House of Commons
Monday 23 March 2020
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Yesterday, 22 March, marked the third anniversary of the death of PC Keith Palmer, who died in the line of duty protecting this Parliament from terrorist attack. His sacrifice will not be forgotten. May I express, on behalf of the whole House, our sympathy with his family, friends and colleagues on this sad anniversary? We are grateful every day to the police service and emergency services in all parts of the country for all that they do.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme
All right hon. and hon. Members will also associate themselves with your remarks, Mr Speaker.
It is vital that we help those in greatest need, including those requiring medical treatment and support, which is why we are working closely with local authority and civil society organisations.
My hon. Friend asks an important question and makes a very important point about the vulnerable persons relocation scheme He will know, as will all Members, that our ODA budget is used exactly for that purpose, and the Government have a proud and considerable record of achievement when it comes to the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme.
Covid-19: Law and Order
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.
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.
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.
My hon. Friend has been a persistent correspondent with the Home Office on this matter, but, as he hopefully knows, the provision of custody suites is an operational decision for chief officers and police and crime commissioners, who best understand the needs of their local communities. The Government are committed to supporting the police in their vital work protecting the public and keeping us safe by recruiting 20,000 officers over the next three years and delivering the biggest funding increase in a decade, to ensure that police officers have the resources they need.
I can confirm that. My hon. Friend is correct in his supposition that there will be extra burdens on the police, but the Home Secretary and I are in close contact with forces across the country, and we are confident of their ability to continue to manage crime in the way they have been doing.
Knife crime is a scourge on our society that leaves a trail of grief, anger and despair across entire communities, costing lives and leaving people afraid. That is why the Home Secretary has increased police funding by more than £1 billion this year, is giving the police more powers to stop and search known offenders, has started recruiting 20,000 more police officers, and is ensuring that those who carry a knife are locked up for longer. We will do everything in our power to end these shocking acts of violence and this senseless loss of life.
Aylesbury young offenders institution in my constituency has a large number of young men aged between 18 and 21 who have been convicted of very serious offences, many of them involving knives, yet many young teenagers still believe—wrongly—that they need to carry a knife for their protection. What message does my hon. Friend have for them?
My hon. Friend is quite right to raise this appalling issue which, notwithstanding the current crisis, has dogged this country. As somebody who, in my role at City Hall in London 10 years ago, had to fight a similar upsurge in knife crime, I know he is right that we need to send the right message to young people. It is statistically true that someone is much more likely to be stabbed or injured if they are carrying a knife than if they are not. That is a basic truth that we need to communicate to young people.
My hon. Friend is quite right to point out that alongside police enforcement, we need to do longer-term intervention work with young people of all ages to turn them away from a life of violence and crime. He will be pleased to know that the Government are making significant investments, not least through the youth investment fund, to ensure that that is the case. We want to make sure that all young people across the country have access to good, rigorous, disciplined, socialised activities that teach them the way of truth and light.
Settled Status for EU Citizens: Internet Access
We are committed to giving all EU citizens living in the UK the certainty they need. Last week, I announced that 3 million people have been granted status under the European settlement scheme. We have made available a further £8 million of funding to help vulnerable EU citizens apply. For those who are unable to access the support mechanisms in place, including assisted digital, a paper application form will be made available.
I have met a number of constituents and organisations who are providing vital support to vulnerable people applying for EU settled status. Some of the stories they have shared about the difficulties faced by those challenged by an internet-based system, such as people with dementia, are harrowing. While the news that funding to support those groups has been extended until this June is welcome, with a bidding process until June 2021, many vulnerable people are currently only able to secure pre-settled status. They will be required to apply again for settled status within five years. Where should those individuals turn when the funding to support them is cut off?
As the hon. Gentleman reflected, we are making funding available, and the current grant-funded organisations will continue until the new funding comes in, one of which is Fife Migrants Forum in his constituency. As with any Member, I invite him, once the current situation is over, to visit the team in Liverpool who are dealing with the European settlement scheme to see at first hand the lengths to which they go to ensure that everyone gets the status they are entitled to.
On behalf of Opposition Members, I offer my profound sympathy to the families of the 289 persons who have died in this unheard-of pandemic.
On the settlement scheme, we obviously welcome the fact that 3 million persons have been successfully processed, but Ministers will be aware that the number of rejections is on a rising curve, with 300 last month. That is increasingly because of problems with documentation. Last week, the House debated the Windrush lessons-learned review and one of the problems at that time was documentation. Is it not time that the Government ended the uncertainty hanging over the heads of EU citizens and guaranteed the rights of EU citizens in the UK?
A very small number has been rejected—just 300 out of over 3 million applications—and the core reason for rejection, for saying no to someone, is criminality. Where there are eligibility issues, people can make a free re-application but the evidence levels are quite basic. People must prove their identity; they must prove that they have residence in the UK, particularly for pre-settled status; and they are subject to the eligibility and suitability checks around criminality. Actually, the system is working very well, and again, I extend an invitation to the right hon. Lady to come to meet the team and see at first hand the work that they are doing and why this has been such a success. It is the biggest documentation of immigration status in history and it is going well.
County Lines Drugs Gangs
We will not tolerate the abhorrent gangs that are terrorising our towns and exploiting our children, when it comes to county lines drugs gangs, and we have committed £25 million of targeted investment to boost law enforcement to roll up these drug lines.
My hon. Friend is right about the risks associated with drug line gangs and covid-19. We are working with the police on this, because they are on the frontline and they monitor everything that goes on with gangs. They will not desist from the work that they are doing, and it is important that we pursue this work throughout the crisis to give the public confidence and provide reassurance that we are determined to roll up these drug gangs.
We hear plenty about county lines networks but not so much about the customers. It is simply not acceptable for people to pop down to Waitrose on a Saturday afternoon and buy their quinoa and then invite their friends round on a Saturday evening for some recreational cannabis. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what she is doing to try to disrupt the drugs trade—not just those who supply drugs, but those who use them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The use of drugs is simply unacceptable and the fact of the matter is that those who misuse and take drugs should also be aware of the consequences of their actions: children around the country are being trafficked and abused and used by drugs gangs to fuel people’s drug addictions. A great deal of work is taking place across Government on this, including by Dame Carol Black, who did a review of drugs and has provided further evidence on what other measures the Government can bring in, in addition to law enforcement measures.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s robust approach to this, but I echo the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts). The concern is that with schools closed, children will have more time on their hands and that is a vulnerability. Will she assure us that what we do to encourage online activities and so on for them can be looked at across Departments, so that we reduce the likelihood of this happening?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important that we recognise the nature of the vulnerability of young people and children. It is a fact that, throughout this crisis, children are not at school. They could therefore become prey to gangs and are, equally, more vulnerable, so we are working with the police to make sure that greater work takes place on protecting young people. We are doing the same with local authorities, but the public need to do much more as well. It is a collective duty of the state to protect our children and make sure that they are safeguarded. Right now across Government, with covid-19 taking place, we are absolutely determined to make sure that we safeguard children, protect vulnerable children and ensure that more kids do not become vulnerable to county lines drugs gangs.
