The business for the week commencing 23 March will include:
Monday 23 March—Consideration of a business of the House motion, followed by all stages of the Coronavirus Bill.
Tuesday 24 March—Committee and remaining stages of the Windrush Compensation Scheme (Expenditure) Bill, followed by a motion relating to appointments to the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, followed by a general debate on the situation in Yemen—the subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee—followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
Wednesday 25 March—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by Opposition day— 7th allotted day. There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Leader of the official Opposition, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
Thursday 26 March—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a debate on a motion on errors in payments made to victims of the Equitable Life scandal, followed by a debate on a motion on human rights in Kashmir—the subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee—followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
Friday 27 March—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 30 March will include:
Monday 30 March—Consideration of Lords amendments, if necessary, followed by Second Reading of the Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
Tuesday 31 March—Matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
I thank the Leader of the House for consulting Opposition parties last week on Westminster Hall debates, the result of which he has announced. We are in unprecedented times, and I appreciate that things are moving fast. I hope he will continue to consult.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for the statement you made yesterday, when the Chancellor gave his statement to the press first rather than to Parliament. Parliament must be told first: we are not irrelevant. I note that the Chancellor apologised and gave you an assurance, but he did not actually say that he would not do it again. I ask the Leader of the House to ensure that, when press conferences are held, all the information is given. What is happening is that journalists are being briefed afterwards and important information is then highlighted under breaking news, rather than at the press conference.
I thank all the staff—we now have a skeleton staff—and those who have made arrangements so that they can service Parliament. Could I ask the Leader of the House if the parliamentary staff are key workers, so they too can be supported with childcare and other benefits? Will he confirm that no one will have to use their holiday entitlement when they are self-isolating or when they are sick? Hopefully they will get sick pay, but there is an issue that they may be using up their holiday entitlement.
We were in a good position to learn from other countries. After all, China built hospitals in two weeks. Vò in Italy has tested a lot—and we know that asymptomatic people, of which there may be many here, can still transmit it—and it is now virus free. I am pleased that the Leader of the House has taken on board the suggestion that I made last week, and that the Government and the BBC have looked to ensure that the over-75s do not have to pay for their television licence fees. I note that that is only until August, but all the other packages that have been mentioned will take place over 12 months.
The Education Secretary yesterday said he wanted to work with the BBC to ensure that our children can learn while they are at home, and also to provide exercise for seniors while we are all self-isolating. It is not right that the BBC should have to foot the bill, and it needs to be compensated for any loss of income. I want to ask the Leader of the House if he can, as much as possible, confirm that we will be back on 21 April. We know the Environment Bill is in Committee: can he make a statement on the timetable for Bills and the Brexit negotiations?
If we have to self-isolate, we will all be indulging in the creative industries— music, television and films. I know that the Leader of the House knows that most of those involved are self-employed now. Many of them have had concerts cancelled, and we need to have a proper package for them so that they do not lose out. There is some confusion, because insurers are cancelling events and citing force majeure. We know that the Department of Health has said that coronavirus is a notifiable disease, so could he please clarify that?
I have a constituent who had a stroke, and she has been asked for a sick note by her human resources department, but the GP is not giving her one. Could the Leader of the House clarify whether sick notes are needed?
I appreciate that the emergency legislation will be published later today—perhaps it has already been published—and it includes a sunset clause of two years. I would urge caution, because this is, after all, the Government that were found to have acted unlawfully over Prorogation. It is important that there is a shorter sunset clause and that the Leader of the House confirms that Parliament will return on 21 April.
May I make a helpful suggestion? There are lots of issues coming out of each Department. Could a statement be made, and published on gov.uk, on each Department and its package, and could there be dedicated helplines, so that we do not have to trouble, say, a Health Minister with questions about employment rights?
I know that the Government do not want to appear on “Today”, but the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown had some very important words to say on it this morning, and they should be heeded. Will the Government ensure that experts from other fields are heard? After all, when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister, he and Alistair Darling went through the economic emergency caused by the banking crisis, and also had to deal with flooding. What Gordon Brown said was very important: we are here to protect not our institutions, but our people. Please could we ensure that that happens?
It is excellent news that Nazanin has been freed. I thank the Leader of the House for all his efforts on that front, and those who made diplomatic efforts. Nazanin is out for two weeks, albeit with a tag that her family has had to pay for. Some 85,000 prisoners have been released in Iran, but neither Anoosheh nor Kylie, both dual nationals, are among them. Could I again ask the Leader of the House to raise their case? They need to be back home, where we can help them if they have coronavirus, which we know is widespread in Iran.
One of the good things to have come out of the current situation is the fabulous community groups that have been set up to help people. Post Office workers and members of the Communication Workers Union are going to every house, helping with deliveries. Firefighters in Manchester are going to ring elderly people often. Let us keep our spirits up. Tomorrow is the first day of spring!
The right hon. Lady is right to keep our spirits up, and to remind us that tomorrow is the first day of spring. I hope that will put a suitable spring in our step. I am very grateful for the support given to the Government in these difficult times by the Opposition; the right hon. Lady; the Leader of the Opposition; the shadow Health Secretary, who has been working very closely with the Government; and of course to the Opposition Chief Whip, who is invariably a means of ensuring that mechanisms in this place work.
