House of Commons
Thursday 19 March 2020
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Windrush Lessons Learned Review
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of the Report, entitled Windrush Lessons Learned Review, dated 19 March 2020.—(James Morris.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Our clean air strategy sets out an ambitious programme of action to reduce air pollution from a wide range of sources. We have also put in place a £3.8 billion plan to tackle roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations. Our Environment Bill makes a clear commitment to set a legally binding target to reduce fine particulate matter and enables local authorities to take more effective action to tackle air pollution in these areas.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question; I see that she is already standing up for her constituency. Air pollution has reduced significantly since 2010. Emissions of nitrogen oxides have fallen by 33% and are at their lowest level since records began, but that is not to say that there is not a great deal more to do. In Hyndburn, nitrogen dioxide concentrations around roads are actually within the statutory air quality limit, though local authorities are empowered to address local air quality concerns within their community. We have put in place a £3.8 billion plan to improve air quality and deliver cleaner transport, and last year we published our world-leading clean air strategy, which focuses on broader emissions beyond road transport and aims to cut air pollution and save lives. That strategy includes new and ambitious goals, legislation, investment and policies to clean up our air.
Will the Minister join me in welcoming the more stringent air pollution reduction targets that the Scottish Government have agreed in legislation, and does she agree that the UK Government should match those targets in their Environment Bill?
Forestry is devolved, and we are working with the devolved Administrations to increase tree planting across the UK to 30,000 hectares per year by 2025. To drive up planting rates in England, we announced a new £640 million nature for climate fund, and we are developing an ambitious delivery programme. We will seek feedback and evidence on this through our new English tree strategy.
I thank the Minister for that response. The Committee on Climate Change has said that we need to plant 32,000 hectares a year for the next 30 years if we are to meet the net zero target, but my understanding is that the Government’s recent announcement was that they would be planting 30,000 hectares in full by 2025, not per year. Can the Minister clarify that? The manifesto commitment was per year, but I think the Government have not now committed to that.
The Government have made major commitments. Chiefly, as I have mentioned, we announced the £640 million nature for climate fund in our manifesto. Ministers are working with officials on policy proposals to increase tree planting in England over this Parliament. We have also kick-started funding for planting the new Northern and Great Northumberland forests. In addition, last year we opened the £50 million woodland carbon guarantee, giving long-term income support to new woodland creation projects, while pump-priming the domestic carbon market, which is obviously something that will grow.
I thank the Minister for her responses so far. In her statement in answer to the original question, she referred to having been in touch with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the regional Administrations. Northern Ireland lags behind when it comes to tree planting. What discussions has the Minister had with the Northern Ireland Assembly to ensure that tree planting in Northern Ireland catches up with the tree planting that she mentioned in her statement and answers?
Obviously, we are keen for tree planting to expand everywhere, including Scotland. Scotland already does a lot of tree planting, because the nature of its landscape is somewhat different from ours. We have a raft of measures, and our officials will be speaking to officials in Northern Ireland. It is very important that we keep all that contact and do this as a joint thing. Trees work on the atmosphere: they hold the carbon dioxide, and that goes everywhere, so we need to be doing this jointly.
It is absolutely right that we vastly ramp up tree planting to help with carbon capture, but may I ask the Minister not to overlook kelp? It absorbs more than six times the amount of carbon as trees. We have vast tracts of seabed available, not least off Sussex. It helps with marine conservation, and it is also a food source. Please could we look at that more closely, and at how we can promote it, as we want to do, in Sussex?
My hon. Friend raises an incredibly interesting point. It is something I am personally very interested in. As we speak, there is a project under way to plant kelp and to look at how its carbon capture is going. Mudflats are similarly really important, as are salt marshes. There could be a big future for this on our new horizon of dealing with the land and the landscape. All this carbon capture is a new feature in relation to climate change, and I think kelp will definitely be part of it.
The Minister has talked a lot about planting trees, but made no mention of where those trees will come from; in other words, will they be sourced within the UK or will we be importing them, which will have an impact not only on employment but on the importation, as we have seen previously, of pests and diseases? Will the Minister therefore give long-term contracts to the horticultural industry so that it can rapidly ramp up the production of seedlings, for the sake of the British economy and as a health and safety measure ?
I forgive the right hon. Gentleman for going on, because it is brilliant to mention horticulture. Horticulture is such an important part of this country, and we are in discussions with nurseries, because he is absolutely right that they have to provide these trees. We would obviously like as many as possible to come from the UK, because that is very important, particularly on biosecurity grounds. I see a great new future in that for those nurseries, and we are in discussions with the industry.
I declare an interest, as a member of Kettering Borough Council, which is increasing its planting of British native trees from 250 to 500 a year and supports plans for 40 hectares of new trees across north Northamptonshire on an annual basis. What more can be done to incentivise local authorities to plant more trees?
As ever, my hon. Friend is a fantastic advocate for his constituency. Many local authorities are embarking on excellent planting schemes. There will be some big opportunities through the Environment Bill in the biodiversity net gain sector, where lots of people will be able to offset when building a development; they can plant some trees to add 10% more biodiversity. There will be opportunities right around the country through the new nature recovery strategies which my hon. Friend’s local authority will be a part of providing, and that will determine where the trees should be planted.
I feel like a jack-in-a-box, Mr Speaker.
The UK supports a number of initiatives to eliminate deforestation from supply chains in line with the aims of the Amsterdam declaration. That includes establishing UK roundtables on palm oil and soya to help UK companies realise sustainable sourcing commitments and supporting the tropical forest alliance, a public-private initiative with over 160 members. We also convene the global resource initiative, which will shortly recommend further actions that the UK can take to green our supply chains.
In the year when are due to host COP26, the Environment Bill must be world leading and set an example for other countries to follow. How will DEFRA take responsibility for the UK’s global footprint, and will the Minister confirm that there will be action to remove deforestation from UK supply chains in future?
The hon. Lady raises an incredibly important point and our vision is for everyone to benefit from more sustainable production of vital agricultural commodities. We have addressed this within the Environment Bill. Our global footprint is incredibly important, and we are considering the recommendations in the global resource initiative and will be very seriously thinking about how Government can take that forward. We are leading by example in many other areas, particularly our Government’s partnerships for forests programme and the soya programme that I mentioned in my previous answer.
Vulnerable People: Food Supplies
The Government are in close contact with representatives of the food supply chain and with local authorities, including those in the north-east, and also with charities, to ensure that those who need to stay at home will have continued access to food. We have well established ways of working with the food industry during disruption and our retailers already have highly resilient supply chains and are working around the clock to ensure that people have the food and other products that they need.
All of us found the images of empty supermarket shelves disturbing, but for those who are vulnerable, aged, unwell, isolated or dependent on food banks, that is causing real fear as to where their next meal is coming from. In the north-east, we have excellent local producers, but much of our food is dependent on supply chains, and I am afraid the Secretary of State’s response will not have given the reassurance required. What specifically is he doing to ensure the supply of food to the supermarket shelves and from the supermarket shelves to people’s homes?
It is very important to note that we have significant resilience in our food supply chain, in that food manufacturers are used to coping with increases in demand, not least every year during Christmas. There is not a shortage of food. The challenge we have had is getting food to shelves in time when people have been purchasing more. That is why we have taken steps including setting aside delivery curfews so lorries can run around the clock, and relaxing driver hours to ensure that deliveries can take place more frequently. We are in discussion with Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government colleagues about other support that we would deliver locally to get food to those who are self-isolating.