It is very good to hear about the Government’s robust approach to tackling county lines. The issue of dealing around schools, including even at school gates, has been raised with me by anxious teachers and parents over the past year. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that when schools reopen, her focus will be on making sure that they do so safely for all those attending?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is about protecting children, including vulnerable children, but it is also about safeguarding. Everyone has a duty and a responsibility when it comes to safeguarding children. When schools finally reopen, they will play a very important role in making sure that children are protected, that they get back into education and on a stable footing, and that they will not be susceptible and vulnerable to these types of criminal activities.
Hastings and Rye has serious issues regarding county lines, with drug dealers deliberately targeting young and other vulnerable people. Sussex police is working hard with local partners to combat drug dealers, but it needs the support of the justice system, imposing strong deterrent sentences to ensure zero tolerance of drug gangs, particularly during the coronavirus crisis. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are working together to pursue a zero-tolerance policy for drug gangs?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Through the crime and justice Cabinet Committee that we now have, we look at this from an end-to-end perspective. The Home Office has put in £25 million specifically to target county lines drugs gangs and to roll up county lines. She has highlighted a really important point about the role of the criminal justice system in sentencing and deterrence, and about how we should work together to use intelligence to go after the gang leaders and cut the head off the snake—the people who are fuelling this awful, abhorrent crime.
County lines are one aspect of the threat posed by serious and organised crime, in respect of which the coronavirus crisis presents hugely difficult challenges. I should be grateful if the Home Secretary passed my thanks on to the Minister for Security for the discussions that I have had with him on measures on warrants, but can she set out what other measures she will take to ensure that our police can deal with urgent issues, including their having the appropriate protective equipment? Does she agree that we need to ensure that this period in which we will be in emergency measures is not exploited by those who wish us harm?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise those matters. I am aware of the discussions that have taken place between him and the Security Minister about the legislation that will be discussed this afternoon on the Floor of the House. He is absolutely right—I restate the points that I made about PPE, in particular, to protect frontline workers.
The hon. Gentleman will know that there are various measures in the Bill on the appointment of temporary judicial commissioners, as well as on biometric data and information—the essential steps that we have to take to make sure that we protect our people, our communities and our country. We cannot have any gaps or loopholes that would allow people who want to come in and do us harm to come in and do us harm right now.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about our collective focus, and I thank him and the Opposition Front-Bench team for the way in which they are working with us to make sure that we have those protective measures, because the duty of Government during this epidemic and crisis is to make sure that we have responsible measures in place to protect our country and our people.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for that answer. Of course, the police are going to be under pressure in the months ahead, and they deserve all our support. We should all say that any abuse directed towards the police is totally and utterly unacceptable. However, there will be people carrying out the role of police officers in the months ahead. Thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the police have the protection of the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, allowing courts to take into account the fact that they were on duty when the abuse occurred. Can we look at extending that measure to those who are carrying out the role of police officers in the months ahead?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. I have put on the record in the House my views about the appalling abuse to which our police officers and emergency workers are subject. That is simply unacceptable, and my intention, as he will know from the police powers and protections Bill, is to introduce the right legislation to bring in enhanced powers and measures in the criminal justice system to make sure that the right kinds of penalties are put in place.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. At this particular time, when there are additional pressures and strains on public workers—our public sector, our emergency workers and our police officers—we should do everything possible, and I will absolutely look into that.
Covid-19: English Language Testing
These are extraordinary times, and we are working hard to ensure that no foreign students are penalised unfairly by these events. We recognise the concerns of the education sector about the impact of covid-19, and we are working with it to mitigate the adverse consequences. We are also working closely with secure English language test providers to ensure that there is sufficient capacity for all those who need to take tests while prioritising the health and safety of staff and applicants.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Clearly my question was tabled before we hit the mission-critical phase in our actions to combat the virus, and of course it feels rather discordant to talk today about international travel when we are talking self-isolation and social distancing. But below that there is another really important message—that we will come through this, we will rally and we will rebuild. So can the Minister say what measures are being taken to expedite the process for international students coming to our universities in particular, because it is so vital in towns such as Eastbourne and across the country?
I recognise the comments my hon. Friend makes, and as she says, at the moment it seems strange to be talking about international travel when we are rightly advising against all non-essential travel within the United Kingdom, let alone abroad. We are very clear that no one will have a negative outcome through the immigration system due to a circumstance that was beyond their control. We have already done a block extension of visas for Chinese nationals, and we are looking at further measures that we can take—for example, allowing in-country switching that we would not normally allow—to ensure that no one is penalised because they followed the advice and did what they could to protect our NHS and save lives.
Police Disciplinary Procedures
The vast majority of police officers fulfil their duties to a very high standard, but where they fall short, it is only right that they are held to account. In February this year, the Government overhauled the police complaints and disciplinary procedures, introducing reforms to make the systems more accountable, proportionate and efficient.
I was disappointed to learn that two Metropolitan police officers are facing potential disciplinary action for crashing their car while in hot pursuit of an active terrorist on the rampage. I know that the Minister cannot talk about individual cases, but is he satisfied that all circumstances are taken into account before a police officer faces suspension? If he meets the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police any time soon, will he pass on to her my personal thanks to every single one of the police officers involved in that operation, including those who are facing disciplinary sanction?
I am certainly willing to pass on the hon. Gentleman’s good wishes to the men and women of the Metropolitan Police Service, who we are in touch with daily, if not several times a day at the moment. He is right that I cannot talk specifically about that particular case, but he can be confident that in that case, and in all cases, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, which will conduct the investigation, is well aware of its duty to take into account all the circumstances.
Covid-19: Screening for UK Entry
We are facing an unprecedented threat from covid-19. In response to that, an enhanced monitoring process was implemented by Public Health England during the containment phase to monitor direct flights and identify any ill passengers from affected countries. However, the UK Government do not intend to introduce port screening measures such as temperature checks, as the scientific advice suggests that they simply do not work.
I thank the Minister for his reply, but can he tell us what steps he is taking to ensure that British citizens returning from high-risk countries are fully aware of the need to self-isolate on their return? Will he also promise that any advice that he gives is shared with the Governments of the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies, and also the territories and dependencies? They all need advice, support and help during this very difficult time for our country.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and he raises an extremely good and important point, as always. All aircraft flying into the United Kingdom will have an announcement on the symptoms and what to do if any passengers have those symptoms. In the UK, that has been enforced by a notice to airmen filed with the Civil Aviation Authority. In addition, the Government have made sure there are posters and leaflets containing public health information in all international airports, ports and international train stations. The need to self-isolate when people have those symptoms is critical, and I will take up his suggestion and make sure that is propagated to all the other Administrations to which he referred.