I also record my thanks to parliamentary counsel for the phenomenal work that they have done in bringing forward the emergency legislation that will be presented later today. They have been working all weekend and late into the night on drafting the Bill. I note the point made about the sunset clause; it will have been noted. We want to maintain co-operation with all parties across the House, and I am sure that there will be discussions over the weekend on that point, but it is not for me to make commitments. I am genuinely grateful for the support.
On statements to this House, the Chancellor did indeed apologise for not making his statement here first. He was bringing forward financially sensitive information; those kinds of statement can be more difficult than others. I am glad to say that the Education Secretary made his statement here first, before holding a press conference. It is not an easy issue, because we need to inform the country at large, but maintain parliamentary accountability at the same time. Obviously, we will work closely with you, Mr Speaker, to ensure that Parliament is kept properly informed, and that we do not find things out purely from news reports, but it is important to get information out to the country at large as well.
With regard to our return on 21 April, it is very important that Parliament continues to sit. The position of Her Majesty’s Government is that Parliament will continue to sit. It is a point of significance. We need to be held to account, and to legislate. As for Bills in Committee, we will be able to ensure that those Committees continue as long as the House is sitting, but we may need discussions on precisely how the House operates. The shadow Leader of the House asks about voting arrangements. I thank the Opposition for not calling Divisions this week; that has been helpful in the circumstances. We need to work together closely to ensure that the mechanisms that we use are effective, to ensure that we hold the Government to account, and to legislate properly. We will have to look at this matter; I do not think it is right to make an immediate decision from the Dispatch Box. Let us see what the situation is when we come back on 21 April. There will have to be cross-party agreement; that is of fundamental importance to how the House works.
With regard to sick notes—I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for mentioning this to me in advance—as I understand it, they can now be obtained by going online with 111, so people will not need to get them from their doctors, though I reiterate the Government’s encouragement to businesses to be flexible about it. British businesses in many ways are leading the way. One hears all sorts of pieces of good news. For example, BP is offering free fuel to emergency service vehicles and things like that. Business is being community-spirited, and I encourage the business in the specific case she mentions, and in other similar cases, to behave in that way.
The right hon. Lady makes very good points about the centralisation of information. It is important that we have a reasonable balance rather than constantly bombarding Ministers to get information that is straightforwardly available already. The more information is collated, the better that will be. That was an extremely valid point, as was the point about the expertise of others. I also heard the interview with Gordon Brown, who had many interesting things to say, and I can assure the House that the Government are taking suggestions from a wide range of sources. As one can imagine, ideas are pouring in to the Government, and that is welcome.
On the over-75s, Lord Hall was on the radio this morning saying that the issue was under review. It is not therefore an August deadline and that is it—it is a decision that has been made until then. The BBC will consider it further, although I think we are going to have the opportunity of watching lots of repeats if we are staying at home. There are some wonderful programmes that were made not so many years ago, so that will not be too much of a burden, I would have thought.
I share the right hon. Lady’s pleasure about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. It is really very good news that she has been released. To update the House, the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Foreign Minister Mr Zarif on 16 March about all the dual national cases, so the Government are continuing to push on that. One piece of good news is welcome; let us hope there is more good news to come.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the treatment of UK nationals held in prisons overseas? Last month I went with my constituent Mr Sandhu to see his son held in prison in Prague for alleged offences of fraud. The family very much want the Government to intercede to see if their son can be released on bail.
I welcome my hon Friend back to business questions. We have missed him, and I am glad that he is not forced stay at home and is therefore able to raise that point. Consular staff are providing assistance to Mr Sandhu’s son, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has set out how it can help in its publications available on gov.uk, called “Support for British nationals abroad: a guide” and “Arrested abroad”. We can consider intervening with the local authorities if a detainee is not treated in line with internationally accepted standards or with consent, to raise concerns about mistreatment. However, as my hon. Friend will understand, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office cannot interfere in the judicial and legal processes of another country. We can make representations, but we cannot force. My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue.
Last night I was due to speak at an event for which more than 300 people had registered but, because of the crisis, the organisers took the event online and all those people were able to participate from the convenience and safety of their own homes. What surprised me was that the hardware I required to do that was none other than the standard issue iPad I was given five years ago by this Parliament. I say that because it convinces me that the technology is available for us to continue to have informed democratic debate without the necessity of having to meet in this Chamber.
Is the Leader of the House considering such procedures? Alongside things such as changing our Standing Orders to reduce the attendance required to make legislation, there are also mechanisms whereby people can represent their constituents and press the case that they want to on behalf of the people who elected them without the necessity to actually attend the Parliament, and I think we need to do a lot more on that.
With regard to the emergency legislation, which we shall see shortly, I wanted to ask a specific point as to whether that will give the Government the scope to take action against some people who are engaged in quite disreputable behaviour at this point in time. While the public response to this crisis has brought out the best in people, there are some instances where it has brought out the worst as well. Many people will be shocked by the fact that there are private medical companies profiteering by charging exorbitant fees for testing at this point in time. I believe such people should be detained and their assets should be commandeered and put to the public good. I wonder whether the emergency legislation will give the Government the powers to act in that way.