I thank the Secretary of State for meeting me and the rest of the shadow DEFRA team this week to discuss concerns about the national crisis and food availability. I urge him to go further on some of the measures he has set out. I hope my questions are seen as being asked in a constructive spirit.
People are worried about how they will feed their family, especially if they are self-isolating, have had their income slashed to statutory sick pay or have lost their job. However, millions are already in food poverty, and this is an immediate family emergency for many of them. With food banks running low on food, and given that many food bank volunteers are over the age of 70 and will soon need to self-isolate, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to assist those in genuine hunger today?
As I have said, we have taken a number of steps to ensure that we can get food to supermarkets. I have been in daily calls with the food supply sector. Those have included discussions about food banks, and we are in dialogue with supermarkets to ensure that they get access to the supplies they need. I welcome the constructive approach that the shadow Secretary of State is taking. We are also working on specific proposals to help the most vulnerable—those with clinical problems—to ensure that we can get food to them should they be self-isolating.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I think he will need to provide more detail for those who are in genuine hunger today; the hope of detail in the future is not reassuring people at the moment. If I may press him further on supermarkets, we discussed the so-called grey hour, when elderly people can shop before the rest of society goes into the supermarkets. Will he press the Department for Transport to relax the times for free bus pass use to ensure that people can get to the supermarkets? Will he also ensure that every supermarket, not just the Co-op, is still contributing food to food banks and organisations such as FareShare? I suspect that he and his colleagues will want to ensure a private sector-led solution wherever possible, but I press him on this issue, because we will not get through this crisis unless there is Government intervention to support those people and ensure that food supply chains remain open.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there is a role for the Government. We must take action to set aside any obstacles to making the food supply chain operate in a way that ensures that people have food. On food banks, as I said, we are in discussion with supermarkets. We have also had discussions with them about competition law, and we will take whatever action is necessary to ensure that they can jointly plan their approach to these matters. For the most vulnerable, we are working on proposals that my colleagues in MHCLG will announce shortly.
Getting home deliveries to potentially millions of self-isolating households is a massive logistical exercise. Is it time for the Government to think about further intervention, including, I am afraid, the suspension of competition rules, so retailers and haulage companies can work together to meet this huge national challenge?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. That is why earlier this week we had a detailed workshop with both retailers and food processors to identify what they would like to do and what changes to competition law we would need to consider and implement. We are working on that right now.
Telford and Wrekin Council will now have to deliver 5,000 free school meals a day without being able to do so through schools, except for key workers’ children. What more can the Government do, given that many volunteers and people working in charities who might offer to backfill where support is required may be self-isolating or may have been encouraged by the Government to self-isolate? There really is an issue with logistics.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is working on a national volunteer project to co-ordinate the many offers of volunteer help that we have had. In the context of food, we have been working very closely with supermarkets to expand their click-and-collect services to make it easier, where possible, for them to expand their delivery capacity to homes. We continue to work with other groups to identify how we can get food to people at this difficult time.
Care homes and other residential settings that have been let down by their wholesale food suppliers are now being told by supermarkets that they will be treated just like any other consumer. Two chickens do not go a long way if they have 136 residents to feed. Will the Secretary of State urgently look into this issue for all residential settings, please?
I am happy to look at the specific issue that my hon. Friend raised. However, it is also worth noting that while there has been an increase in demand at retail shops, notably in supermarkets, there has been a sharp fall in demand in the service trade, as restaurants, pubs and so forth find that demand for their services has plummeted. Our understanding at the moment is that there are not issues in the food service supply chain, but I am happy to take up any particular case that he might have.
Our supermarket workers have shown themselves to be the heroes of retail, making sure that people get fed and get the food that they need, but there are real concerns about whether they can maintain that service if they are not included in the list of key workers. Of course, many will have children who will need care if the schools cannot accommodate them. Can we have an assurance today that our retail workers will be on the list of key workers?
The Prime Minister made reference yesterday to the importance of those working in the food retail sector, in particular. Later today, the Government will announce jobs defined as key workers, but I can assure him that we fully recognise that over 25% of staff generally working in the food supply chain have children of school age, and that will be reflected when the list is published.
Support for Farmers
We have committed to maintaining the budget for our future agriculture policy at the same level as now, but to direct it differently. We are designing our farming reforms with those who work in agriculture and considering resilience issues. During the transition period, farmers will have time to adapt and prepare for the new policy.
Farmers’ and landowners’ ability to protect their crops and their livestock will be seriously compromised unless general licences are issued for protected areas, gulls and traps this spring. Will my right hon. Friend set out what he can do to make sure that that is the case?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I am aware that Natural England intends to circulate the stoat-trapping general licence to stakeholders this week, and it is working hard to grant those licences as soon as possible. People wishing to control wild birds in protected areas need to apply for an individual licence, as must those wishing to control lesser black-backed or herring gulls except for safety reasons, given their poorer conservation status. We are also considering the best future approach as part of our review.
Right now, DEFRA, quite rightly, is focused totally on the food supply questions that we have been talking about, but will my right hon. Friend also confirm that he will look to move forward with a trade and standards commission for food quality for UK consumers and for a fair field for our farmers?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. He will be aware that our manifesto and our published objectives for the US trade deal make it clear that we will protect our food standards and animal welfare in any future trade deals. I am aware that there has been a proposal for a trade and standards commission, which we are considering, and we are in discussion with other Departments, such as the Department for International Trade, about how best to ensure that agricultural expertise is fully reflected as part of the negotiating team.
If the motto in past crises was “Dig for Victory”, so far this one has been much more “Distribute for Victory”. Of course, the retail sector is very important, but I am less sanguine than the Secretary of State about future food supply and I think that we need to make sure that we support all those in that chain. The poultry industry, for instance, is very time-dependent. Two or three days extra for chickens on farms can lead to a whole range of welfare and logistical issues. Can I take it that the Secretary of State is pressing his colleagues to ensure that all those in the food supply chain are recognised on the Government list of key groups of workers, so we make sure that we secure our future food security?
As I said in response to an earlier question, the Government recognise that a significant number of staff working throughout the supply chain, both retailers and food processors, have children of school age; we estimate that the figure is between 25% and 33%. We therefore recognise that many of them will need to be defined as key workers, but further information on that will be published by the Government later today.
The standards of agriculture produce and animal welfare in Angus and elsewhere in these islands are among the best in the world. Is it not the case that the standards of imports are not always up to the standards of UK production? Is it not important that we follow the simple premise that, if something cannot lawfully meet the UK standards of production, it should not lawfully be imported to the UK? Will the Secretary of State enshrine that in the Government’s legislation?
We had a clear commitment in our manifesto to protect food standards and animal welfare in any future trade deals we do. Our view is that the right way to do that is through getting our mandate and approach to the negotiations right, and not necessarily by attempting to draft something in legislation.
Flooded Areas: Support
The Government activated the flood recovery framework in November 2019 and February 2020 to provide support to communities such as Calderdale, where 100 mm of rain fell in just 12 hours, causing extensive flooding. I extend my thanks to all those involved in the responses to recent floods, including those in Calderdale; I thank the local council, the Environment Agency, the military and emergency services for all their hard work.
As my right hon. Friend is aware, the funding package comes from several different Departments and, in the case of an isolated incident like that of the Calder Valley after Storm Ciara, and even after 1,200 properties were flooded, Government support for households was not triggered. Will he ensure that support by way of an off-the-shelf package is available for any affected area in future and that no area has to wait nine days again for support?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We are having discussions across government about having a consistent threshold above which the flood recovery framework might be activated. On Storm Ciara, which affected his constituency very badly, in the event, we decided to treat Storms Ciara and Dennis as a single episode, which meant that Calderdale did qualify for the same support that other areas had.