Will the Minister and the Home Secretary pass on huge thanks to the Home Office staff, the Border Force staff and the police, who are working immensely hard on the response to the coronavirus? Given that other countries have mandatory quarantines in place for people arriving and that the Government in this country withdrew on 13 March the previous advice for travellers coming from high-risk countries such as Italy to self-isolate, does the Minister accept that it is hard to understand why there is no guidance on self-isolation on a precautionary basis for travellers coming from high-risk countries? Will he and Home Secretary look at that issue again? Will they also work with the Home Affairs Committee to ensure that they can attend remote meetings to answer our questions during this crisis?
First, may I echo the right hon. Lady’s comments about the fantastic work being done by civil servants and staff of various Executive agencies? As she has said, they are doing an incredible job in very difficult circumstances. On mandatory self-isolation for people returning from high-risk countries, she is right to say that the advice changed. However, let me reassure her by saying that it is under continual and ongoing scientific evaluation. The Home Secretary and I have both asked recently for refreshed scientific advice, and that is being monitored almost daily. If the scientific advice says that the safety of our country requires a further change in policy, we will certainly do that in response.
On the right hon. Lady’s question about enabling remote hearings for her Select Committee, I am sure that civil servants, officials and Ministers at the Home Office will do exactly that if required, to make sure that her Committee can function and discharge its scrutinising responsibilities, regardless of our current circumstances.
In previous Home Office questions, I have asked for reassurances from the Home Secretary that those who enter or seek to enter illegally from France are immediately returned, but I have not received that absolute reassurance. As we have a pandemic going on, it is even more important that people who seek to enter illegally are first apprehended, and are then returned, tested and, above all, put into isolation. Can the Minister reassure me that that is going on?
Significant resources are being put into protecting the short straits, particularly the crossing in the direction of Dover. Where people make that crossing cladestinely, they are met by the relevant officials, particularly from Border Force and from immigration enforcement. Of course, one of the screening checks now being done relates to their health, to make sure that if they need to be isolated to avoid the disease being transmitted onwards, that happens. On returns, we are currently bound by the Dublin regulations, but once we exit the transition period, we will not be and there will be an opportunity for us to form our own policy in this important area.
Overwhelmingly, people entering the UK in Orkney and Shetland do so because they are coming off cruise ships. That traffic is currently suspended, as a result of the businesses themselves suspending it. Will the Minister reassure me that if these businesses were to try to reinstate cruise ship business before it was safe to do so, steps would be taken to prevent their doing it?
Let me reassure the right hon. Gentleman that, as I said previously, the scientific advice is at the forefront of the Government’s thinking and there is no question at all of allowing any unsafe operating practice—by cruise ship operators or anyone else. The Government will not contemplate allowing this business to happen until the scientific advice categorically states that it is safe.
Burglary and theft are a blight on all members of our community, which is why this Government are committed to reducing burglary and other neighbourhood crimes. We recently launched the £25 million safer streets fund to protect areas that are disproportionately affected by burglary and theft and to invest in well-evidenced crime prevention measures. A reduction in burglary, along with other neighbourhood crimes, will form one of the many outcomes we will be putting forward to the police that we expect to see as part of the recruitment of 20,000 police officers.
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will know following her recent visit to Ipswich, it has seen a number of burglaries in our town centre recently. These break-ins have been targeted at stores in specific parts of the town, including important local businesses like Willy’s & Milly’s café and Emilia Hair & Beauty Studio. Given that Suffolk constabulary’s resources are stretched and Suffolk urgently needs a review of the police funding formula, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the police in Ipswich have every resource they need to thoroughly investigate each burglary, bring the perpetrators to justice and prevent more such serious crimes from happening in the future, especially in the light of the additional pressures that tackling covid-19 will place upon the local force in Suffolk?
Ipswich has rarely had a champion quite as robust as my hon. Friend, and he is right to be as persistent as he is in the defence of his town. I urge Suffolk constabulary, or the police and crime commissioner who represents Ipswich, to make a bid to the safer streets fund. Lots of things can be done to target-harden in particular areas where there are burglary hotspots. My hon. Friend is aware that we have given Suffolk constabulary another £9.2 million this year to start the recruitment of police officers, and of course there will be more to come in the years that follow, but he is right to keep up the pressure and I hope he will see results soon.
In Cheshire, the police rural crime unit recently reported having dealt with 170 crimes, including burglaries and thefts, in three months. Will my hon. Friend guarantee that tackling such crimes will remain a key focus for his Department, and that the extra resources being made available will help to keep specialist police officers out there to protect the Eddisbury countryside and its farms and businesses into the future?
I offer my hon. Friend a belated welcome back from his extended recess; it is nice to see him in his place. He is right to raise the issue of rural crime. As somebody who represents 220 beautiful square miles of rolling Hampshire down land, I am well aware of the problems that rural communities face with crime. My hon. Friend will understand that it is an operational matter for the chief constable in his area to decide where and how his police officers are deployed, but I know that some of the more rural forces are working hard to maintain their capacity in respect of that crime type. As he will know, there is a National Rural Crime Network, which is looking at what more can be done.
Shop Workers: Protection from Violence
We are committed to driving down crime and violence in all its forms, which is why, to strengthen our understanding of the scale of violence and abuse towards shop staff, we launched a call for evidence. The findings are supposed to be published this month, and it is still my ambition to do so, but we will see what happens given the current circumstances. We will continue to work closely with the police, industry and other partners to ensure a robust collective response.
Many colleagues from all parties will share the concern that the criminal justice system can be too slow and too lenient in dealing with those who cause violence against shop workers and owners. Right now, will the Minister share his expressions of solidarity with all the shop owners and workers who are putting themselves on the frontline to help those in our community to be fed and looked after? Can we send a message out from the House that we expect those people to be treated not just in line with criminal standards, but with respect and gratitude?
I wholeheartedly endorse my hon. Friend’s remarks. He is right that when we emerge from the crisis that is engulfing our country, there will be a general reassessment of who is important in this country and what a “key worker” means. He is right that those on the frontline, delivering, stacking shelves and taking money at tills, are as much part of the national effort to beat this coronavirus as a police officer or NHS worker, and we thank them for it.
On the question of protecting shop workers and owners, as was referred to earlier, we have all seen the unfortunate recent scenes of disorder in supermarkets when persons attempt to stockpile in response to the coronavirus. We have seen shelves swept clean just hours after the shops open, the apparent shortages of very basic products such as paracetamol, and the elderly being unable to purchase their basic needs. A number of measures are being taken to deal with the situation, but we note that even when supermarkets tried to set aside hours at the beginning of the day for the frail, elderly and NHS workers, others just barged them aside. No one on the Opposition Benches wants to see police officers in supermarkets, but if the situation remains unmanageable, will the Minister consider talking to the shops, the supermarket owners and their security officers to see whether patrols by police community support officers in the vicinity of some of the larger supermarkets might play a role?