With regard to the debate about a universal basic income or a minimum income guarantee, which many people feel is essential to avoid perhaps millions of people approaching the Department for Work and Pensions for benefit claims, the Prime Minister gave a guarantee yesterday that he would meet with others and bring forward proposals on that. When might we expect a statement to the House from the Prime Minister on that, and when will such a meeting take place?
Finally, it seems rather surreal and fanciful to be planning to meet not just next week in full, but the week after. Should we not now be taking steps to wind down our formal processes and go to the Easter recess at the end of next week? Would that not be the sensible course of action and indicate leadership to everyone else in the country?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the tone and the interest of his proposals. Everybody is open to ideas as to how things might be done differently and what the needs are on attendance. Mr Speaker received a letter from the Chair of the Procedure Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), that sets out options for how Select Committees may be able to carry on with their important business without meeting in person. Parliament will consider what steps can reasonably be taken to allow things to be done remotely. It may be difficult to recreate the Chamber remotely, but there are certainly options with Select Committees and they are being considered.
The Government share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about people profiteering from the crisis and are aware that some people are behaving extremely well and others are using this as an opportunity. One has heard stories of people charging exorbitant prices for hand sanitiser, loo roll and so on, so the Government are aware of the issue and will act if necessary. As yet, it does not seem to be so widespread a problem as to require Government action, but we are not ignoring the point.
On universal basic income, the Government are willing to consider all ideas. Lots of ideas are coming in. The priority is to proceed with things that can be implemented rapidly and for which systems already exist. It may prove difficult to introduce entirely new systems, but I am sure that the Prime Minister, having said that he is open to meetings on this matter, will prove open to meetings on this matter.
As regards the week after next, the House voted for the recess dates, but it can obviously vote for new recess dates. We want to maintain flexibility, because I cannot make an absolute guarantee that all the emergency legislation that could possibly have been thought of is in the Bill coming before the House today. There may be other things that we need to legislate on, and there is also a demand for scrutiny, so we have to get the balance right. Nothing will be done without consulting the Opposition parties—I emphasise the plural.
The Opposition have a serious point in terms of the duration of the debate on the emergency legislation, given that it appears that we will debate it only for one day. There is a qualitative difference between a single-day debate on major legislation and even a two-day debate. I know that the upper House has different constitutional arrangements, but can the Leader of the House tell us how much time he expects it to spend considering the legislation, before it sends it back to us?
I note my right hon. Friend’s point, of which the Government are aware. The Bill needs to progress with support in this House. Emergency legislation is best done and tends to go through successfully only when there is widespread consensus, so his point is important. Unfortunately, I cannot say what proceedings will be in the other place, and I do not think it would be right for me to try; it would be slightly impertinent of me to say what their lordships will do.
There is a lot of rivalry in the rugby league, especially in Hull, where we are blessed to have two super league teams: Hull FC and Hull Kingston Rovers. It is clear that rugby league clubs need a special scheme of support. I spoke with both clubs’ chairmen yesterday evening, and they are very worried about the survival of their clubs as a result of covid-19. Can we have a statement from a Minister on what plans there are to financially support rugby league clubs at this incredibly worrying time, so that they can survive to not next week, next month or next year, but for the next 125 years?
A lot of businesses and sporting organisations are worried. I reiterate what the Chancellor has said: everything that can be done will be done to ensure the stability of the economy through this period and that businesses that are well founded are able to continue.
Tomorrow, thousands of businesses across the country that provide childcare and nursery services have been asked to shut their doors for an indefinite period. Can we have a debate on what we can do to help the childcare sector through this very difficult period, to ensure that we have successful, thriving and high-quality nursery provision for the years ahead?
There are inevitably concerns following the announcement yesterday of the closures that will take place. The Government are working with providers of all levels of education to ensure that they are aware of the situation and are helped to cope through it, and I understand that further announcements will be made today.
Will the Leader of the House take this opportunity to thank everyone working on our transport networks—on our buses and trains, driving delivery vehicles and so on? Does he recognise that there are real concerns about the impact of the reduction in passenger flights, not only on travel businesses and aviation workers but on the movement of essential goods which are usually carried in the hold of passenger planes? When can we expect a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport, so that we can raise this and many other concerns?
Of course, I am willing to thank everybody in the transport sector who is working so hard. It is interesting to note, in terms of how society has developed, that delivery drivers for supermarkets are unquestionably key workers. They are playing an incredibly important role, particularly for those who need to stay at home and, from next week, for those with particular medical conditions who will be encouraged to be shielded. The work they are doing is making it possible for people to carry on with their lives as far as possible, so it is very important work. With regard to the flow of trade in the bellies of aeroplanes, that is an important point. I think there is such demand for ministerial statements that many of them will need to be written rather than oral statements.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his response to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on how this House should operate. I want to connect two issues: the scrutiny of emergency powers and the need for public confidence in their exercise, and the role of Select Committees. When does he think he will be in a position to announce to the House what the arrangements for Select Committees will be? If these emergency powers are to be exercised, Select Committees can sit when the House is not sitting and provide some democratic oversight of how these powers are being exercised.