Support for Farmers
Our new environmental land management scheme will reward farmers and other land managers for delivering environmental public goods. We are committed to co-designing the scheme with stakeholders to produce the best possible outcomes for both the environment and our farmers and land managers. We are currently running a programme of tests and trials, which will be followed by a three-year national pilot, commencing in late 2021. The scheme will roll out from late 2024 across England.
Although my upland farmers in Weardale are already working on schemes such as peat restoration and afforestation, my lowland farmers are particularly concerned that they might miss out on some of these environmental schemes. What reassurance can my hon. Friend give me that these schemes will be available to all?
I thank my hon. Friend for that pertinent question. New schemes will be for all farmers, in all areas and for all types of landscape. At the moment, farmers can enter our new countryside stewardship agreements, which start from January 2021. Those who sign up to the improved scheme and who wish to enter the new environmental land management scheme will be able to leave their countryside stewardship agreements at agreed exit points, without penalty. Lots of farmers were concerned about that issue, but it is now clear that they can do that. Financial assistance under the environmental land management scheme will be available for all farmers and land managers, including lowland farmers in the country who undertake the eligible activities.
National Food Strategy
As my hon. Friend is aware, Henry Dimbleby is leading an independent review of the food system to develop recommendations to shape a national food strategy. The review was launched in June 2019. A vision for the food system is scheduled for publication in the spring of this year, and the review’s final recommendations will be published over the winter. The Government will then respond to those within six months.
In these moments of great crisis when we need food, there is no doubt that home-produced food is more important than ever. I would really love it if the food strategy incorporates how we are going to produce more home-produced food. Further to the question from the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan), I am looking forward to the Secretary of State supporting the amendment from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee to maintain high standards on food imports. Can that all be incorporated into the food strategy?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Events such as those we are experiencing now remind everyone that a critical component of our food security is healthy and vibrant domestic production, which is why we have committed in the Agriculture Bill to review our food security every five years. That will include a review of the health of the food supply chain and food production in this country.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. If there is disruption to people visiting the UK as a result of restrictions put in place, or general concern in other countries, that may have an impact on the number of seasonal workers who come here from countries such as Bulgaria. We are working with the industry and the National Farmers Union to assess the situation, and we will be working on proposals to address it before May and June, which is when it is likely to present itself as an issue.
The covid-19 pandemic presents significant challenges for our country and, indeed, the rest of the world. It is currently my primary focus. I have been holding regular calls with key players in the food supply chain, to ensure that we take whatever steps are necessary to enable our food producers, distributors and retailers to meet an increase in demand. I wish to record my thanks to all those who work in the food industry—whether on a production line, driving a delivery vehicle or in a supermarket—for all the hard work they are putting in at this difficult time.
Earlier this week the Chancellor unveiled a package of measures to support all businesses, and some farmers would qualify for that. I am having regular meetings with the National Farmers Union to address any concerns that it might have. The NFU’s principal concern, in common with many other industries in the food supply chain, is the potential pressures on staff.
The shadow Secretary of State and I have spoken to fishers and their representative organisations right across the UK in recent days, and they are worried. In just the past week, the market value of fish landed by British fishers has fallen to 20% of normal rates. There are significant concerns about the viability of the UK fishing industry, especially the small boats that are the backbone of the British fleet. Many fishers are telling us that they will go bust in the next two weeks. Does the Secretary of State agree that we must take whatever steps are necessary to support fishers and the fishing industry to cope with the pressures of the covid-19 crisis?
I obviously agree that our fishing industry is incredibly important. The best way we can help it is to get the markets moving again. I understand that there is a particular issue with disruption to markets in the European Union, which is contributing to the situation. Officials had meetings yesterday with fishing representatives, and I am looking for some feedback from that to agree what we do next.
My hon. Friend raises an important point: it is not just those employers with large numbers of staff that could face challenges; it could be those with a very small number of staff, or those with no staff, who operate alone. We are working with the National Farmers Union and others to work out ways to address this issue. It will require friendly and supportive neighbourly behaviour in some cases.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. During this situation, we need everybody to be considerate to others. A number of supermarkets have piloted the idea of a reserved hour at the start of each day for the elderly and most vulnerable. That appears to be working and we will encourage others to do that. There is a limited amount of delivery capacity—currently about 7% of the market—but we will increase that if we can.
When it comes to public procurement, for a number of years, we have had an approach called the balanced scorecard, which means that it is not all about price and that our procurement authorities should also take into account quality and other factors, too.
The spring selling season will soon be upon us. Across the country, against the background of the coronavirus crisis, farmers will be concerned to establish whether they will be able to buy and sell their livestock. Can the Secretary of State give any reassurance to farmers as to the extent to which they will be able to use their local farmers auction markets?
Supermarket queues are undoubtedly adding to the spread of coronavirus, not least because of a lack of social distancing. Doing whatever it takes means that there needs to be a sense of urgency from Government Ministers that simply has not been on display thus far across Government. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but it is true. People need to see a much greater sense of urgency. Queues need to be tackled to prevent the spread within supermarkets. Will the Secretary of State, with Cabinet colleagues, today implement and enforce social distancing in supermarkets to reduce the spread in that part of society?
There is growing concern in West Oxfordshire about the condition of the River Windrush, and particularly sewage discharge. We urgently need the Environment Agency and Thames Water to work together to clean it up. When the immediate emergency has eased, will the Secretary of State visit to see the river’s condition and help me to work with those two parties to make a real difference?
Such incidents are an issue for the Environment Agency, which is the first port of call in a pollution incident. Water companies have water management plans and, under the new Environment Bill, will have to have sewage management plans as well, which will help. Of course I will meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issue.
I understand that in 2019, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and FareShare worked on a pilot scheme to make sure that surplus food was diverted to people who needed it. That is still being evaluated. When will Ministers come up with the evaluation? Is now not a good time to put the scheme into practice?
I am sure that all hon. Members welcome the additional investment in flood and coastal defences in last week’s Budget. Will the ministerial team continue to work with local authorities such as Calderdale, which was flooded recently, to ensure that existing gaps in flood defence schemes are addressed?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The Government are making a massive commitment to flood spending and they have increased the current programme from £2.6 billion to £5.2 billion between 2021 and 2027. They will be working with all areas that have floods, listening to concerns and considerations to learn lessons from what happened this time and using the current grant system, but I, the Secretary of State and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government are considering how the whole project might be improved.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
The Commission has had no recent formal discussions on the potential merits of electronic voting. Colleagues on the Procedure Committee have examined what practical and procedural changes to Divisions might be necessary in the context of the covid-19 outbreak and I thank them for their work on that. I know that they will continue to keep the situation under review. Any decision to implement electronic voting would need to be agreed by the whole House. The Commission’s responsibility for this matter would be limited to the financial and staffing implications of such a decision.
The SNP has long advocated modernising this place so that votes do not take hours. As a still relatively new Member, I am shocked by the archaic practices that we, as Members, have to undergo in order to vote. Does the hon. Member representing the House of Commons Commission ever see this House leaving the late 19th century?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. In my almost 20 years in this House I have probably spent the best part of a week traipsing around the Division Lobbies, exercising my democratic obligations as a Member of the House. It is a week that I am certain I will never get back. Last July, the Procedure Committee began an inquiry into the merits of electronic voting, which was interrupted by the general election in December. So far, no decision has been made to reopen that inquiry, but I encourage my hon. Friend to beat a path towards the Procedure Committee to encourage it to take up the inquiry again. Knowing of his determination, I am pretty certain that he will do so.