The right hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. I hope to reassure her that we are in very close contact both with the police about the patterns of behaviour they are seeing, and with representatives from the food industry, particularly from the supermarkets, which I know are meeting regularly with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to monitor the situation. We hope and believe that, over the next few days, things will settle down. Our food and supply chains in supermarkets are extremely strong, and we are reassured by those companies that they can fulfil the demand as it comes, but she is right to hold us to the challenge of monitoring the situation. If we need to take further steps, obviously we will. As the Home Secretary said, we are also talking closely with the Security Industry Association about the welfare and capability of its staff in these circumstances. We want to ensure that this is managed proportionately and calmly, but we are keeping an eye on it.
This country is facing its greatest challenge since the second world war. The covid-19 pandemic requires us to change our way of life for many months to come and, throughout this uncertainty, nothing has made us as a nation prouder than the extraordinary humanity and dedication of our police officers, firefighters and, of course, our NHS workers and key workers. This battle against coronavirus is being fought in our hospitals and will be won through the efforts of the public, who need to stay at home to protect the NHS and to save lives. On behalf of the Government and the country, may I say that, although we are all facing this unprecedented challenge, we will come through it together? There is a role for compassion and commitment to ensure that we all work together at this challenging time.
Over the weekend, I spoke both to my local resilience forum and Staffordshire police, who raised various concerns with me about access to personal protective equipment and lack of personnel if people are off with self-isolation. What conversations is my right hon. Friend having with police forces across the country to ensure that they have the resources that they need for dealing with covid-19?
I have daily conversations across the entire policing network across the country with regard to the resources that they need at this incredibly challenging time. The Government are, of course, working closely with all partners, including the emergency services, on a range of issues, including suitable PPE and the development of suitable testing. Those are the things that our police officers and police chiefs are asking for right now, and we are working with them to co-ordinate supplies and the policing response.
I wish to return to the subject of that category of person under immigration legislation who has no recourse to public funds. Because of the coronavirus epidemic and the consequent shutdown of large parts of the economy, these persons will not be able to work. We welcome the help for workers through bank loans and the benefit system that the Government have brought in, but the category of person to which I refer are not entitled legally to benefits of any kind. I note that the Home Secretary is talking to the Department for Work and Pensions about this matter, but when can she give some assurance to people who are literally facing destitution that this matter will be resolved and that there will be a way of offering them some measure of financial support?
Let me repeat to the right hon. Lady the comment that I made earlier. This is work that is taking place across Government, and not just in the Home Office. We are engaging with the Treasury and with the DWP. It is vital that, at this particular stage and given the really significant challenge that our country finds itself facing, we provide resources and support for people at all levels, and that is something that the entire Government are committed to do. I would be very happy to come back to her on this specific point in due course.
My hon. Friend is right to raise an issue that has been of concern in the media and across the country. As I said earlier, we are talking to the Security Industry Association about what more it can do, and we are in close touch with, in particular, the supermarkets as to how they are administering and making sure that those who need to get resources can do so. We are monitoring the situation very closely with our colleagues in the police, but, as I say, we hope and believe that, in the next few days, the good sense of the British public will reassert itself and everyone will start to behave appropriately.
May I welcome the fact that no recourse to public funds rules appear to be being looked at just now, but there is a host of other immigration and asylum policies, which surely also need urgent revision to deal with the coronavirus crisis, of which immigration detention, requirements to report or attend appointments and interviews, and shared asylum accommodation are just three. Are all of these issues being looked at urgently and could we simply receive a comprehensive update from the Home Office in early course?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We have never said that people at lower skill levels are unimportant. As we know, throughout this crisis everybody is making a tremendous contribution and effort to keep all services functioning and running, while at the same time ensuring care and compassion for workers in service provision that is essential right now. I have already committed to keeping all aspects of the points-based immigration system under review. The important thing about that system is that we will ensure that points are tradeable based on skills and labour market need across particular sectors.
I am afraid that the lack of sense displayed by some parts of the British public is putting retail workers under enormous pressure and threat. Retail workers often cannot be 2 metres apart from other people, especially at checkouts. This point was brought home to me by a constituent who witnessed somebody being spat on for refusing to allow bulk buying. Will the Minister please revisit what he and the Home Secretary have already said about the need to protect retail workers? We are going to need them to continue at work; we cannot afford for them to become sick.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue once again. As I said earlier, the protection of retail workers is one of the uppermost issues in our mind. I have noticed a number of retailers who are taking protective measures—for example, measuring out the distance and putting tape on the floor to indicate where people should stand in order to stay 2 metres away from a retail worker. However, the hon. Gentleman is right that action needs to be taken when there are serious offences. As far as I can see, the incident that he mentioned is a crime that should be reported to the police and actioned accordingly.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Today we have spoken clearly about policing and the daily calls we have with the police, but there is a similar system with the fire service, which is providing incredible work and support, particularly for vulnerable communities across the country. We should all pay tribute to the fire services; their work is truly remarkable. They are an integral feature of the local resilience forums that cover all our constituencies, and we are in close contact with them to ensure that they are getting the equipment, support and resources they need throughout this crisis.
Foreign national doctors and medical students at Morriston Hospital in Swansea are very concerned about their immigration status. They face significant bills if they want to renew their visas now, and obviously want an expedited process. Would it not simply make sense for the Government to announce as swiftly as possible that they will waive all fees for such doctors and medical trainees, that they will try to ensure that those processes can be expedited and that anybody who wants to stay can stay?
Let me give the hon. Gentleman, his constituents and all public health workers in that category reassurance. Some very fast work is taking place at the Home Office right now to look at exactly that issue. I would be very happy to write to the hon. Gentleman outlining that work.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise her concerns, which have been echoed in the House today. She does have a beautiful constituency and an incredible police force, which I pay tribute to. The police have robust contingency arrangements. They have the ability to work with others in the community and alongside the other emergency services to ensure that we stop people from behaving irresponsibly. I restate the message that everyone should take responsibility and follow the Government’s advice. This is about saving and protecting lives, and we all have a duty to follow that advice.
The Home Secretary is well aware that the emergency legislation being brought forward this afternoon provides quite extraordinary but important measures for immigration officials and extends the power of detention. Does she not understand that without adequate proactive screening, that power will be rendered useless? Will she keep open the option of providing a better regimen of screening at our air and sea ports?
We are working with the Department for Transport and across Government on screening, but it is important that the House recognises that where there is proper scientific evidence, we are following it. This will all be under review, and as things change and more evidence comes from the chief medical officer, that is what we will being doing across Government, day in, day out.
My hon. Friend raises an essential question about the safety and security of the public and our communities at this time. It is fair to say that we have seen incredible resilience among the British public. In all constituencies, people are behaving in a generous and community-minded way. That helps and it is what we want to see. At the same time, we are seeing organisations and individuals coming together and working with our local police, our local authorities and our local resilience forums, and we will continue to encourage that.
