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Covid-19: Law and Order

Volume 674: debated on Monday 23 March 2020

2. What steps her Department has taken to ensure that law and order is upheld during the covid-19 outbreak. (901678)

I know that, at this particular time of emergency, the public are incredibly anxious about the provision that is in place. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that my priority as Home Secretary is to ensure that the British people are kept safe, and of course that means working with our law enforcement agencies throughout this outbreak of covid-19.

Is my right hon. Friend as confident as I am that the police will have the full support of the British public during this difficult time?

My hon. Friend asks an important question, and he is right. The police are doing an excellent job when it comes to providing public confidence, as well as protecting the public. This is an incredibly challenging time for our entire country, but also for everyone who works in our emergency services and our public sector. I am here to back the police and make sure that we provide them with the resources and support that they need.

I associate the Opposition with the remarks about PC Palmer. I ask this question in place of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) in order that we can have social distancing in the Chamber.

The challenges for police in tackling covid-19 will be unprecedented. Will the Home Secretary consider relaxing regulations, as the NHS has done, to allow recently retired and leaving police officers to rejoin the force? Will she suspend the tax and pension disincentives to recently retired officers returning to work? Will she include special constables in the emergency volunteer scheme provisions of the Coronavirus Bill, with access to the compensation fund?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. I can categorically say that work is already taking place across Government on suspending the tax and pensions disincentives—because they are disincentives at this time of crisis and national emergency. We want to make sure that retired police officers, for example, can come back and join the service. I have specifically asked Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs and the taxman to look at that, and they are doing so right now. When it comes to looking at special constables in the emergency volunteer scheme, we are absolutely doing that too.

I would like to take this opportunity to give the House this reassurance on policing. I am working with the National Police Chiefs’ Council every day—as, of course, is the Policing Minister—and engaging with Martin Hewitt, but also with all forces across the country. That is the right thing to do to understand the operational challenges they are facing and to make sure that our officers are supported, but also in terms of looking at all the ways we can make sure that we have flow in the service, bringing back people with the right kind of skills and capability to keep our country safe at this critical time.

On behalf of the SNP, I also echo your powerful words in relation to PC Keith Palmer, Mr Speaker.

The weekend saw a new but worrying development, with significant numbers heading to isolated and scenic areas—the highlands and islands, for example—for purposes of social distancing, not appreciating that these areas are not well equipped to deal with new arrivals as coronavirus spreads. Will the Home Secretary send a clear message that this behaviour is not appropriate? Although we do not want it to become a police matter, is she satisfied that sufficient powers are available to stop this trend continuing, if required?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and his comments. He is absolutely right. He and the public have observed very clearly the type of behaviour that happened over the weekend. It is not acceptable. The Government could not have been clearer that, to save lives and protect the public during this public health emergency, it is right that we practise social distancing, in the way that the Government have outlined and are reinforcing, and that the chief medical officer and many others are reinforcing day in and day out.

With that, we ask the public to take responsibility. Of course, there are enforcement measures now in place, through a statutory instrument that was put in place over the weekend, which covers places for social gatherings —pubs, clubs and cafés, for example. The public have been observing those measures, but the police, local authorities and trading standards are working together now to make sure that they are being put in place.

My final comment is that the guidance that is coming from the Government and Public Health England is there to protect and save lives. I urge everyone—all members of the British public—to follow that guidance and absolutely not to use this period for any other practices. It is important that we observe social distancing and do everything we can as individuals to be responsible in our conduct.

Some of my constituents have asked for a police presence at supermarkets. Does the Home Secretary agree that, although there may be a case for increased patrols around supermarkets, the main answer is for the public to buy responsibly?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is unsurprising that we are seeing greater demand on our supermarkets right now. There are a number of important points here. It is not appropriate for police officers to be inside supermarkets. I and colleagues across Government have been working with the Security Industry Association, whose members provide guards at supermarkets to look after their functioning. Of course, the answer is that everyone should behave responsibly, and that we should ensure that we are kind to people and observe the right kind of social practices in supermarkets.

May I, through the Home Secretary, thank the National Police Chiefs’ Council and our senior police officers? We had an extremely reassuring brief from them at the Home Affairs Committee the other day, and I thank them for all they are doing. Will the Home Secretary say a little about ensuring that personal protective equipment is available not only to police forces across the country but to our Border Force? We had very worrying evidence from the ISU, the immigration service union, about actions its members are having to undertake without any equipment at all. Can she provide some reassurance?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; the work of the police is crucial, and I am aware of the briefings that he and others have received. PPE is vital for all frontline workers. There is a cross-Government effort taking place, yes for Border Force—I spend every day with Border Force officials on my team—but also for police officers. Over the weekend, I spoke to individual chief constables to understand the challenges on PPE. Of course, not all PPE is the same; it depends on the service someone is working in, so we are ensuring that the right type of PPE goes to the frontline for the type of worker. Where there have been issues, not with supply but with distribution, we are working across Government to unblock them.

I commend Dorset police and all its officers, who are doing a fantastic job down in Dorset. Unfortunately, with South Dorset being the most attractive seat in the House of Commons, thousands disobeyed the Government’s guidelines and descended on Dorset’s coastlines, parks and everywhere else, causing local residents to get extremely cross. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House and remind the public that they have to stay at home and not mix in such huge numbers?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Notwithstanding the beauty of his constituency and that part of the country, he makes a very important point. The Government guidance on social distancing, self-isolation and staying at home is critical for public health, protecting lives and saving lives. I urge all members of the public to follow that advice and guidance.

A large number of law-abiding workers in my constituency have leave to remain but no recourse to public funds. Those who need to self-isolate will do so only if they have support, along with others. What plans does the Home Secretary have for that particular group during the current crisis?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. We are already working on a range of measures across Government and at pace, and rightly so; obviously, access to public services such as the NHS, and to support systems, is vital. Working across Government means working with the Department for Work and Pensions. He will be familiar with many of the measures that are being put in place and with those that are being looked at for particular groups, in the way that he mentioned.