Last week, the Leader of the House declined the idea of an increased use of deferred Divisions. Given that we are in a changing landscape, that guidance has changed and, even within this Chamber, we are now self-distancing, will the Commission reconsider that position?
The Commission is acting with the most up-to-date medical advice from Public Health England. If at any point it was felt that we could not continue with Divisions in their current form, all feasible alternative arrangements will be looked at and put in place. I think my hon. Friend will have noticed just how responsibly this House has responded to the requests for social distancing. We just have to look around the Chamber and observe how we have positioned ourselves. I shall leave Members to form their own view about the wisdom of packing out the cramped Division Lobbies if there are any further Divisions in this House. I note that there has been none this week, and I know that it is the intention of Whips throughout the House to ensure that we will be using the Division Lobbies as infrequently as possible.
Covid-19: Access to House of Commons
The control of access to the House of Commons is vested in you, Mr Speaker, and not the Commission. Mr Speaker announced additional access restrictions on Monday 16 March, following the statement by the Prime Minister to prevent the risk of exposure to coronavirus. This includes restricting access to passholders and to those attending for business reasons, such as witnesses to Committees. Those measures were implemented with immediate effect. Updates on Tuesday and yesterday outline further measures to prevent the risk of exposure to covid-19, including stopping all non-essential access to the estate, and from today closure of several search and screen points around the estate.
I tabled this question when there were rumours that Parliament would be closed and that we might not be invited back after the recess. Things have now moved rapidly beyond that, and we have to appreciate the members of staff who support us in keeping this place open so that we can do the vital job of holding the Government to account during this crucial period. May I invite the Minister to pay tribute to those staff who support us?
It is, in fact, me who will be invited to congratulate the staff around the estate. Every effort possible is taking place to ensure that staff are kept safe and that their exposure to risk is as minimal as possible. The hon. Gentleman is right to identify that every effort will be made to keep this place open so that we can fulfil our democratic obligations, but that will always be done with the safety of all who use this estate in mind, and will constantly be under review.
Covid-19: Remote Working
Enabling remote working for hon. Members and staff is a key priority in the Parliamentary Digital Service’s response to covid-19. One focus is the provision of emergency laptops to Members’ staff who are normally equipped with desktop computers. Currently, a reasonable stock of laptops is available, but it should be noted that market supply has been severely disrupted. As of close of business on Wednesday 18 March, 56 laptops had been provided to 41 hon. Members’ offices. Other IT equipment has been made available as requested, such as headsets for Skype for Business use. The Microsoft Office 365 suite of tools is available remotely via personal devices and parliamentary computers. Part of that suite is Microsoft Skype for Business, which offers one-to-one video conferencing facilities. No more extensive video conferencing service is yet deployed.
I am sure that we all agree that the Parliamentary Digital Service provides amazing support for Members of Parliament in our wide-ranging and very demanding requirements. But our jobs are changing; I am not going to be able to have face-to-face contact with any constituent for the foreseeable future, and my staff will all be working from home, so we need to have support for a broad range of new applications. The Commissioner talks about laptops and hardware. I want to know that PDS will have the resources to support a wide range of new applications, such as video conferencing.
I thoroughly agree with the hon. Lady. I think that all Members of the House will now know the value of being able to keep in contact with constituents through video conferencing and other remote methods. All I can say is that the PDS digital support desk will continue to offer a 24-hour-a-day service. Undoubtedly there will be delays due to the volume of calls from people working remotely, but the team will make a real effort to deal with all calls as soon as they possibly can. As I said in my original answer, the PDS team want to ensure that as much facility and resource as possible is given to hon. Members, and I am sure that they will be working to secure and achieve that.
I meet a variety of organisations at Westminster, and would now like to do this remotely. However, the Skype system to which the Commissioner has referred only supports connections to those with parliamentary accounts. This helps me to link with my team, but will the Parliamentary Digital Service consider making Skype accessible to those outwith the parliamentary network? As a new MP, I also have new staff joining my team. What are the learning and development team doing to offer critical training for new starters—for example, on the Department for Work and Pensions, and so on? Will there be opportunities for those training sessions to be available remotely, as opposed to face-to-face as they have been up to now?
Every effort will be made to ensure that people are connected, and all facilities will be used to keep Members of Parliament in contact with their constituents. The PDS support desk is looking at the very issues mentioned by the hon. Lady, and hopefully progress will be made on all that. I think that the lesson here—this seems to be required from all Members—is ensuring that we can work remotely, that all our staff are as connected as possible, and that we continue to provide a level of service that we feel is commensurate with our roles as Members of Parliament. I am pretty certain that all Members will be providing that service in the weeks to come.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s energy to move us from the 19th century, particularly during these difficult times. The move to digital is important, but the telecoms companies are concerned that the sudden deluge from the entire nation moving to a digital platform will overpower those platforms themselves. Has he considered any contingency plans in case we do need to return in full back to the 19th century?
All I can say to the right hon. Gentleman is: let us not go back to the 19th century. Let us hope that our 21st-century resources and infrastructure are able to cope with the increased demand that Members of Parliament and other people across our community will make on them. It is beyond my remit as a member of the House of Commons Commission to be able to comment on the failings of some of the infrastructure and its ability to withstand some of the demands that will be placed upon it.
All I can say to the right hon. Gentleman is that in the House of Commons, staff in digital services will do everything possible to ensure that we continue to be connected with our constituents. I would suggest to all Members that if they have any concerns about being able to work remotely or concerns about the ability of the network to withstand things, please get in touch with the 24-hour services available from digital services. I am sure everyone knows the number: 2001.
The challenges of the last few days and weeks have thrown up why we need to modernise this place and why we need to get on with restoration and renewal. I understand that the Commission is meeting on Monday to discuss next steps. Is it not time that we gave the sponsor body the powers to get on with dealing with the Northern Estate, make sure it is in the hands of proper professionals who can get on with the work and make sure that we are resilient for this sort of situation in the future and for many years to come?
I commend the hon. Lady’s creativity in being able to shoehorn restoration and renewal into a question about digital facilities. She is absolutely right: the Commission will meet on Monday to consider further measures when it comes to restoration and renewal. The hon. Lady is very closely connected to and interested in this work, and those measures will be communicated when we have concluded our meeting on Monday. It is something, even in the current conditions and with the crisis that is facing us, that the Commission takes very seriously, and we will continue to inform the House of ongoing statements and work in relation to restoration and renewal.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Church Closure and Use
I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the Church opens as many, if not more churches than it closes each year. Parishes may want to focus their mission elsewhere, if the church in question is in a very remote rural location or if there is a very high repair bill. Use for worship by other Christian bodies is generally considered the best use, but there are many other suitable uses.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. In my constituency, we have 24 churches of different denominations, yet the Christian religion is actually the minority. More recently, we have had a huge influx of Romanian citizens who are very keen churchgoers, but they cannot acquire premises. So as the Church of England population dwindles, can churches make efforts to reach out, particularly to the Romanian churches, to allow them to carry on their worship?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for explaining the situation in his constituency, and I can tell him that the use of church buildings by other Christian denominations is considered a very good use for any redundant Church of England church. The normal procedure is that the views of the local Member of Parliament, the local authority and local residents would be considered, so if there are closed churches in his area, he will have an opportunity to get involved in that process.
Can the hon. Gentleman outline what advice for smaller congregations is in place at this time? Is it his interpretation that the closure of all churches, regardless of size, is optional, or that small congregations can continue to meet, even if they do so in small numbers?