Perhaps it is helpful to explain how we came to agreement on Westminster Hall being suspended, to give an example of how we are intending to work. There was a letter from the Clerk of the House to Mr Speaker. Mr Speaker consulted me. I consulted the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and representatives of the Scottish National party. We consulted the Chairmen of the most relevant Select Committees, and then we came forward with a motion. It is very important that what we do for Select Committees similarly has cross-party support and consensus across this House. I think that if the Leader of the House, representing the Government, were to come forward with proposals for how Select Committees should operate, people might think that that was designed not to enhance but to reduce scrutiny. It is of the utmost importance that this is done with consensus, and therefore it will take a little time—a few days—to discuss these matters, but proposals will be brought forward.
In the last hour I have received urgent communication from the leading funeral operators in the UK, who tell me that there is a reluctance by the Cabinet Office to include funeral care workers on the list of essential employees. It is inconceivable that this industry will be short-staffed at this time. Will the Leader of the House please urgently communicate with his Cabinet colleagues to ensure that those in the funeral industry are on the list of essential workers?
Many colleagues have constituents abroad, many of whom are desperate to get back home. When can we have a debate on price gouging and bring forward—perhaps in the emergency legislation—price gouging measures? Most airlines are trying to do their bit to help, but there are some examples of egregious price gouging preventing people from coming home. I think that British people might find it very difficult to swallow if the airlines wanted us to bail them out while at the same time they were hiking up prices for people who need to come back home.
My hon. Friend raises a sensible point. The Foreign Office is working closely with the airlines to ensure that people can be brought back home, and the Department for Transport is working closely with them as well. I would make a general point that goes back to what was said by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), which is that businesses are, in some cases, behaving very well. Businesses will want to maintain the support of the community in what they do, so, regardless of Government intervention, they would be well advised to maintain the good will of the British people.
I want to follow up on the point about Select Committees. Will the Government please bring forward next week the motions to establish both the Liaison Committee and the Scottish Affairs Committee? I know that we have had our differences about this, but we need the scrutinising mechanisms in place.
I am obviously aware of these points. Both Committees were prevented from being set up by actions within this House, so the Government are inevitably deliberating on the consequences. The priority is ensuring that the Select Committees that are already set up can operate, rather than necessarily the ones that are not yet set up.
In difficult times we should remember those who sacrifice most, so may we have a statement or debate on the substance of early-day motion 280 about the scandal of war widows who lost their pensions on remarriage?
[That this House honours and recognises the sacrifices that our veterans and their families make; notes the particular sacrifices that the partners of veterans make and the consequences for them of tragically losing a spouse or partner serving in the armed forces; notes the changes announced in 2014 which allowed war widows or widowers that lost their spouse or cohabiting partner in service in the armed forces before 6 April 2005, and had not remarried by 1 April 2015, to retain their war widow pension for life regardless of ongoing relationship status; notes however that this regrettably excluded war widows bereaved before 6 April 2005 that had already had to surrender their war widows pension upon remarrying or cohabiting; believes that this is unacceptable; notes that the only way this group of war widows could regain their pensions is by divorcing their current partners and remarrying them; agrees with the then Defence Secretary who said on 18 February 2019 that this was a burning injustice, Official Report, column 1187; and therefore supports the campaign of the War Widows Association to rectify this anomaly; and urges the Government to correct this injustice by providing equalisation and compensation for the small number of war widows unjustly affected.]
May we also have a debate on early-day motion 307—which, more positively, is about the enhanced co-operation between Blind Veterans UK and the Blinded Veterans Association of America, which are setting up a new combined eye trauma taskforce—and look for the Government’s support in that matter?
The Government recognise the unique commitment that service families make to our country, and remain sympathetic to the circumstances of those widows who remarried or cohabited before 1 April 2015. However, the Government currently have no plans to reinstall state war widows’ pensions for war widows who remarried or cohabited before the 2015 change took effect. The Defence Secretary stated in the House on 3 February 2020 that the Department is
“examining alternative methods to see whether we can mitigate the impact”—[Official Report, 3 February 2020; Vol. 671, c. 3.]
of these changes. There is always a difficulty with cut-off dates.
As regards the co-operation between the US and the UK in relation to blindness and eye problems, what my right hon. Friend suggests sounds extremely worth looking into, and I will ensure that it is taken up with the Ministry of Defence.
Further to the question from the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), I have constituents who are as far away as the Philippines and Peru at the moment. They have been told to contact the embassies, but the embassy staff have rightly been sent home and contact with the embassies is nigh on impossible. There is spare capacity on the airlines at the moment, so can we have a statement from the Department for Transport or the Foreign Office—or, better still, both—about how we are going to bring our stranded people back home?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this is at the forefront of what the Foreign Secretary is doing; I heard him say that only this morning. He is ensuring that people who are in difficulties in remote areas receive as much support as the Foreign Office can possibly give.