At the weekend, I was horrified to receive calls from constituents telling me that some pub landlords were trying to let customers come in through the rear entrances to their pubs, leading to my local authority having to send licensing officers to ask those people to leave the pubs. What punishment will be given to the landlords if they continue to flout the law and break the licensing conditions set out by the Prime Minister?
As the Home Secretary will know, covid-19 has already had an impact on police numbers on the frontline and in back office support roles. What discussions has she had, or would consider having, with the Foreign Office about getting the key workers, including police officers, nurses and support staff, who are currently stranded in other parts of the world back as a priority?
On police officers in particular, the numbers of frontline staff are proving to be very resilient, but my hon. Friend makes an important point about those who are abroad and how we can repatriate them, so that they can rejoin the frontline services in our country. That work is taking place across Government, specifically with the Foreign Office, and Border Force is now tasked with joining up with the Foreign Office to make sure that happens.
Before leaving their country of origin, many of my asylum-seeking constituents were skilled doctors or nurses. Given that there is such a shortage of nurses and doctors at the moment, will the Government consider lifting the work ban on asylum seekers to let them take part in this national effort?
Over the weekend, I was alerted to the fact that a number of religious workers, students and business people whose visas are soon to expire are not able to return to India. What advice does my right hon. Friend have for the people in that category?
Coronavirus is driving many aspects of our daily lives online. Hopefully that will help bring us together, but it will also undoubtedly attract criminal elements to new crimes, particularly with all the vulnerable people going online. What additional capacity is the Home Secretary ensuring in the police forces to patrol the online streets and keep us safe at this time?
The hon. Lady raises an extremely important point. While we might see other forms of crime fall because of the lack of activity in the street, we are well aware and sensitive to the fact that fraud might emerge. I have seen over the weekend some reports in the media of unscrupulous individuals exploiting elderly and vulnerable citizens in particular, and certainly when we have been discussing these matters with police leaders on our regular calls, they are aware of that issue and are thinking more about how they could redirect resources towards it, if it becomes systemic.
We probably have more than half a million undocumented migrants in this country—people who, if they fall ill with coronavirus, might be afraid to declare themselves to the health authorities for fear of deportation. The Irish Government, who have the same issue in Ireland, have firewalled their national health service data from other parts of Government. I do not know whether that is the right answer, but will the Secretary of State look at the issue and find a similar resolution?
The point is well made and we will certainly look at it. No one should fear accessing medical advice from our superb NHS for an immigration reason.
Concerns have been raised in Croydon—I have seen them elsewhere—that religious organisations are not adhering to the new guidance about holding their services or not. Indeed, I have seen some people seeing it as an act of faith that they are bold enough to go to their religious services. What more can we do in terms of enforcement and communication to ensure that people are doing what they should?
The hon. Lady is quite right, and I received reports just this morning that certain communities in London in particular are not observing the rules. We will be talking to Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government colleagues this afternoon about what they can do to draw people together to create better observance.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for referring to the death of PC Keith Palmer, who tragically died three years ago. The pressures on the Home Office are only likely to increase. We have seen 20,000 armed forces personnel mobilised, many of whom will probably provide military assistance to the police. In the event of a lockdown, will the Home Secretary say what role the armed forces might play?
My right hon. Friend is right to raise the capacity and capability of our military, which is second to none. Where we can, we will draw upon it. He will know that this country has a proud tradition of a strong division between the civil and the military, and we wish to maintain that. However, our armed forces colleagues have superb expertise in logistics in particular, but also in planning and construction, which we aim to use to the fullest extent.
I wish to make a statement relating to parliamentary services, aspects of the Chamber and other parliamentary business. I ask that hon. Members bear with me, as it is longer than I would like.
On Chamber attendance, Parliament as a whole continues to follow the latest Government advice relating to covid-19, including advising Members and staff to work remotely where possible and limiting all but essential access to the parliamentary estate. I remind Members and those watching our proceedings that steps are being taken to preserve social distancing in the Chamber. As a result, attendance will be more limited than usual, but that does not curtail the commitment of hon. Members to fulfilling their parliamentary duties.
We recognise the need to improve our video conferencing facilities to enable those working remotely to engage in Committee proceedings. Regarding evidence sessions, these facilities are currently limited, not least because the management of these sessions requires expert operators to produce audio-visual output of a suitable quality for broadcast use and Hansard transcription purposes. The teams who make such arrangements work are currently under—I do stress—significant strain because of staff absences. Further work in this area will be taken forward as a matter of priority over the Easter recess. Once the current situation has settled, I will commission a review to ensure we can develop systems to ensure we are ready and able to be more agile in the future.
Some Members and key parliamentary staff are still required to work on the estate to enable the House to continue to fulfil its important constitutional role. As this is a workplace, it is important that they continue to have access to adequate canteen facilities. A number of venues have been closed, but in those that remain open, we are employing a range of measures to increase social distancing, while encouraging diners to use takeaway options where possible. The following outlets remain open: Tea Room, Terrace Cafeteria, Debate and Dispatch Box. The Members’ Smoking Room remains open, but there is no service. I can confirm that, from today, the sale of alcohol in House of Commons catering venues has been suspended until further notice. I took that decision on Friday evening. All those measures will be kept under constant review.
If Divisions take place from today onwards, until further notice, the arrangements will be modified to allow for social distancing. The entry of Members will be staggered, with entry at separate times for three alphabetical groups. Members will be able to record their names at any of the desks. A Division may take between 30 and 40 minutes to conduct in that way. Further details will be communicated via the Whips and announced again if a Division takes place. I want to ensure that Members feel satisfied that all the staff are trying to do their best.
I understand the wish of Members—particularly those not able to attend the Chamber—to fulfil their duty to hold the Government to account. However, I urge Members to think twice before tabling parliamentary questions. In particular, they may want to think about the impact of such questions on Government officials who are working incredibly hard to respond to the current crisis. If they are desperate questions, I will understand, but multiple questions will block not only staff members in this House but Government Departments that need to be carrying on with their duties, so please think twice. When a Member puts 60 questions down, that is not helpful to anybody or to this country.
I should also mention that names added to early-day motions that are not submitted electronically are not being processed. I am sure all Members will understand that, in these exceptional circumstances, some changes to procedural services have proved necessary, and further changes may be needed.
Finally, I want to again express my thanks to Members and staff across Parliament for their hard work in enabling this House to continue to function and for their efforts in limiting the spread of coronavirus among our community. We have some absolute heroes in this House who I want to thank on behalf of all of us.
Business of the House
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a short business statement.
Further to my announcement to the House last Thursday, the first item of business tomorrow will now be consideration of a business of the House motion, followed by all stages of the Contingencies Fund Bill. This will be followed by Committee and remaining stages of the Windrush Compensation Scheme (Expenditure) Bill, followed by a motion relating to appointments to the parliamentary works sponsor body. The last item of business will be a general debate on the situation in Yemen, as determined by the Backbench Business Committee. The business for the rest of this week remains unchanged.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for remembering PC Keith Palmer in your earlier statement. I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement. We agree that the Contingencies Fund Bill should be accommodated through this change of business.