As my hon. Friend knows, I speak purely for the Church of England in this place, and the Church of England is following exactly the health advice from the Government. I can tell him and the House that while public worship has been suspended for the time being, churches remain open for prayer and in particular for baptisms, weddings and funerals. Self-distancing will be required. Numbers in churches will be kept to a minimum, and no one self-isolating must attend the ceremony. Parishes are being trained in live-streaming services where they can. Wellbeing and mental health resources will be published soon, and churches are of course encouraged to support the vulnerable who are self-isolating and to continue to support food banks and night shelters in particular.
In the light of my hon. Friend’s response to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), does he agree that, although churches are not gathering for worship, they still have a vital role to play in meeting the spiritual, emotional and, indeed, practical needs of our communities at this very difficult time? Although they may not be gathering for services and other meetings, churches are most definitely not closed.
I thank my hon. Friend for that important point, and he is exactly right. The Church is much more than just its buildings; it is its people. This is an opportunity for all of us, as Christians, to reach out to others in need—there are many in all our communities—and that is exactly what the Church will be doing over the coming months.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has called for a national day of prayer this Sunday. The Church is particularly keen that all Christians reach out to look after the vulnerable in their communities, as I have just said to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). The archbishop has called for people to put lighted candles in their windows at 7 pm on Sunday as a sign of solidarity with what the nation is currently going through.
Persecution of Christians
The Church of England is pleased that the Government have repeatedly said they will implement in full the recommendations of the Truro review. The Church is in regular contact with the review implementation team. Promoting faith literacy among our diplomats remains work in progress, but we are reassured by continuing work on that aspect of the review.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. As the world looks to navigate the challenge of the virus, other challenges clearly remain. Indeed, those challenges can be exacerbated in such circumstances, so what steps is the Church of England taking to work hand in glove with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to tackle anti-Christian persecution across the world?
I know my hon. Friend takes a strong interest in this important area. The Church is working closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and with the Department for International Development to develop better religious literacy, and the Anglican communion combats persecution against all people of faith, or of no faith, around the world. The Church would welcome a Magnitsky Act to target sanctions against those who persecute people for their religion or belief, in line with recommendation 8 of the review. Quarterly progress statements on the implementation of the review would also be helpful.
Marriage and Relationship Support
Almost all couples receive marriage preparation before a Church of England marriage service. Some churches later offer marriage enrichment courses and marriage MOT evenings. The Church is concerned about the fall in marriage rates, as well as about the breakdown of marriages, and a number of churches are taking action to address this issue.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. How does the Church aim to support couples and families in this moment of national crisis, when they are forced to spend more time together and are probably feeling anxious, possibly with several family members unwell?
I thank my hon. Friend for that very relevant question. The new marriage and pre-marriage courses released in January are now available online as digital resources that any church can forward to couples in isolation to help them invest in their relationship when they are likely to have more time together, as well as more pressure on them. The pre-marriage course welcomes and is suitable for couples who are not engaged but want to explore what marriage means.
This is probably something to come back to once we have got past the immediate crisis, but what progress has been made on liaising with the Department for Education on aligning such pre-marriage education with schools’ relationship education, which has now been made compulsory for all young people? Will that tie up?
I thank the hon. Lady, who I know takes a serious interest in these issues, for her question. I can tell her that the Church is very keen to work hand in glove with schools in this important area. Relationship education and relationship support has a very important role in our schools so that we have healthy, respectful marriages and relationships throughout our country.
May I suggest that one form of marriage support the Church of England might like to get on with is enacting clause 1 of my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Act 2019, which became law a year ago now and will overhaul marriage registration and allow mothers’ names to go on marriage certificates for the first time since 1832? Can he give us a progress report on whether this is at last going to happen?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question—he has been very diligent in pursuing this matter for some time. I know it was a particular concern of my predecessor, Caroline Spelman, when she was in this place. I will get my hon. Friend an update on that issue. I will tell Church House about the urgency of the situation, and if he will allow me, I will write to him with specific details.
Coronavirus: Employment Support
This is an uncertain time for our country, but the Government are clear that they will do whatever it takes to protect our people and businesses from the coronavirus pandemic. On Tuesday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out further steps in the Government’s economic response, building on the initial response he outlined in the Budget last week, which included standing behind businesses, small and large, with an unprecedented package of Government backed and guaranteed loans to support businesses through this crisis. I have been working very closely with him and the banks, and they are very clear about their responsibility to make these measures work. The Government have made available an initial £330 billion of guarantees, equivalent to 15% of our GDP. That means that any business that needs cash to pay salaries will be able to access a Government-backed loan on attractive terms. The Government will do whatever it takes to support our economy through this crisis and stand ready to provide further support where necessary. As the Chancellor announced, we will go much further to support people’s financial security working with trade unions and business groups. Following his appearance at the Treasury Select Committee yesterday afternoon, the Chancellor spoke to the trade unions, and he will today be meeting the TUC, the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, and the Federation of Small Businesses. This will be with a view to urgently developing new forms of employment support to help protect people’s jobs and incomes through this period. I am sure that you will appreciate, Mr Speaker, that these are unprecedented times. The Chancellor has said that he will look at further steps to help protect jobs and incomes, and he will announce further details in due course.
For much of yesterday, like many Members of the House, including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), with whom I have been working, I was speaking to businesses in our constituencies that are facing a crisis. With revenue collapsing and no knowledge of when normal trading can resume, they see no choice but to lay off workers now. The loan scheme that the Chancellor announced on Tuesday is not enough to prevent that. These businesses have no idea when they will be able to pay back the debts they would incur and it provides no reason to keep staff employed. In fact, the reverse is true because, the smaller the wage bill, the less would have to be borrowed. On Tuesday, the Chancellor promised that there would be employment support, but as each day goes by, businesses are making decisions that will be irreversible and if the Government do not act immediately, large numbers of people will be unemployed and registering them will put huge pressure on the welfare system. Vital skills will be lost and good businesses, which will themselves be the customers and suppliers of other businesses, will cease trading.
There is a straightforward and immediate solution. All employers have an account with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to pay tax for employees through pay-as-you-earn. The monthly wage bill is known to HMRC. Instead of firms paying PAYE to the Government, that flow should now be reversed, with the nation paying the wages of people for the next few weeks if, and only if, they continue to employ their staff. Separate arrangements would need to be made for the self-employed, but at a stroke this would save people’s jobs, save businesses and put an immediate end to the risk of contagion and help to save the economy. This is a crisis the like of which we have not seen for 100 years. It requires a response that is immediate, effective and equal to the scale of the problem. The Chancellor said that he will do whatever it takes, and do so urgently. He now needs to make good on that without delay.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this matter. I made clear in my response the urgency of the Government’s deliberations on this—it is absolutely at the top of everything we are doing. Ministers are working flat out, 24/7, to look at all the options.
My right hon. Friend raises the specific anxieties of businesses. I recognise that the package of measures that we have put out—with respect to statutory sick pay, easier access to universal credit and employment and support allowance, the business rates relief, the small business grant facility, the local authority hardship funds and the HMRC forbearance measures—will for some not feel sufficient at this point. However, he will also know from his experience in government that it is very important that when the Government announce the measures that we wish to take to assist with supporting employees, they need to be effective and need to work. So I say to the House and to my right hon. Friend: be in no doubt that all options are being examined. We are looking at models that exist in other jurisdictions and when, very imminently, the Chancellor comes to the House, we want to be sure that what we announce will be effective.
It is now six and a half weeks since the first cases of coronavirus were reported in the UK. For over a month we have known about the substantial risk that coronavirus poses to the economy and to workers, yet the Government have announced no plan to protect jobs and wages—no full plan for employment support. We are all—all of us—inundated with so many questions, and I have just four of those questions to ask.
