering of borrowing rates for councils to build social homes. But this by no means goes far enough.
Local housing allowance rates are a scandal. Some 1.4 million households in the UK claim LHA to help meet some or all of their housing costs, but the impact of cuts and a four-year freeze means that in 97% of England that help does not cover even the cheapest third of rents. In Manchester, the average monthly rent has increased by 38% in the past five years alone. The skyrocketing cost of private rents, and the freeze on LHA, has made it near impossible for many people in my constituency to find an affordable home. On top of that, my constituency has seen a significant increase in the number of LHA claimants who are refused rented accommodation by private landlords or letting agents. That is blatantly discriminatory, and I hope the Government act to stop that practice before more vulnerable people are pushed into homelessness.
I was pleased back in January when the Government announced that LHA was to be unfrozen, but that will not even come close to covering the vast shortfalls that people face when paying their rent. The Budget was a missed opportunity to raise LHA rates in line with the private rental market, and prevent more people from falling into homelessness. Although I welcome the £12.2 billion funding allocated to the affordable homes programme, I am concerned about the Chancellor’s definition of “affordable”. My definition of affordable housing, and that of my constituents, seems to be at odds with the Government’s. As they say, the devil will be in the detail. I look forward to gaining clarity about how much of that fund will be spent on delivering genuinely affordable social housing.
My constituency and communities up and down the country have experienced 10 years of immense suffering thanks to rampant austerity. With our economy now unstable and more vulnerable than ever, it has never been more important to invest in people and in the social safety net that protects them.
It is a pleasure to call Lia Nici to make her maiden speech.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is with great pride that I stand in this place and speak about the town of my birth, and now the town of my constituency, Great Grimsby. I am equally proud that I am the first woman from my party to represent the seat. Indeed, I am the first Conservative MP to serve the constituency since Sir Walter Womersley in 1945.
I would like to acknowledge the work of my immediate predecessor, Melanie Onn. Melanie served as MP for four years. Even in that short time, she progressed to shadow Front-Bench positions, first as shadow Deputy Leader of the House and then as shadow Housing Minister. Melanie was hard working and diligent in her service of Great Grimsby.
I must also mention the Labour politician who served Grimsby for longer than anybody else: Austin Mitchell. Austin was a Member of Parliament for 38 years and is a politician whom I admire greatly. He once said that if you pinned a red rosette on a donkey, the people of Great Grimsby would vote for it. Well, I did not wear a red rosette and nor am I a donkey, which proves that Austin Mitchell was not always right. Austin was a constant campaigner against the common fisheries policy and the damage it inflicted on the fishermen of Grimsby. It is that part of his work that I will be particularly proud to continue now that we have left the EU.
I would also like to say a sincere thank you to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who encouraged me to stand as a councillor and then as parliamentary candidate. He continues to be a valued adviser and a huge support.
Great Grimsby has a long and proud trading history. The town was well known as a trading port in the 800s and was particularly renowned even then for the quality of its fish and its fishing fleet. By the 1100s, the town had become one of the richest trading ports in the country. In 1201, the burgesses of the town bought it from King John, and it gained its first town charter in the same year. I am very proud to say that Great Grimsby was able to send two of its burgesses to start up the model Parliament in 1295. In recognition of that, our coat of arms and the name Great Grimsby are part of one of the stained glass windows in St Stephen’s Hall.
The enrolled freemen of Grimsby, who were created at the signing of the first town charter, ran the town until 1831 and are still an important part of its functions today. They are the beating heart of Freeman Street and continue to work with the council and MPs to ensure the town’s positive future. It is important to recall how the freemen encouraged economic success in the 1300s. They reduced or abolished taxes for local businesses. There was, for example, “No Keyage on loading or unloading ship,” “No Stallage on erecting a stall in the market,” and “No Anchorage on dropping anchor”. I encourage the Chancellor to emulate our forebears and bring a free port to Grimsby.
For centuries, trawlermen from our town set off into the North sea to catch the fish to feed the nation, including through two world wars. Those trawlermen then had to suffer the cod wars with Iceland, together with crippling oil price rises in the 1970s. As a nation we joined the Common Market and then the EU, which gave rise to the common fisheries policy. EU trawlers had access to our waters, and our own fishermen became subject to smaller and smaller quotas. All of that resulted in the decimation of the fishing industry in towns such as Grimsby. But now we have left the EU. My constituents will be watching the Government, and me, very closely over the coming year to make sure we negotiate a deal that means we are able to build a UK fishing industry fit for the 21st century.
Great Grimsby is not merely a town that looks back to its history. Our key Lincolnshire location on the bank of the Humber estuary and facing the North sea means we are home to the largest centre for seafood processing and cold storage, and we have become the UK’s largest centre for the maintenance and operations of our new offshore windfarms. Many of my constituents work at the Port of Immingham and Grimsby, the UK’s largest port by tonnage. We hope to be at the forefront of the new emerging technology in carbon capture and storage. I was particularly delighted to hear the Chancellor’s announcement of a £800 million infrastructure fund for carbon capture and storage clusters. Where better to place a cluster that will capture and store 16 million tonnes of carbon dioxide than off the coast of Grimsby?