Mr Speaker, I welcome your statement and the steps you have set out to enable this House to continue to fulfil its democratic role, but in a way that is safe and consistent with the advice that the Government have set out and expect our constituents to follow. In that spirit, if the Leader of the House is not able to update us today, will he think about what further steps can be agreed between Mr Speaker and the usual channels to enable the House to properly hold the Government to account over what might be a considerable period, as we deal with this virus, in a way consistent with the firm, important advice that we are giving to the rest of the general public?
My right hon. Friend raises a point that is being considered by the Government and which will be discussed with the official Opposition and other opposition parties. We will need to legislate and to ensure that the Government are held to account, but we may well have to do that in ways that are different from those we have used previously.
It is very encouraging to see that right hon. and hon. Members seem to be sitting at least 6 feet away from each other in the Chamber, and I would encourage that even on my own Front Bench. Government Front Benchers seem to be observing the suitable gaps at this moment, as do Opposition Front Benchers.
We are happy to support the Government in their efforts to get the Contingencies Fund Bill through so they can make the expenditure needed to get the country through this crisis. We welcome, Mr Speaker, the announcements you have just made, particularly about social distancing should we find—and perhaps we will not—that Divisions are necessary.
However, the continuing business of the House continues to put pressure on staff and Members. Can the Leader of the House say what consideration is being given to bringing the recess forward to the end of this week? The reality is that any of us who return to our constituencies from London, the epicentre of the virus, are going to have to self-isolate—it would be inappropriate for us to go into our communities—and it would therefore be impossible for us to get back for sittings next week. Will the Leader of the House please take that into consideration?
Yes, absolutely. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is being considered. I would say to the House that pairing has been very widespread for this week to ensure that right hon. and hon. Members who do not be here are not. We obviously need to ensure that the emergency legislation is successfully passed this week: that depends on the other place as well as here and then the receipt of Royal Assent. We will have other legislation to do in due course, but whether the Bill about rate relief for toilets and the general debate before the Adjournment are essential business that we all need to come back for is debatable.
When the Leader of the House speaks at Cabinet tomorrow, will he convey my appreciation to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the package of measures to support workers that he announced on Friday? He may have been Chancellor for only a few weeks, but he may have saved more jobs than any of his predecessors. However, will the Leader of the House ask him urgently to come back to the House on a comparable package for the self-employed—I know he is working very hard on that—whose businesses are crucial to every constituency in this country and, indeed, to the nation?
I will do better than my right hon. Friend asks; I will ensure that an extract of Hansard recording the thanks of my right hon. Friend is sent to the Chancellor. His proposals have received widespread support across the country and the House. My right hon. Friend’s point on the self-employed is very well made, and I will ensure that that is also passed on.
May I add my welcome to the support given last week to those in employment? There is, however, real anxiety out there among the self-employed. For example, Bill Croney, one of my constituents who runs an event catering business contacted me this morning. These people have got no money coming in, and I think people need to realise that. The Government need urgently to bring forward active measures, and the indication of a statement tomorrow would at least be a ray of hope for some of those people in desperate times.
Although the Bill coming before the House tomorrow is not specifically directed at the self-employed, the scale of tomorrow’s Bill is such that it will allow expenditure of £260 billion on account. That gives the Government the flexibility that they need, assuming the House is willing to pass that Bill, to ensure that steps can be taken. I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is giving urgent attention to ways of helping the self-employed. I think it is accepted across the House that that needs to be tackled.
Mr Speaker, I , too, welcome your measures to try to keep all the staff and ourselves safe in this House.
We are to go into recess some time in the near future. We do not know what is going to happen over the next few weeks, but undoubtedly there will be problems in all our constituencies. May I ask the Leader of the House to urge all his Front-Bench colleagues to treat any queries from any of us as if the House was sitting and with the urgency that they need to be dealt with?
Mr Speaker, may I refer to your statement, which, I think, gave the House very good advice? We, as right hon. and hon. Members, need to consider what is urgent and pressing and needs raising with Ministers and what is routine and can wait until after this crisis is solved. It is of the greatest importance that urgent messages get through and are not swamped by routine messages that we would usually be passing on to try to seek high-level responses. Self-denial by us will help Ministers to ensure that the right responses are given to the most urgent items.
I add my voice to those of the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) about the self-employed and freelancers, and I ask the Leader of the House to convey to the Chancellor the urgent requirement for him to come back to the House for a statement about them. I also commend to him the report issued today by the Musicians’ Union, which outlines the impact that this has had on many people in the creative industries.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of those in the creative industries, who are mainly self-employed and have been particularly affected because, of course, the places where they perform have been closed. The Government are inevitably conscious that when we close places by order and that has an effect on people’s livelihoods, there is a societal responsibility. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor is fully aware of that.
Mr Speaker, you may recall that I have over the past couple of years secured not one but two emergency debates on Yemen and have been a pretty staunch critic of the Government’s policy in respect of that country. However, even I wonder about the timing of the debate tomorrow and whether it is wise for the House to sit and devote time to that particular subject.
My right hon. Friend has, I know, campaigned to bring the attention of the country at large to what is going on in Yemen. It is always open to somebody who is going to move a motion not to move that motion, and hon. Members might consider whether they wish to bring forward specific business.
As things stand, we will return from the Easter recess just as this epidemic reaches its peak, or heads towards it. Inevitably, either by agreement or for any other reason, a lot of Members will not be here. Mr Speaker, may I ask the Leader of the House to take seriously your indications about the use of modern technology for distance working over the recess, so that the appropriate provision is in place for Members? After all, distance working is what we are asking people in workplaces the length and breadth of the country to do.
Many aspects of distance working are already available, such as e-tabling and so on. A motion will be brought to the House later today to allow greater flexibility for the working of Select Committees, which will be an important step in allowing them to hold the Government to account during this period.
As regards the workings of things on the Floor of the House, there will be discussions with leading figures in Opposition parties, I hope during the course of this week, to see whether we can by agreement and consensus work out how to limit the numbers of people who need to be in the Chamber.
Some businesses in my constituency are already looking to the future. When they get back on their feet, they will, sadly, have to make some redundancies because they will not be turning over or making the profits that they are making now. They are asking who will meet that bill. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Chancellor what the answer to that particular conundrum is?
My hon. Friend raises the question at the heart of what many right hon. and hon. Members have been saying: how do we take care of businesses that were sound on 1 March but which might find that they are not sound when this crisis ends? The Government are doing everything we can to help ensure the continued soundness of businesses, and that, in my view, is absolutely the right thing to be doing.
The House is due to return on 21 April, but that might not be possible for health reasons. In light of that, is it possible to lift the convention that Members do not usually table parliamentary questions over the recess? In that way, questions could be spaced out sensibly, rather than a huge backlog being caused by their being put in next Tuesday afternoon.
