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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.