As my hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches know, small businesses are central to the life of our towns and our country. If we are to encourage the regeneration of our town centres, our local businesses are key. I therefore welcome the announcement to help small businesses cope with the potential extra costs of coronavirus by refunding statutory sick pay. The retail, leisure and hospitality businesses in my constituency will also welcome the extension of the 100% business rate relief in 2020-21. I am particularly pleased that the Chancellor has decided to freeze fuel duty for another year. My constituents, especially those who run logistics companies, will greatly appreciate that step.
To be elected to represent my hometown is the greatest honour of my professional life. It is an honour that has come to me because of how the people felt treated by politicians in the past. We know that they have lent us their vote and I am well aware that they voted for change. I will work tirelessly to see that that change happens.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici). She conveyed her passion and commitment to her constituents and her constituency. We on the Labour Benches remember her predecessor, Melanie Onn, with great affection and we are grateful to the hon. Member for mentioning her. On behalf of the whole House, I wish her all the very best in her endeavours in this House. She has made a powerful maiden speech on this important occasion.
This is a Budget debate, yet, as the Chancellor and many other Members have acknowledged, the only issue at the front of people’s minds at the moment is coronavirus. I know that families are concerned about their children and schools, I know that small businesses are worried about their survival, and I know that carers are very concerned about the elderly. We now have 20 confirmed cases of coronavirus in South Yorkshire. I take this opportunity to reassure my constituents in South Yorkshire that the best preparations are being made to keep them safe. For that reason I will not be able to attend the winding-up speeches later, Madam Deputy Speaker, for which I apologise. I need to be in regular contact with our public health directors and the local resilience forum to ensure that our public services have the support they need.
Last week, we convened a taskforce of the Sheffield city—[Interruption.]
Order. Can we have a bit less chattering please?
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Last week, we convened a taskforce of the Sheffield city region’s local authorities and chambers of commerce to ensure we can respond quickly to support our economy, in particular our small businesses, through this challenging time. The Chancellor took welcome steps to support people and businesses financially, but I want, in the short time available to me today, to talk about something that we cannot put a price tag on, but which matters just as much as the measures being put in place to deal with this emergency.
Last week, we were promised millions for trains, roads and potholes, our transport infrastructure, yet in the face of a pandemic we are quickly realising we rely on something far more important: our social infrastructure. Our key workers and our carers on the frontline fighting the virus are the fabric that knit our social infrastructure, our society, together, helping to keep us safe and healthy. Underpaid, overworked and often little-thanked, they are helping our most vulnerable through this most challenging of times. They are the social fabric that makes Britain strong. They are the reason I am confident that we will pull together and get through this emergency. Our nurses and doctors have endured relentless workloads year after year. Now, they are on the frontline again, putting their lives in danger in our time of need. We rely on them more than ever before.
In these uncertain times, in addition to the demands that the Government spend where it is needed, I want us all to offer something which is free, which unites us all, and, critically, will support medical experts and frontline workers who are battling day and night to stem the flow of the virus. It is our national civic duty to keep our social infrastructure strong. That means looking out for each other. I urge everyone to look out for, and closely follow, the expert advice. I commend the chief medical officer, the chief scientific officer, public health directors and local resilience forums that have provided calm and clear guidance. We must look out for each other and show a common decency in all we do, checking on our neighbours, the elderly and the vulnerable who may not have family and friends to rely on. I saw this first hand in South Yorkshire during the flooding in November, when the worst weather brought out the best in people. Their selfless acts of generosity and kindness helped families to get back on their feet. We will need a similar effort this time around to keep us all safe.
We must also look after our doctors, nurses and carers by taking responsibility. Panic buying and stockpiling is not who we are as a country. It is not necessary. It makes it harder to protect the most vulnerable and, in turn, puts our people at greater risk of becoming ill. It adds unnecessary strain to our NHS and its wonderful staff. It may feel like Britain has been fraying at the edges over the past few days. Images of empty shelves have not helped matters. People are understandably tense and worried. As a country, we have been divided for too long, but through this crisis I am confident that we will rediscover our common decency and kindness.
Now is the time for leadership and expertise. Now is the time to look out for each other. Now is the time to pull together. I believe we are ready to do just that and to keep our social fabric stronger than ever. Coronavirus will be a tough challenge, but by following our British values of common decency, respect and kindness, we have the best remedy to keep our families and our country healthy and out of harm’s way.
Thank you for allowing me to make a statement at this time, Mr Speaker. The coronavirus pandemic is the most serious public health emergency that our nation has faced for a generation. Our goal is to protect life. Our actions have meant that the spread of the virus has been slowed in the UK. I pay tribute to the officials of Public Health England and the NHS for their exemplary approach to contact tracing and their work so far. However, the disease is now accelerating, and 53 people have sadly now died. Our hearts, across the whole House, go out to their families.
Our policy is to fight this virus with everything we have. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor confirmed a £30 billion package of financial firepower, including a £5 billion contingency fund to ensure that the NHS and social care system have the resources they need. We will give the NHS whatever it needs, and we will do whatever it takes. We will get through this by working through our action plan to contain, delay, research and mitigate the virus. That plan has two overriding aims: to protect the NHS by building it up and flattening the curve, and to protect life by safeguarding those who are most vulnerable. We will do the right thing at the right time, based on the best scientific advice.
Earlier, I attended a Cobra meeting chaired by the Prime Minister to decide on the next steps in our plan. I can report to the House that we have agreed a very significant step in the actions that we are taking from within that plan to control the spread of the disease. Those actions will change the ordinary lives of everyone in this country. We appreciate that they are very significant, and I understand that people will be concerned, but we have come to the view that they are necessary to save lives and to stop this disease.