Through you, Mr Deputy Speaker, may I thank Mr Speaker for the pace at which he brought through the changes to the way we operate here in respect of social distancing and our practices? That was the right thing to do. It seems to me that, given the scale and pace of the coronavirus spread and the threat to life, health, incomes and jobs throughout the country, it is quite right that the Government bring forward emergency legislation briskly and want to see it go through the House briskly, but it is equally right that Parliament has the opportunity to scrutinise the legislation. I have a couple of questions along those lines. First, is there a particular reason why the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 was not used? It already contains many of the safeguards that I suspect the House will wish to see.
Secondly, if the emergency legislation is passed—I hope it is, given the circumstances, albeit possibly with a few modifications—what other opportunities will there be for the House to question particular measures? This is a dynamic and fast-moving situation, and it may well be that within literally 48 or 72 hours one of the measures adopted results in perhaps 1 million or 2 million unemployed people with nowhere to go. What other opportunities will there be for the House to hold the Government to account quickly, should it prove necessary
Unfortunately, the Civil Contingencies Act would not have worked in these circumstances, because the problem was known about early enough for it not to qualify as an emergency under the terms of that Act. The legal experts say that if we can introduce emergency legislation, we should do so rather than using the Civil Contingencies Act, because if we have time to introduce emergency legislation, we obviously knew about it long enough in advance for the Act not to apply. That is why that Act could not be used.
On future scrutiny, one reason why it is so important that we keep the operation of this House going—to which, as I have said before, the Government are committed—is to ensure that scrutiny takes place. The Government of this country are the Executive and the legislature; they are not purely the Executive. We need to ensure that the legislature is operating efficiently, even if it has to operate differently, to ensure that we carry out our proper role.
My constituent, who is trapped in Peru, is being advised by the British consulate to apply for a place on a private flight, at a minimum cost of $3,000. When a member of my casework team challenged that advice and suggested that my constituent may not be able to access $3,000 easily, she was told by the representative at the British consulate, “Do they want it to be free, then?” That is not consistent with the sentiment that the Leader of the House recently expressed when he said that the Foreign Secretary is doing everything within his power to bring our citizens home. Will he ask the Foreign Secretary to come to the House to explain the lack of capacity in British consulates overseas, the appalling attitude that is being taken by some of his staff, and how he is going to ensure that our vulnerable citizens stranded overseas can come home during this pandemic?
I reassure the hon. Lady that the Foreign Secretary is, as I said earlier, taking this issue with the greatest seriousness. It is a little unfair to pick on one example of an offhand comment and assume that that is the general way consulates behave. Consulates are deeply stretched because of the numbers involved and the nature and unexpectedness of this crisis. Dare I say it that all of us have come to realise the seriousness of this crisis over time, so some replies are getting better as time goes on and the necessity becomes clearer. The Foreign Secretary is certainly working very hard on this issue.
The Select Committee on Defence wants to meet on Tuesday, but it will not be doing so. We have the witnesses in place, but they cannot beam themselves in virtually. I hope that can be corrected so we can go to a digital environment.
May I invite Ministers to give us a statement on military assistance to civil authorities through the covid-19 support force? We have 20,000 armed forces personnel on standby for mobilisation to assist during this coronavirus outbreak. They will do a terrific job, but what will that job be? There is speculation that they might be involved in the shutdown of London, but we know that is incorrect. On top of that, they have a day job to do of watching our backs to keep our nation safe. With that in mind, and with the ever-increasing pressures that will be placed on those personnel as the coronavirus outbreak continues, will Ministers consider delaying the defence, foreign policy and security review until the new year?
Select Committees need to think carefully about how they approach their business before any specific arrangements are made. Public evidence sessions are the greatest strain on House resources because of the requirement for Hansard reporters, for broadcasting and so on. I ask the Chairmen of Select Committees to be considerate in their planning for public sessions. Private sessions require much less in terms of House resources.
On assistance from the military, I understand a written ministerial statement will be tabled today by the Ministry of Defence. I agree with my right hon. Friend that the service provided to us by our armed forces, in all circumstances, is truly remarkable and inspirational.
I am glad my right hon. Friend has raised some of the wilder stories that were circulating yesterday, and I encourage all hon. and right hon. Members to listen to official sources of information. Some of the things going around yesterday seem to have been said merely to make the flesh crawl. It is much better to listen to the press conferences of the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser for their calm responses to what is actually happening.
I am worried for the many vibrant and unique pubs, clubs and music venues in Newport West. Their insurance policies cover a long list of notifiable diseases, but covid-19 is not one of them. Sam Dabb, the owner of Le Pub, a co-operative pub and music venue in Newport city centre, told me: “Without Government intervention, my business will not survive. Most people in the hospitality industry are in the same boat.” When does the Leader of the House expect the Government to announce what support will be provided to businesses whose insurance policies do not cover covid-19 as a notifiable disease?
The hon. Lady is right to raise this point. The Chancellor has said he will do whatever it takes, which is an important commitment. The scale of the problem is one that, if just moved to the insurance companies, it would have an effect on the insurance companies. We therefore need to look at what the Government are doing and at their overall approach, and we need to take to heart the Chancellor’s word that he will do whatever it takes.
The Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), is away on constituency business so, on behalf of the Committee, can I ask my right hon. Friend what provisions will be made for restarting Westminster Hall debates, which are a major part of the Committee’s allocation? Alternatively, will there be further time for debates in this Chamber?
Most of us did not use hand sanitisers until a few weeks ago. I have seen evidence of wholesalers trebling prices to retailers, but it is not clear that those increases have been passed on by manufacturers. Wholesalers are clearly profiteering from these hand sanitisers, and retailers are left with the unenviable choice of passing on the increases or having a small margin. Can we have a Government statement on what will be done to prevent such unfair profiteering at a time of national emergency?
I will answer both questions. We will have discussions about reopening Westminster Hall as soon as that is practicable. There is a commitment to reopen it, and the discussions about reopening Westminster Hall will be similar to the ones about closing it. Particularly at this time, with not all Ministers being available, the pressure has been greater than normal, but that will abate in due course.
My hon. Friend is right to raise the immoral practice of profiteering and racketeering, and I call on wholesalers to exercise better judgment. The Government are keeping a close eye on such activity, as I said earlier, and will act if necessary. Some people always feel the right thing to do in difficult times is to get involved in profiteering. They should think twice about that and not do it.
I do not know whether the Leader of the House heard his colleague from the Treasury answering an urgent question this morning, but it was quite clear that the Government are struggling, in these exceptional circumstances, to come up with policies and guidance and to get information out to the public on support for workers and families. On that basis, may I suggest gently to the Leader of the House that putting on the Order Paper for the coming days things like Second Reading of the Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill is not what this Parliament should be focusing on at the moment? We should be having statements from Ministers so that Members of Parliament can raise the issues that their constituents are bringing to them daily rather than starting legislation that is not vital in these exceptional times.
We have had statements from the Chancellor and the Education Secretary, and regular updates from the Health Secretary to keep the House up to date. I would emphasise the word “provisional”. The business for the week after next is, as always, the provisional business and that which is provisional is not set in stone.
During times of national emergency, the media play a vital role in delivering information to concerned viewers, listeners and readers. Scrutiny is good, but undermining the national effort by spreading misinformation helps nobody and creates panic among some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Will my right hon. Friend raise this issue with broadcasters such as ITV, where Piers Morgan, who has no scientific or medical qualifications, seems to want to make irresponsible comments on a daily basis?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question and he is right to point out the role that the media plays in informing the public and holding the Government to account—[Interruption.] I hear a chunter from the Opposition Benches. Michael Crick is indeed brilliant; he is somebody I particularly admire and one of the best journalists at holding people to account. One does not need to take every utterance from controversialists as holy writ. Piers Morgan enjoys causing a row and, frankly, it would be better to pay less attention to him rather than more and to listen to the Government advisers. Free speech is very precious. If people want to say silly things and look foolish, that is a matter for them.
I am sure that all colleagues across the House find that the bulk of questions from constituents come in after statements when we have had an opportunity to raise matters, once the details, or lack thereof, of what has been proposed and how it will impact on them have percolated—from breweries to nurseries, to self-employed creatives and everything in between. Will the Leader of the House arrange a general debate to allow us to raise supplementary questions and to give our constituents the assurances that they so desperately need in this very fast-moving situation?
The hon. Lady points out a perpetual dilemma in the practise of holding to account. There is always pressure to come to the House in as timely a manner as possible to ensure that the House is informed immediately; on the other hand, there is better information available 24 hours or 48 hours later which raises more questions. That is why one should view the process of holding to account as a continuum rather than as a one-off occasion, and why it is important to keep this House open, so that Ministers can be held to account. I am not sure that general debates tends to offer that level of focus, but Question Times and continual statements do, and that depends on the House sitting.
I welcome the unprecedented level of support provided to our businesses by the Chancellor earlier this week, but is it not also important to consider our charitable sector during this critical time? Earlier this week, I spoke to the chief executive of Suffolk Age UK to ask him how my office could support elderly people in my constituency as much as possible. He said to me that, in the short term, there are lots of volunteers—more volunteers than he has ever had before—but his major concern is about the financial future of the charity. In many senses, charities operate in the same way as businesses, and many of their fundraising activities—charity shops, fundraising events—have had to be cancelled because of the crisis that we are going through at the moment. Is it not appropriate for the House to set aside time to debate how we can support vital charities such as Age UK, which, through their volunteers, are supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our constituencies at the moment?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that and for the work he does to support charities in his constituency. I think all of us as constituency MPs have a role in our communities to do what we can to help. I would go back to what the Chancellor has said. He is aware that these difficulties are affecting a range of sectors and he will do whatever it takes to provide the necessary support. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will be co-ordinating the volunteering effort, to ensure that it is as beneficial as possible.
I listened carefully to the Leader of the House’s responses to hon. Members’ points about the many UK citizens stranded abroad—our constituents—and I am afraid it will not do. Will the Government make a statement, written or otherwise, on their plans for repatriating UK citizens? Or are they just supposed to continue largely to fend for themselves?