Following on from the question of the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), can I ask that a statement on the self-employed and freelancers comes forward quickly, given the immediate need of many self-employed people? There are 6,500 self-employed people in my constituency of The Wrekin. Will that statement be forthcoming when the House is sitting, rather than when the House has risen, so that right hon. and hon. Members can constructively interrogate the Government’s suggestions?
My hon. Friend puts his finger on why it is important for the House to be sitting so that the Government can be held to account and so that questions can be asked on statements. I am sure that if there are no statements from the Government within the next few days, there may be a receptiveness to urgent questions, so I think information will be forthcoming.
I welcome the indication that we will move to more virtual ways of working, but may I ask that that also incorporates electronic voting as soon as possible? It is ridiculous that we will all be cooped up in the Lobbies.
Secondly, I reinforce the importance of action for the self-employed. In particular, the insurance companies need to be pressed: they are saying that, because coronavirus was not listed as a disease, they will not pay up. The insurance bodies clearly need to be brought to heel.
I record my gratitude to the Opposition for deciding not to divide the House last week. We have become aware that politicians in this country can act in the interests of the nation and of us all by coming together to do this, and we have shown that with surprising speed. I reiterate the thanks given by my right hon Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to his shadow, the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), who has been particularly helpful in this difficult period.
The issue regarding the self-employed is of great importance and has been widely raised.
I warmly condemn—warmly commend, I mean—the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care for recognising that, sometimes, Opposition Members want to be helpful with their criticisms. There are specific issues, such as the treatment of employees, of those in rented properties and, for that matter, of freelancers and sole traders, on which proper questions from Members on both sides of the House can get us to a better place.
My anxiety is that we are telling the nation that we should bend every sinew to deal solely with this issue, yet we are still doing all sorts of other things in the House that are not solely directed at coronavirus. May I suggest to the Government that we shred every other ongoing legislative process? We should only be debating issues that relate to the national crisis.
When will we have the necessary votes under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 to enforce the measures that were introduced last Friday in relation to pubs and clubs?
I will not make cheap shots about the hon. Gentleman’s default position when he is trying to be helpful.
The difficulty is that some of the business we carry on needs to be carried on. It is important that the Windrush compensation scheme is debated and dealt with tomorrow. The hon. Gentleman knows the procedures of this House better than almost anybody: he will be aware that we need to introduce the Finance Bill within a set period of the motions being introduced, so there is routine business that needs to be carried out. Other things are happening on which MPs will want to hold the Government to account so, although I understand his point, we cannot go quite so far as he suggests.
But we can lead by example in this place—right here, right now. There are four people sitting within 6 feet of the Leader of the House; certainly within 2 metres. [Interruption.] I will come over with a tape measure in a moment. We have to demonstrate it by our actions, and the visual example of people sitting immediately in front of and behind other Members does not do that.
My main point is about the self-employed. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) mentioned the statement by the Musicians Union, which makes two specific proposals. One is for an immediate payment of £400 a week to every self-employed person, and the second is to use the tax records as evidence to deliver 80% of long-term income. Will the Leader of the House make sure those figures are given to the Chancellor?
I accept the point and encourage right hon. and hon. Members to try to keep 6 feet apart. I think we are doing pretty well, considering how much we practically sit on each other’s laps during ordinary sittings of Parliament—this is a significant and visible improvement on how things used to be. As the hon. Gentleman has asked me to be the postbox for the Chancellor, I will of course make sure that those points are passed on.
May I add my voice to the chorus of those asking for the Chancellor to bring forward measures on the self-employed? Every single day that goes by without them means livelihoods devastated. In particular, the voice of musicians and from the creative industries is vital—I draw attention to my declaration of interests as a supporter of the Musicians’ Union.
Will the Leader of the House urgently arrange a statement on the situation facing charities? The Chancellor introduced a very welcome set of measures on the wage subsidy, but charities are expending large sums of money on providing services, not just on staff, and they face a £4.3 billion drop in income over the next 12 weeks. Hundreds of Members from eight parties in this House have signed a letter on that. Will the Leader of the House urgently arrange a statement, written or otherwise, to clarify the situation?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the plight of charities, which is well known to the Government, and for the wonderful work that charities are doing to help in these circumstances.
I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will understand that the Government are working through a very large number of issues and doing it in an orderly way. The priority was rightly to give reassurance to those in employment, so that we did not face mass redundancies, which was likely, but that does not mean that the charity sector and the self-employed have been forgotten.
May I also echo the sentiments on support for the self-employed? One sector crying out for support and clarity is the aviation industry. In addition, we have bus and coach companies with drivers on short-time working that are unsure how to treat those employees. Has the Transport Secretary indicated to the Leader of the House whether he will be making a statement in due course?
I think the issues in the transport industry have been at the forefront of people’s minds from very early on in this crisis, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary is working hard to try to find solutions for these problems. I will bring this issue to his attention and point out that there is an interest in a statement being made to this House.
I very much associate myself with the calls from across the House for urgent action to help the self-employed. May I ask the Leader of the House to bring forward an urgent debate about an issue that we have not touched on—the need for urgent price caps and action to stop price gouging?
I highlighted an issue in my constituency last week: a disreputable chemist had increased the price of children’s medicine tenfold. Since then I have been flooded with complaints about businesses, small and large, doubling, tripling or quadrupling prices. Two thirds of American states have legislation, activated in emergencies, that sets a price cap of 10% to 20%. We are obviously going to need such measures here—and the sooner we debate them, the better.
Whenever a large number of right hon. and hon. Members raise one issue with me at business questions—in this case, the self-employed—I invariably raise it with the relevant Department immediately after the session. I absolutely assure the House that I will do that in relation to this session.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s second point, profiteering is extremely disagreeable. There have been times in our history when it has been illegal and subject to quite strong penalties. His point is exceptionally well made, and I will ensure that it is made also to the right person in Government.
I thank the Leader of the House for coming and making a statement, and also put on the record my thanks to the Chancellor. The issues coming to me and others in the House are legion, whether they concern Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, employment, health issues or Department for Work and Pensions business.
The support for small businesses that the Government have guaranteed is helpful, because moneys are coming forward to cover 80% of employees’ wages. These are people in small companies, by the way, employing between six and 16 people, who are lucky to have their jobs, but what happens is that their employers cannot employ them, because it seems that there is nothing in the package to help those people. So it seems that the employees are looked after—and thank you for that—but the employers who employ them are not. What can we do for them?
The hon. Gentleman, as always, gets to the nub of any matter that this House is discussing, and he is absolutely right. We are bringing forward packages to help as many people as possible, and the more people who are kept in employment, the more business there will be across the economy. The effect of these closures on the economy is much bigger than anything that we have normally come across, which is why it has required this enormous response, including the announcement that I made at the beginning about a Bill allowing for up to £260 billion to be advanced to Departments.