First, based on the updated scientific advice, we are today advising that if you or anyone in your home has a high temperature or a new and continuous cough, you should stay at home for 14 days. If at all possible, you should not go out even to buy food and essentials. Instead, you should ask others for assistance with your daily necessities. The exception to that is for exercise, but even then you should keep at a safe distance from others. If it is not possible to receive deliveries at home, you should do what you can to limit your social contact when you leave the house to get supplies.
Even if you or anyone in your household do not have symptoms, there is more that we have to ask of you. Today, we are advising people against all unnecessary social contact with others and all unnecessary travel. We need people to start working from home if they possibly can. We should steer clear of pubs, clubs, cinemas and restaurants. We should use the NHS only when we really need to. This advice is directed at everyone, but it is especially important for the over-70s, for pregnant women and for those with some health conditions. It is especially true of London, which the evidence suggests is several weeks ahead of the rest of the country.
These measures will be disruptive, but they will save lives. In a few days’ time, by this coming weekend, we will need to go even further to ensure that those with the most serious health conditions are largely shielded from social contact for around 12 weeks. We want to ensure that the period of maximum shielding coincides with the peak of maximum transmission. While the risks of transmission at mass gatherings, such as sporting events, are relatively low, from tomorrow, we will be withdrawing our support for mass gatherings. That will free up the critical workers we need to deal with the emergency and ensure a consistent approach to social contact.
Secondly, we are increasing our testing capabilities yet further. The UK has tested more people than almost any other major economy outside of China, South Korea and Italy. We have already increased the number of tests to 5,000 a day, and that is now on its way to 10,000, then radically further.
Thirdly, we are boosting the NHS. Ventilation is mission critical to treating the disease. We have been buying up ventilation equipment since the start of the crisis, but we need more. Today, the Prime Minister hosted a call with the nation’s advanced manufacturers asking them to join a national effort to produce the ventilators we need. We have set up a dedicated team to do that, and we are hugely encouraged by the scale of the response so far. Later today, the NHS will set out the very significant steps it is taking to prepare.
Fourthly, on Thursday, we will introduce to the House the coronavirus emergency Bill, which will give us the powers to keep essential services running at a time when large parts of the workforce may be off sick. Some of those measures will be very significant and a departure from the way that we do things in peacetime. They are strictly temporary and proportionate to the threat we face, and I hope that many will not have to be used at all. They will be activated only on the basis of scientific advice and will be in place only for as long as clinically necessary. Finally, of course, we are ramping up our communications efforts, so that people know what steps they need to take to protect themselves, others and the NHS.
Tackling coronavirus is a national effort and everyone has their part to play. The more people follow the public health advice, the less need to bring in draconian actions that I am keen to avoid. Of course, we must not forget the simple things that we can all do—washing our hands, following the public health advice if we have symptoms, and looking out for the most vulnerable in the community.
The measures that I have outlined are unprecedented in peacetime. We will fight this virus with everything we have. We are in a war against an invisible killer and we have to do everything we can to stop it. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for keeping me informed of developments. Our thoughts must be with the loved ones of those who have sadly died from the virus, including the family of the man who died at the Leicester Royal Infirmary in my constituency over the weekend.
I pay tribute to all our NHS staff, our social care staff and, indeed, all who work in public services. Never have we been more in their debt, and will be in the coming weeks. The public, as indeed all Members of the House, want the national effort to succeed. Every one of our constituents wants to do the right thing for their loved ones, for their neighbours and for themselves.
The virus spreads rapidly. It exploits ambivalence. It demands clarity of purpose. It demands Government effort as we have never seen before in peacetime. With that in mind, I put a number of questions to the Secretary of State, which I trust he accepts are raised in a constructive spirit. Specifically, on today’s measures, which we endorse, if we are asking people to work from home if they can, what is the advice to those who are not able to work from home because of their occupation—millions who work in the retail sector, for example?
Today, the Government will ask the elderly and those with long-term conditions to shield themselves, starting at the weekend. Can the Secretary of State give us more details of how that will work in practice? Will they be able to exercise or go for a walk? What happens if someone refuses to follow the advice? How will those who need social care support get the care they need? What protections are in place for social care staff embarking on regular 15-minute visits? How will those with complex needs and disabilities be supported?
We know that those with co-morbidities and a compromised immune system are also vulnerable. What specific advice is there for those with conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and cardiovascular issues, who the emerging literature shows to be particularly vulnerable at the moment? How will those people access repeat prescriptions?
I understand the gravity of the situation. Could the Secretary of State update the House on how far away from the peak he thinks we are? While I understand the reasoning for the decisions the Government have made today, surely there will now come a moment when schools will close. Teachers are already anxious, and parents need to plan. Can he offer some advice to parents, who will be worried tonight?
Throughout the outbreak, we have been as one in agreeing that all decisions must be based on science and evidence, but the Secretary of State, of course, will know and understand that different scientists can reach different conclusions, even when presented with the same data and evidence, so does he agree that all the evidence informing the UK’s strategy must be transparent, and that the modelling and the evidence base should be published, so that it can be peer-reviewed and stress-tested? This is about maintaining public confidence.