People are asking us: why, for example, have Denmark, which had its first coronavirus case on 27 February, and New Zealand, which had its first case on 28 February, four weeks after our first case, both announced comprehensive job protection plans, while we have announced nothing to secure people’s jobs and wages? Given that, the second question is: what consideration has been given to the models in Denmark and Austria, which the Economic Secretary referred to, which involve the Government paying the bulk of people’s wages in exchange for job guarantees?
The third question is: why, when the Chancellor announced the loan guarantee on Tuesday, did the Government not tie those loans into an undertaking from business that no one would be laid off? The fourth question: will the Minister accept that freelancers will need additional support if they do not qualify for statutory sick pay? For example, in the culture sector we have as many as 2 million people, hundreds of thousands of whom may be affected.
The country deserves answers to those questions as a matter of urgency. We will continue to ask these questions not as a matter of political point scoring or ideology, but to ensure that we have a Government response that properly protects the public and matches the scale of the crisis affecting us here and now, not just next week.
It is in order for the hon. Gentleman to raise those points, and he is right to draw attention to the experience in Denmark. Throughout this crisis, the Government have acted on the best scientific and health advice, and that has clearly had to move over time. That advice has been challenged and questioned, and the Prime Minister and the Cabinet have made decisions based on the best advice available. Consequent to the health advice, which is clearly motivated to relieve as much pressure as possible on the NHS, there are other issues that we are dealing with urgently, and sequentially we are offering that advice as urgently as we can in different domains.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the Danish experience, and we are looking at the furlough system. We are looking at the proportion of support that is available, and we are also looking at the German system. In the last significant recession that happened in 2009-10—that is broadly the comparator that we could use—only 3% of German firms were helped. We are aware of what is happening in the US, and we are aware of the proposals that have been put forward by various think-tanks this morning. We are looking thoroughly at all those options, but it is very important that we have a system that delivers the support that is required to employers.
We have extended the coronavirus business interruption loan to up to £5 million. It is clear that there will be no interest payable in the first six months and no fees, and obviously we expect businesses to use that to support their employees during this time.
I commend my hon. Friend and I agree with him—that is something that the Government should be moving on now, but there is something else the Government could do literally today. Universal credit has three basic levers that can all be pulled now enormously to help people who are in work. First, the taper could be lowered dramatically at this stage, which would push the floor right up underneath people in work at the moment, allowing them to fall back on that if employers cannot deal with them. Secondly, Ministers could change benefit rates, allowing a greater expanse of money to flow to claimants: that could be done today. The third area where my hon. Friend could act is to look at the waiting time and reduce that almost immediately. Those three things were always built into the system for flexibility and they can be done today. They can be delivered within days by a Department that already has the ability to do that while he gets on with the other facilities.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has unrivalled experience in this area. He makes some very reasonable points, and we are looking very carefully at all the options. As I said earlier, when we have decided—very imminently—the Chancellor will make announcements to this House first.
In recent days, the Chancellor has already outlined support for business, which the SNP has welcomed. In Scotland, that support has been passed on in full by our Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes. However, I remain concerned that not enough support is being mobilised for sole traders, freelancers and the self-employed. Today though, our focus is rightly on people many of whom are already self-isolating or moving to work from home, if indeed they can. But bills are still coming in and rent payments are being sought, and so I welcome the news that some support will be put in place, for example, for payment for energy bills. The question is who is eligible for that, and will that go far enough. Will the Government use the tax system to put thousands of pounds in people’s pockets by way of an emergency universal basic income? Will the Government extend statutory sick pay to the 2 million people who earn less than £118 a week and benchmark it to at least the real living wage?
Firms are already starting to make staff redundant, but we need to stem the flow of that immediately, and today. The Government should introduce a statutory retention scheme to provide firms with financial support to keep staff in employment during this uncertain time.
Now more than ever, our social security system needs to kick in. To protect families impacted by hardship and strengthen automatic stabilisers that support demands in the economy, does the Minister agree that the main adult rate of out of work support in universal credit and other benefits, including carer’s allowance, should rise by a third to £100 per week?
We are in the midst of a national emergency the likes of which I have never seen before. How this generation of politicians responds to the crisis will be how history judges us. During the financial crisis of 2008, no expense was spared to bail out the banks, so today with the coronavirus outbreak we must similarly be prepared to bail out household budgets at this time of economic crisis. It calls for us all to rise to the occasion.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is important that the Government do whatever it takes in these circumstances. He raises a number of specific points. He will be familiar with the changes we have made in terms of access to statutory sick pay and eligibility starting much sooner; that commenced from 13 March. He will be aware that, to make that easier, there is now no need to have a GP note. He makes a number of points on universal credit and changing the eligibility there. Advances are available online; the minimum income floor has been temporarily released. He also makes a number of points about freelancers and the self-employed, which the Government are clear about.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the universal basic income. The Government are looking at that, but the question whether it will help the most affected most urgently is one we have to consider. Many of us in this House, for example, would not require such support. We have to ensure that we target it at the most vulnerable.
My hon. and gallant Friend is right to raise that. We have changed the rules on access to employment support allowance and sick pay. It will depend on individual circumstances. We have also released funds to local authorities for hardship relief. Further advice on that will be given tomorrow by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
I very much agree with the proposals just made by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). It is particularly important that the advances paid to people claiming universal credit become non-repayable for those affected by the crisis. The Minister mentioned the suspension of the minimum income floor for self-employed people—a welcome announcement made by the Chancellor in the Budget—but it appears to relate only to people who are directly affected by covid-19, whereas many of those suffering at the moment are not themselves ill but are affected by the wider changes in the economy. Will the Economic Secretary confirm that the lifting of the minimum income floor will apply also to those who are not directly affected? Will we know the details of the employment support package—I am glad the Government are working on that—before this weekend?
The right hon. Gentleman makes some specific points essentially about the consequential effects on different groups of employees who are affected. I cannot comment on the details of that. As for the timing of the employment support announcement, we are working on it as quickly as we can. There is no timetable or specific date because we have got to get it right. We are working as urgently as possible, but I cannot tell him the precise moment at this point.
I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) for his urgent question and endorse everything he said. Those of us who are not in the engine room of Government are being told by our constituents that, welcome though Tuesday’s package was, it is simply not going to be enough. When diehards such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) and Allister Heath of The Daily Telegraph are lining up for far more radical measures than the Government have yet announced, the Government must take note. May I urge the Government to say something today to give people assurance that the help will come?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his observations. He is right, but there is no sense that the Government are saying that what we have announced is the last announcement we are going to make. It is a question of making sure that when we announce measures, they will be effective in meeting the needs that we know exist. All of us, across the House, will have been inundated with emails from concerned individuals and businesses. We are taking that on board and acting as swiftly as we can. The points raised today are directly informing the nature of our response.
I understand that this is very difficult for the Government and I am sympathetic, but this is about real people’s lives. The Treasury’s natural approach—being cautious and wanting to stress-test everything—is not appropriate in these circumstances. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) suggested some really good ideas. Why can they not just be implemented today?
I understand the hon. Lady’s frustration. It is totally reasonable for Members of this House to be extremely concerned in the absence of the announcement, but it would be even worse, I would suggest, if we made ad hoc announcements when different Government Departments were not quite ready to implement those effectively. We are talking about an unprecedented crisis, and therefore we will need to take unprecedented measures. It is important that we do that as swiftly as possible, but it is also important that we do it as effectively as possible.