One cannot always provide satisfaction, much though I have tried hard to do so, but Her Majesty’s Government are doing whatever they can to help constituents in these difficult times. The Foreign Secretary is working very hard on this and is working with the airlines on it. This is a process, and I am afraid that not everybody is going to be repatriated overnight, because it is not simply a question of doing that; rather, it is a question of getting in touch with people, ensuring that the facilities are available and then getting them home. However, the Government are working hard to try to help constituents.
The Government undoubtedly need emergency legislation, but as I understand it the Bill is some 350 pages long, includes measures that, uniquely, would allow Ministers to switch on and off their powers without any reference to Parliament whatsoever, and is intended to last for two years. Some of these will be draconian measures restricting the liberty of the individual in this country. They may be completely necessary, but can I urge the Government to think about, first, making it possible for us to table amendments on Monday, before Second Reading, which is not the normal way, and, secondly, allowing these measures to last for 90 days before approval by Parliament and then to be renewed every 30 days thereafter?
I would look more favourably on the switching on and off mechanism, which, although not previously used, is a means of limiting these powers rather than extending them. I do not think it has been done before, but it ensures that the powers will be activated only when necessary and, when unneeded, will be removed. I think that is a step in favour of maintaining as much liberty as possible. I recognise that it is a long Bill, and I pay tribute to a parliamentary counsel for their work, which has been really remarkable in the short space of time available. It is important that these measures are passed with consensus. The hon. Gentleman has made his point; I am sure it will be—
The Leader of the House and others have rightly talked about proper scrutiny of what the Government are doing, as rather highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). The Leader of the House was slightly disingenuous, if I may say so, when he talked about the Liaison Committee being delayed by this House. It was actually a power grab by the Government to impose a Chair from outside its membership that has caused the delay. Nevertheless, it is vital that that Committee is up and running, and it could be a hugely useful place for this House, if it had to shrink down its activities, to question Ministers directly and the Prime Minister about actions, especially if we are living under draconian legislation, which is likely to be passed next week. Will the Leader of the House give us some comfort on that issue?
On the point about the motion on Tuesday relating to appointments to the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, will we now finally see a group of professionals dealing with the northern estate and making sure that in the midst of this crisis, having had flood and pestilence, we do not see this place burned by fire as well?
A great deal of work has been done on fire safety in this building, with measures implemented that will ensure that we are much better protected than we were. That is very important. People will notice that the state rooms in Speaker’s House are currently not usable because fire safety measures are being implemented, so that is taking place.
As regards the Liaison Committee, I think it would be a very novel constitutional development to think that it could replace the whole House, and I am not sure that that would be something that I would welcome.
Before anyone was quarantined for coronavirus, 1 million Uighur Muslims were in isolated camps run by Chinese Government authorities. The combination of limited access to medical resources and high populations of elderly detainees could lead to a humanitarian disaster if the virus reaches the camps. Indeed, it may already be there. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement on this important issue?
I am always grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his campaigning for religious freedom, irrespective of the religion for which he believes there should be freedom, which is wholly admirable. We have consistently expressed our serious concerns both to China and at the UN about the human rights situation in Xinjiang, including extrajudicial detention of over 1 million Uighurs and other minorities in “political re-education” camps. The Foreign Secretary raised the issue with his Chinese counterpart, State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, on 9 March, and we expressed our concerns in the UK in a national statement at the UN Human Rights Council earlier this month. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this is being taken very seriously by the Government.
The Leader of the House is responsible for protecting the rights of Members of Parliament as well as being part of the Government. Earlier, he mentioned the need to have regular statements here in the House, but I remind him that the Health Secretary came to the House under an urgent question on Monday, the Chancellor came here only after he had made exactly the same statement to the press, and the Education Secretary came with no plan on closing schools six weeks into the crisis. Scrutiny by this House is absolutely crucial. Today, the Cabinet Office is to publish a list of essential workers who will be able to send their children to school. That should be scrutinised by this House. A statement should be made in this House so that we can scrutinise the list. We need more statements from more Departments, not fewer. The Government need to up their act, because it is clear that we have exposed a number of failings in the Government through our scrutiny. It is important that that list is published here, so that we can scrutinise it.
I think the scrutiny has been carried out well by this House. Both the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Education were questioned for the best part of two hours, which is pretty comprehensive scrutiny, with Members having the opportunity to raise constituents’ concerns and to make points that are valuable to the Government to take on board as they consider their policy developments. I am a great believer in parliamentary scrutiny. I believe our adversarial system is a very good way of improving decision making, so I am personally committed to it, as are Her Majesty’s Government.
Whether it is producing ventilators or acquiring hotels, there is clearly a role for the private sector to contribute towards this national crisis. I have a major soap manufacturer in my constituency, Queenslie’s Soapworks, which is happy to pitch in, but the company needs to know if it is to up production, which it can do within 24 hours. Can we have a statement from the Government on what is expected from the private sector, particularly in the production of things like hand sanitisers and soap?
That is an extremely helpful question. I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s constituency company is brought to the attention of the relevant Ministry to ensure that, if more quantities of soap are needed, the company can be involved. The private sector will be crucial in this effort in co-operating with what the Government are doing and changing production to produce ventilators, and I am sure there is a need to produce other things for which there is now greater demand. I am grateful to him for his helpful suggestion.