May I press the Secretary of State on the controversy, if I may put it like that, of recent days, in the debate about so-called herd immunity? He said yesterday that herd immunity is not the goal. The chief scientific adviser suggested something slightly different on Thursday. Could the Secretary of State clarify the Government’s position?
May I put a point that is repeatedly raised by our constituents? I hope that the Secretary of State appreciates the way in which we are putting these points to him. Many of our constituents are asking us why the UK has hitherto seemed to have taken a different course from other nations. They have suggested that other nations have been deliberately trying to delay, and to buy time to prepare for, future outbreaks. Will he explain what ideas the Government have and have not rejected, and what lessons they have learned, from countries such as Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea, which have brought the virus under relative control through containment policies? What lessons can we learn from Germany and Scandinavia, which, in recent days, according to the data, are reporting death rates of less than three per 1,000 covid-19 cases, whereas in the UK and France, the figure is much higher?
May I press the Secretary of State on the advice of the World Health Organisation? It has been clear that testing and contact tracing should continue. Many of our constituents are saying to us that surely we need community testing to continue, because we need to know the percentage of the population infected at any one time. Otherwise, the percentage of immunity will be unknown. People who are ill, those who work in the NHS or the care sector, and anyone caring for elderly relatives will surely want to know their covid-19 status, because it will have an impact on how they interact with other people in the community. NHS staff are being asked to care for covid-19 patients, not knowing whether they themselves are transmitting the virus. If they get ill, will they now be asked to stay at home for 14 days? Surely if we can test those NHS staff, and the test returns negative, we can get them back on the frontline sooner.
Is the issue around testing about capacity? If it is, has the Secretary of State considered demanding that UK-based pharmaceutical companies hand us their labs? Can we use the testing labs in higher education institutions and universities? Can diagnostic kit makers be urged to manufacture more testing kit urgently?
On a vaccine, we understand the timescales involved, but can the Secretary of State confirm that he will approve funding for scaling up manufacturing of the vaccine candidates that are being developed in the UK? On antivirals, clinical trials on repurposing drugs are under way across the globe; can he provide a written statement to the House on what capacity the UK has to assist in that process?
Turning quickly to the capacity of the national health service, our NHS and social care staff need support. They need quality personal protective equipment, whether in secondary care or primary care. Can the Secretary of State tell us how many additional intensive care unit beds have been opened? I think he has hinted that non-emergency elective treatment will now be suspended; could he confirm that? Members have long been asking him about ventilators. Can he outline the latest numbers, and say where he thinks we will be by this time next week? Can he update us on ECMO bed capacity, and say whether he is also increasing the availability of non-invasive ventilation, such as BPAP? If we need beds and equipment from private sector organisations, we should requisition that equipment, not pay for it.
Finally, we will co-operate with the Government on the proposed emergency legislation, and I am grateful for the discussions we have had, but the biggest challenge to the public health social distancing measures will not be boredom and fatigue; it will be finances and affordability. The poorest, who struggle to pay the rent, those who worry about putting food on the table, and those who have no savings to dip into, will be faced with impossible choices between hardship and health. From sick pay and lost earnings protection, to universal credit changes and rent and mortgage payment deferrals, we need a package of financial support, and we look forward to working with the Secretary of State on that front.
These are indeed serious times. Many of our constituents are anxious, and want as much certainty as possible. We have put these questions to the Secretary of State because the health and safety of the nation must always come first.
I commend the shadow Secretary of State for the tone he has taken throughout this crisis. He rightly asks questions; I will seek to address each and every one of them, but before I do, I repeat something that I have said to the House a few times. We welcome questioning of the approach, because we are constantly looking for the very best solution for this nation, and the very best way through this, in order to protect life. I would rather have questions from all around the House, asked in the tone in which he has asked them, so that we can ensure that we are constantly doing the best we possibly can. That goes for publishing the science and the modelling, which we absolutely will do, because the very best science is done in the open.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the NHS being prepared. I am thankful that we have the NHS all the time, but in a crisis like this, I am doubly thankful, because we are reliant on those who work in the NHS. Thanks to the NHS, we are as well prepared as any nation can be. We are, by some measures, the best prepared for this stage of the spread of the virus, but what matters is giving the NHS all the support that it needs, and especially having regard to the capacity of the NHS, so that it can address the symptoms and consequences of this particular virus. The issues are around ventilation and oxygen supply, as he says. We are increasing the number of ventilators. We have been buying ventilators for several weeks now, but we also need to manufacture more. As we have discussed in the House, there is no limit to our appetite to buy ventilators, and there should be no limit to the appetite of industry to make them, because around the world, everybody is trying to increase their ventilator capacity.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have ensured that we can use all hospital capability in this country, public or private, and bring it to the task. We are expanding the use and production of personal protective equipment. Making sure we get PPE to every single part of the NHS is absolutely vital. We will be cancelling or postponing non-time-sensitive elective surgery; the NHS will make a statement about that later today. We are increasing ICU bed capacity, but I want to make sure that the House understands that we do not need a generic type of intensive care capacity. Of course we need intensive care capacity, but we need very specific intensive care capacity with the ventilation that is needed in many of these cases.
I turn to the other questions asked by the hon. Gentleman. He asked, “What if you can’t work from home?”. The answer is that if you are healthy, and if you are not being asked to isolate because a member of your household or you have symptoms of the virus, then of course you should still go to work. It is important that this country keeps moving as much as we possibly can, within the limits of the advice that we have given.