I thank my hon. Friend for his recent announcements, and I absolutely understand that we are living in unprecedented times. In my constituency, hospitality and hotels are obviously huge employers. Is there any scope for the suspension of national insurance contributions, which would really help many of the chains, and particularly the smaller hotels? From speaking to those at the Goring hotel this week, I know that they are very concerned, and they are now offering their hotel to the Government for anything they need—for hospitals or for employees. Suspending NI contributions would be great.
I thank my hon. Friend for her suggestions. Obviously, we have made a specific package of interventions available in the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors. We also have the grant facility at a high level for those sectors. She makes a reasonable point, and we will look at it—and we are looking at it—very carefully.
I was here on Tuesday night when the Chancellor made his statement, and there can be no doubt what the attitude of the House was at that time. It was that the package of loans and other measures announced by the Chancellor on that occasion would not be sufficient. It would not be sufficient for those who are relying on benefits, it would not be sufficient for those who are already finding themselves out of work, and it would not be sufficient for the self-employed. Here we are two days later, and the Minister is telling us that there simply has not been time to consider these things. This is urgent, and we really must have action now. Why is it taking so long?
Every day, Ministers across all Departments are working on different aspects of the package. Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary brought forward some measures for renters. We also have the three-month relief for mortgage holders where they need it, and for buy-to-let mortgage holders. There is more work being done urgently to give clarity on the elements that Members of the House are raising, but, as I said earlier, it is a question of making sure that when these measures are announced, they are going to be effective and can be delivered efficiently.
The feedback I am receiving is that many businesses will have difficulty in accessing Government loans because of restrictions they have in granting additional security to a new lender. With that in mind, may I urge the Government to support payroll costs far more directly, as other European Governments are doing? This is the way to avoid large-scale redundancies.
My hon. Friend refers to the loans. I was meeting the banks last night to make sure that these loans are accessible. The criteria for issuing them are based on the solvency of businesses prior to this crisis arising. It is absolutely clear that the banks see they have a massive responsibility to make this scheme work. That term sheet is being finalised; it may already have been finalised this morning. The banks are now working on making sure that that will be available through all their call centres and branches. He makes the suggestion of a supplementary measure, and we are looking at these things very carefully.
A constituent of mine works in a residential home for adults with learning disabilities. Her son’s school will be closed from Monday. She does not know whether she is considered a key worker, and even if she is, as seems obvious, her son has respiratory problems, so she is uncertain whether she wants to send him to school. Her employer says she will not be paid and is not even entitled to statutory sick pay if she cannot come into work because of childcare. What should she do? Where is the clear advice and guidance, and where is the helpline for the thousands of other constituents of mine and of every single Member in this House? Where can they get answers, because they are so worried?
The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point about the concerns that are being raised. That is why the Cabinet Office will give further advice today on key workers and the support that will be given. I recognise that yesterday’s announcement on schools will be a significant disruption to the lives of many of our citizens. It is very important that we put in place urgently clarity about who is involved—who is designated in those categories—and the support that will be available. I will ensure that her point, which I am sure reflects the views of many, gets to the Cabinet Office after this session.
Given that the suggestions of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) could be implemented so speedily, will the Minister undertake to try immediately after this session to get an answer on whether they should be implemented?
The very essence of the hospitality industry is to provide social contact. Does the Minister understand the real anger of many in that industry that the Government have given advice to their customers but not to them? If the Government believe premises should close, they should say so, and they should accept the consequences of paying people whose idleness is enforced because of a contribution to a public health emergency. What is so hard to understand is that the system for doing that is staring the Government in the face. It already exists. It is called Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. That is a system for taking money out of wage packets every month and giving it to the Government; now, it should be put into reverse to put money into the pockets of those employees.
The hon. Gentleman is right to express the deep frustration of people in that sector, and I am sure his words resonate across the House. We have put in resources for 2,000 people from HMRC to take calls for bespoke solutions to deal with some of those issues. He is right that there is also an issue in terms of access to insurance. I was on a conference call with the insurance industry to clarify that where insurance has been taken out, that will be effective. However, he is perfectly right that more work needs to be done, and I have been very clear that more will be forthcoming imminently.
I thank the Minister for the measures that he has already taken to help the self-employed, but my constituency has the highest number of self-employed in the country, so will he elaborate on what tax incentives, or tax advice or support, can be given to the self-employed at this time, particularly during April over the end of the financial year?
As I said to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), people have access to an HMRC support line, which is properly manned and up and running. That should give them bespoke support for their circumstances. I have referred to the package of other measures that the Chancellor announced a few days ago.
Charities such as Faith in Families in my constituency are really nervous that they will not be able to pay their wages. Without staff, they cannot deliver the projects for which they are applying for funding, which would provide food and childcare facilities in very deprived areas. That is necessary now; it will become essential in the future. What can the Government do to help those charities?
The hon. Lady is right with respect to the role that charities play across our communities, binding communities together and working closely with local authorities. My colleague in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is working on these matters, and we will make further announcements shortly.
I echo the calls for urgent support for British tourism, which I know the Minister will be familiar with in his constituency. In the Bournemouth area, tourism is worth more than £1 billion and directly employs 17,000 people. I received a letter from David Bailey, who is chair of the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole destination management board. He talks about lay-offs happening right now, as we speak, affecting the future of businesses. He asks whether it would be better if, rather than handing out benefit claims, the Government provided salaries immediately. That would mean the industry could retain the skills that will be needed to spearhead the economic recovery and would reduce the number of businesses that cease to trade. Will the Government consider that?
My right hon. Friend makes some very reasonable points about the tourism sector just down the road from my constituency. The issue of what we do to support sectors that are directly and immediately affected by the action we have had to take will be at the front of our minds as we examine what employment support to put in place.
After six and a half weeks, when we knew we might reach this stage, it is hard to understand why the Government have no idea what they are going to do to pay the wages of those who are being laid off. A whole tranche of people are going to be laid off now, and more industries will lay people off next week and the week after. If the Government do not act now, they will not be able to retrieve the situation. How have we got to the point where the Government have not got a clue?
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s frustration, but characterising the Government as not having a clue misrepresents the situation considerably. There are a large number of issues that we need to examine, and we are doing so at pace. We will make further announcements to address those that have been raised in the House today. We have sequentially done more by the day, reflecting the evolving nature of this crisis and the steps we have had to take, based on health and scientific advice. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is not happy with the Government’s announcements so far, but more will be coming.
This weekend, pubs, clubs, restaurants and other retail outlets will be considering whether to close on an almost permanent basis, and the people employed in them have an uncertain future. However, most of them are relatively young and mobile, and they are able to offer help and assistance to the weak and vulnerable. Could we not guarantee loans to those outlets on the condition that those people continue to be paid and that they then become part of a volunteer force to help the weak and vulnerable at this time of crisis?
I do wish Ministers would stop using hyperbole such as “whatever it takes”, when they do not follow through sufficiently quickly. Will the Government extend SSP to support all workers and pay it at the rate of the real living wage straightaway?
Many of the “just about managing” are not managing, and there will be many more of them in the next few days. The last thing we need at this time is an over-engineered new system. As a humble Back Bencher, I have heard many good ideas in the Chamber this morning—particularly from my right hon. Friends the Members for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). If those three right hon. Members are not in No. 11 for a meeting later today, I will be really disappointed. We have had the architect of universal credit in the Chamber, and he has given the Government the answer to their problem. Please can we get a move on?
I take the challenge from my hon. Friend in the spirit in which it was intended. There is no sense that the Treasury is trying to over-engineer anything. We are not trying to restrain spending for the sake of restraining it. We want to bring forward an effective package of measures that effectively meets the needs of the most vulnerable. My hon. Friend makes the reasonable point that a number of colleagues of great seniority have raised significant points of interest, and I will ensure that their contributions are heard at the heart of this process today.