Like other hon. Members, I have constituents stranded overseas. David and Anne Clements, who run a small business in my constituency, are stranded in Quito in Ecuador. They were due to fly home tomorrow, but there are no flights and no prospect of any in the immediate future. Could the Leader of the House arrange for the Foreign Secretary to make a further statement—he seemed to rule out repatriation in previous statements—and perhaps persuade him to attempt more co-operation with other Governments, so that, if necessary, flights could be arranged for people of different nationalities to bring them safely home?
The hon. Gentleman makes a helpful point, and the Government have previously co-operated with other nations on repatriation flights. The situation is developing and evolving and the ability to bring people home has become harder in recent days, but as I said earlier, the Foreign Secretary is working very hard on this and is in discussion with the airlines.
I add my voice to the voices of all those MPs who have called for an urgent statement on what the Government are doing to repatriate UK nationals. I have one constituent who is in a party of five in a military hospital in Hanoi in Vietnam. They are staying in filthy conditions, surrounded by cockroaches and dead rats, and despite writing to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs on Tuesday, I have had no reply. I have three constituents who are stuck in Peru. They have been told not to buy a private ticket, but to stay where they are and not even to attempt to get to an airport. We need to know from the Minister, in this House, when and how our constituents can get home.
It is not is easy as that because there are different problems in different countries, and therefore, simply to say when people can get home is not within the gift of the Government; different practices are being followed in different countries. However, I note that the hon. Lady has not received a reply to a particular inquiry and I will ensure that that is taken up so that a reply is brought to her in a reasonable amount of time.
I thank the Leader of the House for stressing how important it is that Members here are well informed, but to the outside world, it seems like the business of the House is business as usual. To echo the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), I suggest that we need more frequent updates or statements by the many different Departments that are being impacted on by this crisis, and not only that, but we need daily reporting from the Health Secretary to explain the number of cases, tests, and deaths and the amount of equipment that we are getting out to our much needed hospitals. Only then can we inform our constituents of how this crisis is impacting on our communities.
The House has adjusted its programme to allow Members to be updated at unusual times. Thanks to Mr Speaker’s flexibility, statements have been coming on at times when other business was taking place, and the Opposition graciously allowed their Opposition day to be interrupted yesterday at an early time for a statement to be made, so I think our procedures are being adapted. As I look around the Chamber, I notice that social distancing is being pretty well practised, with broadly the only exception being my opposite number, the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz)—[Interruption.] And a couple of Government Ministers, too.
We are trying to get the balance right and understand the Government’s message. What is the Government’s message? It is that social distancing is advised for all of us and strongly advised for those over 70 or with certain serious medical conditions, but the Government have not said that businesses should not carry on, and our business carries on in this Chamber. That is in line with Government advice—there is no contradiction between social distancing and continuing with business, as the other half of the hon. Gentleman’s question points towards.
Right hon. and hon. Members want to hold the Government to account, and that means we need to be here to do that, but there again, a balance needs to be struck. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary has come to update the House often, but he also has considerable ministerial responsibilities—particularly heavy ones at the moment—and I think the House ought to be reasonable in what it asks of him. If he were to be here every day for two or three hours, that would be two or three hours when he was not able to attend to his ministerial business. Getting that balance right is important. In terms of my role, I recognise that I must look at it from both directions—from the point of view not only of the House, with the House being informed so that it can hold to account, but of what it is reasonable to ask of Ministers.
May I give the Leader of the House an opportunity to clarify his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), when we talked about repatriating citizens to the UK? The Leader of the House said that the Government would do whatever they can, and I am slightly concerned that that contrasts with the Prime Minister’s rhetoric, which is that we will do “Whatever it takes.” I think we should be looking to do whatever it takes to get our people back home to this country.
In addition to that, we heard a litany of challenges facing small and large businesses in our constituencies this morning during the urgent question. Businesses in in Angus and Arbroath in my constituency are facing challenging situations in getting their brokers, their insurers and, crucially, their reinsurers to face up straightforwardly to what the obligations are under business continuity claims. May we have a statement setting out what the Government’s expectations of the insurance industry are? Is this being done in tandem with the Association of British Insurers?
I reiterate that the Government and, in particular, the Foreign Secretary are working hard on the repatriation issue, but may I add that I will report to him after this session the widespread concern of so many Members? This is not just one of those things that has come up from one Member with a particular case; it seems to be a concern across the House—I see nodding and even hands going up—so I will pass that on in an underlined fashion.
There are indeed a litany of challenges faced by businesses, which is why the Economic Secretary to the Treasury was here for an urgent question earlier, and I understand the point that is being made about insurers. It is difficult for the Government to make a single statement on what will be a variety of contractual obligations, but insurers, thanks to the intervention of the Economic Secretary, have already behaved well in relation to businesses that have not been formally told to close but have de facto had to close, and there was a helpful announcement made by the Chancellor a couple of days ago. The insurance industry, very much criticised, is in some cases already behaving well.