The hon. Gentleman asked about shielding, and about the elderly. The policy of shielding is specifically about reducing contact for the most vulnerable. For those who have significant health conditions, the NHS will be in contact with you over the next week. We will publish a list of those conditions, and if you think you should have been contacted and you have not been by next week, get in contact with the NHS. The shielding policy starts later than the general household isolation policy and the general advice to reduce social contact, because the reduction in contact that we need to see among those whom we are shielding is much more significant, and we need to see it last for a significant period of about 12 weeks.
The hon. Gentleman asked about those who refuse to follow advice. I do not think that many people will refuse to follow advice. Of course we have powers, and powers are proposed in the Bill, should we need to take further action, but I hope and expect that that will not be necessary.
The hon. Gentleman asked about schools. The scientific advice is not only that closing schools has a significant impact on people’s ability to work in, for instance, key areas such as the health service, but also that if we get it wrong, children may stay with elderly grandparents instead of going to school, and thus increase the risk. We keep this matter under review and we are in constant discussion about it, but we have not changed the advice on schools today.
The hon. Gentleman asked about other countries. Of course we are constantly looking to all other countries around the world—including South Korea and Singapore, which he mentioned—to see what we can learn about how we can do things better. We are taking these measures at a different time from other European countries because we are behind them in terms of the progress of the virus, which is a good thing. In fact, as the chief scientific adviser has said, we are taking these actions earlier in the curve than, for instance, France and Germany did, but behind in time, because the progress of the virus is further advanced in those countries.
The hon. Gentleman asked about testing. That is very important, because of course people want to know their covid-19 status, and we are expanding testing as fast as we possibly can. The test that the world is looking for is the test that can check whether people have the antibodies because they have had coronavirus, because then we can find that out not just by testing people while they have it but afterwards, if they have had it, and therefore have the antibodies with the immunity that comes from that. That test does not yet exist, but we are putting an enormous amount of effort into creating it. We also need testing that can be done at the bedside rather than in the lab, and a huge amount of work is under way to bring that about. The same goes for vaccines and antivirals, on which the hon. Gentleman asked for a written ministerial statement, and I will of course ensure that the House is provided with one.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about a package of financial support. We established a significant package in the Budget last week, and I had a meeting with the hon. Gentleman earlier today to discuss what further amounts might be needed.
There are many young people in my constituency, but when I was first elected it had the highest proportion of people above retirement age in the country. Most of those people are economically active, and many of those who are not are volunteers. I pay tribute to those over 70 who are helping people even older than themselves.
I welcome all the points that the Secretary of State has made so far, but may I put three quick points to him? He does not need to answer them in detail now. First, senior general practitioners are worried that some medicines—controlled drugs, which are safe—are being destroyed because the patient for whom they were first ordered may have died. If a shortage of morphine and the like happens, it will lead to distress and agony for people unnecessarily. Will the Secretary of State look into that, and see whether, whatever the requirements are, they might be lifted during this period?
Secondly, the advice to reduce social contact may be right and important, but if people are fit and healthy and are running a business, it is not necessarily right for that business to be closed down just because they have hit a certain age.
Thirdly, may I add to a sensible point made by the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth)? There is some help for people with mortgages, but many people who will lose their jobs are paying rent. Will the Secretary of State also ensure that no one is unnecessarily evicted or threatened during a short-term period of shortage of money?
The measures on shielding are specifically for those who have significant health conditions and will be contacted by the NHS. They are not for the generality of over-70s who are healthy, for whom the guidance is the same as that for people of working age, except that we strongly advise, as opposed to advising. That is for their own protection, because the over-70s, and especially the over-80s, are at significantly higher risk of mortality—of dying from this virus.
The other points made by my hon. Friend are welcome. He made a very important point about rent, which featured in the discussions that we had earlier today. I have been talking about it to those at the Treasury and to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Many banks have already taken action on mortgages.
My hon. Friend’s point about the availability of drugs is, of course, critical. We have a very comprehensive drug supply chain system that we understand well, thanks to the planning that we have done over the last couple of years. Thus far we have not seen shortages beyond those that already existed before the virus, such as the one that we debated in the autumn in the context of HRT, but of course we keep the position under constant review.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the concern about why the UK Government’s approach was such an outlier until now, including the talk about herd immunity, when it is not clear that any immunity from this virus is long-term. The UK is now facing an exponential rise, and I therefore welcome what the UK Government have said about decreasing all non-essential contact, as I think that it is critical to slow down and limit the spread of the virus.
The briefing from the Prime Minister talked about not providing emergency services for large gatherings, but can the Secretary of State clarify whether the Government are advising against or forbidding mass gatherings? I welcome the talk about increasing testing capability, but the briefing talked about only testing those in hospital and key workers. In Scotland, surveillance testing in practices that monitor disease in the community is continuing. Will that also be the case here in England?
Following the confusion over the weekend and, indeed, the comments that he has just made about healthy people over 70, will the Secretary of State clarify what exactly is the advice for people over 70 who live in their own homes or in care homes? Are they meant to be staying at home, or are they simply meant to be decreasing contact? In particular, is the Secretary of State discussing with social care providers lengthening the time of each visit so that there is time for the careworker to take precautions? He says that the healthy should go to work, but what if they work in a club? What provision is being made for socially vulnerable people such as the homeless or those who have no recourse to public funds, such as refugees or asylum seekers? We on these Benches welcomed the measures in the Budget, but when will the devolved Governments know exactly how much funding they will have to mitigate the economic impact of this in the three devolved nations? Finally, what further changes will be carried out in the Houses of Parliament to ensure that core services continue without increasing the risk to, in particular, older Members of both Houses?