Dental practices are at high risk of spreading coronavirus, yet there was nothing for them in the financial package on Tuesday, which means they have to stay open, with an increased risk of spreading coronavirus. Will the Government give assurances that they will cover fixed-price dental costs so that dentists can close and provide only urgent care?
Many of the Government’s schemes have to be delivered through retail banks, which means people and businesses calling already overloaded call centres and going into retail branches—where they exist—which might restrict hours over the coming days. Most banks and most large private sector companies in this country that rely on some phone contact have resilience and contingency places dotted around the country that have pop-up call centres in times of crisis. Could the Government deploy those to ensure that desperate immediate-need calls from businesses and individuals are dealt with as quickly as possible?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the resilience required in banks at this difficult time. I discussed that with the heads of the banks last night and over the previous two days. We need to ensure that the terms of these loans are effective in allowing people to access them swiftly and we need to ensure that the banks can ramp up the accessibility of their specialist advisers. I have been given assurances that that will be in place.
So many of my constituents are caught up in this, like those of other hon. Members, and I have constituents who have no recourse to public funds, so when they are unable to work they cannot claim benefits. Many are freelancers and people who are self-employed and running small businesses. None of the packages the Government have announced help them so far. The Minister has had to be dragged here to answer an urgent question and has nothing he can say that will comfort our constituents. I think we all recognise that it is difficult, but could he not even give us a clue about the general direction of thinking from the Government? Will he raise the local housing allowance? Will the Government ensure that those with no recourse to public funds get funded? Will they stop this ridiculous loan system, which will never get paid back? Businesses will go bankrupt before they can pay it, and they are laying off staff now.
The hon. Lady raises a number of sensible points. We are looking at many of them. I reassure her that we will make further announcements very soon. Yes, we are looking at the ideas raised. We are looking at other jurisdictions. But in some cases we have a very different set of processes and IT systems behind some of these Government Department distribution mechanisms. I know that that is very technical, but the bottom line is that we need to ensure that when we introduce something, it delivers.
I support strongly the ideas on the universal employment retention package proposed by several right hon. Friends, and I hope that the Government take it on board to prevent a health crisis becoming an economic disaster. In addition, briefly, rateable value capped at £51,000 is too low for medium-sized tourism employers such as the Seaview Hotel. Secondly, we need clarity in the system because my chamber of commerce still does not know how to apply. Thirdly, we need a package for the voluntary sector. West Wight sports centre is a world-leading sailing academy and a major employer on my patch. We need either a voluntary sector package or a universal employment retention programme.
I thank my hon. Friend for his points; he raises a number of interesting ideas. He is absolutely right about the voluntary sector needing support. As I have indicated, there will be a package coming and different Departments are working together to make this as effective and comprehensive as possible. His constituency has a number of issues regarding the hospitality and leisure sector, and I am very aware of the representations he has been making to Government over the previous few days.
Letting many people get into rent or mortgage arrears or asking businesses to take on debt are not the answers. They are just going to make the crisis worse—[Hon. Members: “And longer.”] Yes, thank you. Every business, every employee, every self-employed person and everybody in the third sector needs to know that their living costs will be covered. The Government need to show the urgency that the Minister talks about and they need to show it today. Will the Chancellor come back today and make a statement on how they will deliver this?
The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right that we need a comprehensive package that deals with businesses, the voluntary sector and individual employees of different categories. We are looking very carefully at the best way to do that, in addition to the significant package of measures we have introduced. I feel his frustration and I will take all these points back and make sure that they are addressed.
The greatest difficulty for the Government in this fast-deteriorating situation of no one’s making is the speed of response. My worry is that the business interruption loans package will be too clunky for most small and medium-sized businesses, and the cash grants will take too long to get to businesses before decisions are made about jobs. Will the Minister look closely at the recommendation of our right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark)? If that were put in place, some of the recommendations made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on universal credit would not be so important.
I note the point that my hon. Friend makes about the clunkiness of existing measures, and obviously we are looking at the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) refers to the accessibility of the loans. The Government guarantee to the banks through the British Business Bank is in order to provide a massive incentive to making the loans available to solvent businesses as quickly as possible, but I hear his concerns, and they are reflected in the design and in conversations that we are having with the banks.
Does the Minister not understand that a universal minimum income guarantee does exactly what it says on the tin? It will provide that minimum level playing field for tenants and their landlords, for business owners and their employees; it will provide everyone with a minimum level of assurance so that they can have some certainty in this time of uncertainty.
Like many Members, I have been fielding calls for the past 10 days from businesses that are sitting on the wire, wondering whether their futures are safeguarded. Has the Minister looked at the possibility of a VAT rebate for businesses that are desperately trying to hold on to their employees to ensure that they have a future? Will he please look into that, and will he also ensure that we have greater clarification of whether pubs are open or closed, because that is causing much greater distress than it needs to cause?
My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point about the hospitality sector, and a very credible suggestion with respect to VAT. Across the benefits system and the tax system, we are looking at the optimisation of interventions to support the most vulnerable and most affected at this time, and to give reassurance to the whole country. We will urgently bring forward measures to address the concerns that he has raised.
Individuals are losing their jobs now—they are in desperate need now. Andrew Brown, a freelance graphic designer in my constituency, contacted me this morning; his business has folded overnight, and he cannot apply for any grants because he works from home. What does he do in that situation? The Minister talks about the great package that was announced the other night, but councils still do not have the guidance to get that money out to businesses. I urge him to get that out as a matter of urgency, because this morning Durham County Council told me that it will not be available until the weekend, and that is too late.
There are more micro-businesses in Buckinghamshire than in any other county in the country. I pay tribute to Buckinghamshire Business First, which is working extremely hard to try to support them, but may I urge my hon. Friend to take the unique needs of micro-businesses into account in the measures that he is developing?
Our farmers, crofters and fishers are crucially producing our food, but the situation has rocked those sectors to their foundations. Will the Minister outline what specific considerations are being given to supporting those sectors, so that they can continue their vital work?
The hon. Lady will know that a large number of the grants and loans schemes will be accessible to all sectors, as well as grants from the local authority. Comprehensive advice went out to all hon. Members last night setting out all that information, and there will be further announcements. Sector-specific issues are best addressed through the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but I hope the announcements that we have made will give some interim comfort to her constituents at this difficult time.
I am afraid that it is quite evident that the Government have lost support and confidence across the Chamber, and that is echoed by the markets. We have seen a 5% drop in sterling, which will translate into higher food and energy prices for already hard-pressed households. In Warwick and Leamington, we are losing jobs and good businesses. Will the Minister support the comments of the right hon. Members for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and introduce some form of universal income support to restore both the supply and demand side?
I acknowledge the point on the minimum income guarantee, which I have responded to previously. On co-ordination with the Bank of England, we have worked with the Financial Conduct Authority to introduce better forbearance measures for the banks so that they can act effectively and use their flexibilities. Obviously the bridging facility that the Bank of England has brought forward for bigger businesses is also important.
Will the Minister assure us that the package of measures that the Government intend to bring forward will offer support to the self-employed, sole traders and freelancers who may not themselves be ill but who may have already lost work due to the economic disruption of covid-19?
May I raise a specific question with the Minister? Childminders and childcare providers in my constituency tell me that, although they have insurance if they have to close their businesses as a result of a notifiable disease, which covid-19 clearly now is, insurance companies are saying that they will not provide the cover, because it does not appear on the list of notifiable diseases. Will the Minister take that up urgently with the industry?