We do not support mass gatherings. We have advised against unnecessary social contact, so it goes without saying that we do not support mass gatherings.
The hon. Lady asked about surveillance testing. Across the UK, we have one of the biggest coronavirus surveillance operations in the world. Of course it happens in Scotland, but it happens throughout the UK. She also asked about Parliament. I understand, Mr Speaker, that you have been having discussions today about how Parliament will operate, but I think the whole House will be sure, in our collective decision, that although Parliament may have to operate differently, it must remain open.
May I join the Secretary of State, and the shadow Secretary of State, in commending and paying tribute to all who work in our national health service, on whom we rely from day to day, but on whom we rely all the more under these conditions?
May I press the Secretary of State on two points that have been raised by others? The advice from the World Health Organisation was very clear: test, test, test. At an earlier stage the UK changed its testing requirements, and those who have symptoms and self-isolate are no longer tested. If the full information is to be available, surely the testing has to be very significantly increased. Who exactly is going to be tested?
One of the difficulties has been the way in which information has been presented. To pick up the point made by the SNP spokesman about the over-70s that was echoed elsewhere, the headlines are that over-70s, even now, are going to have to stay at home for 12 weeks. Can the Secretary of State be absolutely precise as to what the advice is for over-70s and those with other conditions, and what those conditions are? Finally, on the question of seven or 14 days’ self-isolation, my understanding was that if someone had symptoms and were on their own they should self-isolate for seven days, but if they were in a family the whole family should self-isolate for 14 days. Perhaps my right hon. Friend could confirm.
My right hon. Friend is precisely correct on the third question. The difference between the advice for seven days and 14 is precisely as follows. If you have symptoms yourself, if you live on your own you should self-isolate for seven days, but if you live in a household with others, the whole household now needs to stay at home for 14 days. The reason is that if you live in a household with someone who has coronavirus it is highly likely that you will catch it, so it is important, to protect against onward transmission, that everybody stays at home. That is the reason for the distinction between the seven days and the 14 days, and I hope that is clear—seven days for individuals, 14 for households.
On the point about the World Health Organisation saying that we should “test, test, test”, I wholeheartedly agree. We have continued the increase in testing in this country throughout this outbreak. The point that was made last week was that as the increase in the number of cases continues, so our testing capability must increase faster, and at this stage we have to make sure that the use of the tests we have are prioritised. As we expand testing capability, we will expand the number of people who can get hold of those tests. I understand the frustrations of those who want a test, but the whole House will agree that we have to make sure that we use those tests on the people who need them most, which means saving lives in hospitals.
On the point about the over-70s, to reiterate the answer that I gave a moment ago, the advice to everybody is to avoid unnecessary social contact. For the over-70s, for their own protection, that is strongly advised. The shielding, which is essentially reducing all contact as much as possible, is for those who have underlying health conditions and will be contacted by the NHS. The precise details of all these will be published on the gov.uk website so that everybody can see not only the answers I am giving to the questions, but the precise wording of what we expect everybody to do, as I have set out in the statement.
Can I say to the Secretary of State that the House has always come together at times of national crisis as one, and that is the spirit across the House today? In that spirit, can I ask him to match the unprecedented public health measures that he has announced today with unprecedented economic measures to support all the businesses, large and small, their workers, and the self-employed, who will be affected by the measures announced today? We have seen across the world—for example, in Denmark—workers’ wages being guaranteed by a combination of Government and employers. It is no fault of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that his Budget last Wednesday is now out of date, but can I ask the Secretary of State to urge him to come back to the House with economic measures that match the gravity of the moment?
I absolutely understand the point that the right hon. Member is making, and he is right to make it. Of course, these are matters for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, rather than me. There was a G7 call today, in which the Prime Minister participated, during which economic considerations like this were considered. Finally, every single one of us in the House will have businesses in our constituencies that are already facing the brunt of this virus. We saw from the collapse of Flybe right at the start—that feels like weeks ago—the very significant economic consequences, and we have our eyes wide open to those.
I warmly welcome the measures announced today. People have debated when they were going to be introduced, but the Government have shown today that they have the courage to introduce very tough measures that will have profound economic consequences, which will reassure many people up and down the country. In the constructive spirit adopted by the shadow Health Secretary, I want to ask a couple of things about the measures that have been introduced.
First, the Secretary of State is advising people not to go to clubs, cinemas and restaurants. Will he also advise clubs, cinemas and restaurants to close their doors, so that there is absolute clarity that people should not, at this moment, engage in those activities? Secondly, if someone in a household is symptomatic, he is advising the whole household to self-isolate for 14 days. I understand the logic behind that, which was very clearly explained, but the World Health Organisation advice is to test and isolate every single suspected case of the virus, so would he explain why there is divergence?
Thirdly, to follow up the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—[Hon. Members: “Former”]—the former Prime Minister, is the advice to healthy over-70s who do not have an existing long-term condition that they should be part of a new shielding policy that is happening at the weekend, or is that shielding policies just for over-70s with an existing health condition?
On that last point, no—the shielding policy is only for those with existing health conditions. Those whom we are going to ask to participate in shielding, from next week, will receive a contact from the NHS, and we will publish the list of conditions that we consider necessary for shielding. On the point that my right hon. Friend makes about testing and isolating, I strongly agree with the World Health Organisation about the need for testing. I spoke at the weekend to Dr Tedros, head of the World Health Organisation, and we strongly agree on the need for testing. The question is how fast can we ramp up testing capability for the tests that we need—the blood tests to know who has had coronavirus and the bedside test or the home test, so that these tests can be expanded rapidly across the whole country? The first has yet to be invented, although we hope that it will be fairly soon, and the second has just been invented in the past few days, and we are in intense negotiations about rolling those out very rapidly.
Today I bring a message from my colleagues who are working hard on the NHS frontline. They say that they do not have the protective equipment that they need, nor do they have the capacity to manage the spread of infection in their own departments. There is clear concern among hospital staff and the wider public alike about the transparency of the plan to tackle the virus. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that our incredible staff must immediately have the protective equipment that they need to be safe; that they should be tested if they show symptoms of virus infection, as currently not all of them are being told that they can; and that more information must be transparent so that medical teams across the country can prepare their departments for the very worst?
The whole of our action plan is based on the science and on as much transparency as possible. We have exhibited unprecedented transparency in this crisis so far, and I pledge again to full transparency, publishing, for instance, the modelling that underpins the scientific advice, and also publishing the action plan two weeks ago. At the time, that felt as if we were looking at some things that were quite out of the ordinary, and I do not think that anybody then anticipated that we would have to bring them in in the way we have, and as many countries have now brought them in. I pledge once again to that transparency.
The hon. Lady is completely right about PPE, and we need to expand the amount of PPE. Again, we are buying it, as with ventilators, as fast as we possibly can, and part of our call for a national effort to manufacture includes PPE.
I want to end my answer to the hon. Lady by saying something about those who work in the NHS. The NHS will face an extraordinary period and many people will do extraordinary things, but it will be very, very difficult. I pay tribute in advance to the service that every single person who works in the NHS will give.
The hon. Lady is right to remind me. Of course we want as much staff testing, as soon as possible. We are using the testing capacity we have to save lives, and that includes saving the lives of medics.
In the past 24 hours or so, I have spoken to a great number of the headteachers in my constituency. I think it is a fair summary to say that there is support for the decision to keep schools open, and I agree with them. However, there is great concern that no matter what they or we might want, an increasing number of teaching staff becoming unwell and therefore unable to be in school might end up forcing the issue, leaving heads in an impossible position. I feel slightly guilty asking the Health Secretary these questions, but his is the statement we have today. What is the Government’s view on relaxing the student-staff ratio and getting Ofsted off schools’ back now, please. Also, if we were to run a skeleton service in schools to allow key workers to keep working, how are we to define key workers, given that we are in the middle of a national crisis?
We are looking at all those questions. The proposal to relax student-staff ratios is in the Bill. We will publish the content of the Bill tomorrow and the Bill itself on Thursday. The point about key workers is incredibly important. I am working hard with the Education Secretary to address precisely the concerns that my hon. Friend raises. Of course schools play an important part not just in educating our children but in allowing so many people to go to work, but we have to make sure that they are safe as well. One of the blessings of this virus is that it almost entirely spares children, which means that it is safe for children to go to school.
Can the Health Secretary give the public some reassurance about his plans for social care, which many vulnerable elderly and disabled people rely on? In particular, what plans does he have to ensure that the care workforce can continue to be effective? We already have more than 120,000 vacancies in the sector, and half of all home care workers are on zero-hours contracts. Is he confident that the care workforce can do what elderly and disabled people and the NHS need?
Obviously, that is an incredibly important area. Earlier today, there was a call with local authority leaders, my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary and the Care Minister. Enormous amounts of work are being done and we will do everything we can to support social care.
I congratulate the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State on the tone both have adopted. It is inevitable that most people will be infected. Most people will recover. When can the people who recover return to work, and what will the impact be?
Yes, most people recover within seven days of first showing symptoms—most people, not all. Many become very ill, but for most people this is a mild to moderate illness, and the vast majority of the evidence is that once they have recovered, the illness does not come back for some time. Of course, all the evidence is kept constantly under review.
Will the Secretary of State clarify some details of his answer to the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) regarding testing of our frontline healthcare workers and, just as important, our frontline social care workers? Our services are stretched to the max already. We cannot afford to have those who do not need to self-isolate self-isolating, potentially multiple times if they do not know whether they have had the virus.
I entirely understand that point. I want to get testing to everyone who needs it as soon as possible.
I join the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State in extending sympathy to those who have died of the virus and admiration for NHS staff members and others who are coping with it. May I press my right hon. Friend on testing? First, if we are relying on scientific evidence, it is important that we are transparent about it. When will he publish the scientific evidence that he mentioned in his statement? Secondly, there has been a change in policy on testing. Up to the end of last week, people could be tested via drive-in or home visits; that is no longer the case. Is that because there is not the necessary quantity of test kits available? If so, will that type of test be restored when they are available, and when does he expect that to be?
At the start, when the number of cases was very small, we had enough tests to test everyone who had suspected symptoms. The number of cases has risen exponentially and the number of tests has been increased, but we need to make sure that the tests we have available are there for saving lives. We hope that the introduction of a home test or equipment for bedside testing, which my right hon. Friend and I have discussed previously, will enable us to increase the number of tests radically, and get ahead of the epidemiological curve as soon as possible. We are in live negotiations about bringing that in.
Order. I will let this run for about one hour, so if we can speed up questions—[Interruption.] It might helpful if we try to help each other and not hold each other up.
Many of us have thousands of constituents who are either on zero-hours contracts or are self-employed. I have raised this question before, but unless the Government can offer those people some sort of minimum income guarantee, they will quickly be facing repossession and homelessness.
Of course I understand that, and it is part of the discussions I have been having with the Welfare Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and everyone in the House for their calm response. I have two brief questions. One has been raised several times, and although it may sound flippant, it is important. People are asking whether they can walk their pet if they are self-isolating. I ask because people want to know whether self-isolating means that they should be fully housebound, or that they can go to a park and walk their pet.
The second question—[Interruption.] I will be very quick. In Watford, we have a great volunteer network popping up. I am sure that is happening across the country. Will there be guidance for volunteers on how to ensure they do not spread the virus by doing the right thing?
The answer to the second question is yes. The answer to the first is yes, people should go outside. Walk your pets. People in household isolation should go out, but they should try to avoid other people. It is very important that we look out for others in our communities and that people get the exercise they need.
I realise that this is not in the Secretary of State’s remit, but he announced that the Government will advise people not to go to pubs, clubs, restaurants and so on. Unless the Government mandatorily close them down, they cannot claim on their business insurance. Will he please get a diktat from the Government that formally closes such businesses down?
We have set out the advice today, and I will look at the point the hon. Gentleman raises.
Will the Secretary of State make sure that in the legal powers and guidance will be provision to ensure that all our councillors who are over 70 can participate fully in council and committee meetings from their home, using technology?
Indeed, technology has a huge role to play in helping people to get through this.
Everyone wants us all to pull together and support the same strategy, and the Health Secretary will be aware of the real unease about the differences between the UK’s approach and other approaches taken internationally. Can he reassure us that the Government’s objective is the same as the WHO’s, which said today that we should be testing everyone who has symptoms, not waiting for a future test that might work in different circumstances? Is that the objective: to test everyone who has symptoms now? What is his target for how many new tests a day he wants to be able to do and by when? I have been contacted by GPs who are self-isolating because they cannot get tests.
The answer is, yes, we want, of course, all the tests that we need.
Does the test give evidence of no infection? That goes to the point that has been made about frontline health workers. Is the Secretary of State saying today that there is an immunity that builds up? Has that been medically confirmed for people who have had this once?
On the latter point, the chief medical officer has set out today that immunity is built up by having had this virus. That evidence is constantly being kept under review, but immunity does appear to be built up. On the testing point, as I said to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), of course we want tests to be available for everyone. Our goal is to beat this virus. We want to make sure that all our frontline medical staff can have the testing and that everyone in the community can have those tests, but where only a limited number of tests are available we have to use them to save life. I am working as fast as I can to increase the number.
The Secretary of State said that this was a national effort and he is right, but it is more than that; this is a global crisis that has seen different approaches taken in different countries. Does he not accept that we need stronger, co-ordinated, global leadership, both on the health front and on the economic front, to get the best possible response to this global crisis?
I half agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and that is because I think that international co-ordination is important—I have been participating in regular G7 calls, as have the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer—but different countries are also in different places on the curve. For instance, we have introduced measures such as these earlier on the curve than similar countries, such as France and Germany.
May I repeat the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) about pubs and restaurants? I have been contacted by a number from the Moorlands today that are particularly concerned in the run-up to Mother’s Day, which would normally be one of the busiest days of the year. Can the Government give firm advice now as to whether pubs and restaurants should close or not, so they can claim on insurance?
We are advising against all unnecessary social contact. I appreciate that this has consequences and I regret having to take these measures, but we are having to fight this virus.
When exactly did the Government start buying extra ventilators? How many more have they managed to get? How many more do they need?
We started weeks ago. I can get back to the right hon. Gentleman with the exact date of the first time I authorised the purchase of more ventilators, but I can say that it was very shortly after it became clear that ventilators are the thing needed to support people who have coronavirus. On the question of how many more we will need, I can say that we will buy however many will be produced.
This morning, I was pleased to hear Nicola Sturgeon say that she supported the UK Government’s approach, but of course the devolved health service, the police and the education service are different and different operational decisions will inevitably be made in Scotland. How can that be respected at the same time as ensuring that we have a common message across the UK?
My right hon. Friend is right about the advantages of a common message across the UK, and we have worked hard to try to achieve that. I visited the three devolved nations on Friday to meet my counterparts to try to ensure that we have as co-ordinated a message as possible, but of course there are differences in the delivery of our local NHS.
The Secretary of State made reference to the special measures announced by the Chancellor last week, yet the Northern Ireland Executive have yet to have been given a clear indication as to what the consequentials are for our funding in Northern Ireland. That inhibits our ability to respond to this crisis, and to provide leadership and direction to people in Northern Ireland on the schemes we can implement.
My hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury tells me that undoubtedly the devolved nations will very rapidly get the information they need. After all, this is a UK-wide effort.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the thousands of local community groups that are already mobilising in order to deal with what may be a very serious situation in their communities, involving looking after vulnerable people and even nursing the sick? Will he, with the Prime M