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend will go back to the relevant Department about some of the matters raised. May I add my voice on the importance of looking after the self-employed? In my constituency, we are going to be especially badly hit because of our reliance on tourism and the visitor economy. Many of the people involved have small businesses and are self-employed, and our economy is going to be devastated this summer.
My hon. Friend’s point is extremely well made and echoes what has been said by many other right hon. and hon. Members.
Coronavirus Bill: Business of the House
That the following provisions shall apply to the proceedings on the Coronavirus Bill:
(1) (a) Proceedings on Second Reading and in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall be taken at today’s sitting in accordance with this Order.
(b) Proceedings on Second Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
(c) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) six hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put
(2) When the Bill has been read a second time:
(a) it shall, despite Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills not subject to a programme order), stand committed to a Committee of the whole House without any Question being put;
(b) proceedings on the Bill shall stand postponed while the Question is put, in accordance with Standing Order No. 52(1) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills), on any financial resolution relating to the Bill;
(c) on the conclusion of proceedings on any financial resolution relating to the Bill, proceedings on the Bill shall be resumed and the Speaker shall leave the Chair whether or not notice of an Instruction has been given.
(3) (a) On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee of the whole House, the Chairman shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question.
(b) If the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.
(4) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (1), the Chairman or Speaker shall forthwith put the following Questions in the same order as they would fall to be put if this Order did not apply:
(a) any Question already proposed from the Chair;
(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;
(c) the Question on any amendment, new Clause or new Schedule selected by the Chairman or Speaker for separate decision;
(d) the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a Minister of the Crown;
(e) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded; and shall not put any other Questions, other than the Question on any Motion described in paragraph 15(a) of this Order.
(5) On a Motion made for a new Clause or a new Schedule, the Chairman or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.
(6) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (4)(d) on successive amendments moved or Motions made by a Minister of the Crown, the Chairman or Speaker shall instead put a single Question in relation to those amendments or Motions.
(7) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (4)(e) in relation to successive provisions of the Bill, the Chairman shall instead put a single Question in relation to those provisions, except that the Question shall be put separately on any Clause of or Schedule to the Bill which a Minister of the Crown has signified an intention to leave out.
Consideration of Lords Amendments
(8) (a) Any Lords Amendments to the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(b) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.
(9) Paragraphs (2) to (11) of Standing Order No. 83F (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (8) of this Order.
(10) (a) Any further Message from the Lords on the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(b) Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.
(11) Paragraphs (2) to (9) of Standing Order No. 83G (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on further messages from the Lords) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (10) of this Order.
(12) Paragraphs (2) to (6) of Standing Order No. 83H (Programme orders: reasons committee) apply in relation to any committee to be appointed to draw up reasons after proceedings have been brought to a conclusion in accordance with this Order.
(13) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings on the Bill.
(14) Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.
(15) (a) No Motion shall be made, except by a Minister of the Crown, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken, to recommit the Bill or to vary or supplement the provisions of this Order.
(b) No notice shall be required of such a Motion.
(c) Such a Motion may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(d) The Question on such a Motion shall be put forthwith; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (c) shall thereupon be resumed.
(e) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings on such a Motion.
(16) (a) No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings to which this Order applies except by a Minister of the Crown.
(b) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.
(17) No debate shall be held in accordance with Standing Order No. 24 (Emergency debates) at today’s sitting after this Order has been agreed.
(18) Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.
(19) No private business may be considered at today’s sitting after this Order has been agreed.—(Matt Hancock.)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Coronavirus is the most serious public health emergency that has faced the world in a century. We are all targets, but the disease reserves its full cruelty for the weakest and the most vulnerable. To defeat it, we are proposing extraordinary measures of a kind never seen before in peacetime. Our goal is to protect life and to protect every part of the NHS. This Bill, jointly agreed with all four UK Governments, gives us the power to fight the virus with everything that we have.
Like many hon. Members, I have had a huge number of issues raised with me by NHS workers regarding the availability of personal protective equipment to frontline staff and testing. I know the Secretary of State wants to protect NHS staff through the Bill, so will he take the opportunity of Second Reading to update us, perhaps with any information he has from across the UK, about progress on these matters?
Yes. If it is okay with you, Mr Speaker, I will answer that intervention and then get on with the point in the Bill. These issues are outwith the Bill, but they are incredibly important and very much part of the topic.
In terms of making sure that NHS staff, social care staff and those who need it clinically get the protective equipment they need—especially but not only the masks— we are undertaking enormous efforts to get that equipment out. The equipment is there; we have it. It is a distribution effort. I was not satisfied with the stories I heard of people running short, so we have brought in the military to help with the logistical effort. I want to hear from every single member of staff in the NHS or in social care who needs that equipment but does not have it, so we have also introduced a hotline and an email address, which is manned. I have had an update on that, and it has had a number of calls, which are all being responded to. In that way, we will find out where the gaps are, so that we can get this distribution out. It is a mammoth effort; we have been working on it for several weeks, but the increase in the use of the protective equipment in the last week has been very sharp, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman and the House will understand. The logistical effort is very significant.
We are expanding the amount of testing. We are buying tests, both ones made abroad and ones made here in the UK, because testing is absolutely vital to getting out of this situation. I want to get to a point where anybody who wants to get tested can get tested. At the moment, we are having to reserve the tests we have for patients, especially in intensive care, so that they can be properly treated according to whether or not they have coronavirus. Very soon, we are getting the tests out to frontline staff so that they can get back to work, where somebody in their household might have the symptoms and they are household-isolating. I understand absolutely the importance of testing. We are working on it incredibly hard. We were working on it all weekend, and we are making some progress.
On the point about testing, will the Secretary of State be absolutely clear? Does the current test that is available show whether somebody has got covid-19 or has perhaps previously had it? Does it do both, or does it do just one? If it does just do one, when are we likely to have a test that does both?
Tests for both have recently been developed. The test for whether someone has coronavirus, which we call the case test, was first developed here by Public Health England, and that is being expanded. The antibody test, which tests whether someone has the antibodies that make them immune to coronavirus, has now been developed, and we are buying it in large quantities.
Nobody denies that the Bill is necessary, but given that it gives the state, for the first time in our history, unprecedented powers to enforce isolation on people who have committed no crime, will the Secretary of State reassure the House that it will be fully involved in renewing this once this crisis is over, and that there will be no drift in this matter?
Yes. I will turn to this point shortly, but let me just correct my right hon. Friend. The measures we are taking to be able to hold people in quarantine build on those in the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, which we have been using hitherto. In that element, the Bill is not unprecedented. The Bill makes these powers UK-wide and strengthens the basis on which they can be exercised, but the powers are not unprecedented. Nevertheless, the point he makes about the House’s ability to scrutinise these measures and to ensure that we are, as a House, content with their continuation is important.
Let me make a little more progress in answering my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), and then of course I will give way.
The Bill is jointly agreed between the four UK Governments. Of course, there are measures that are significant departures from the way we normally do things, but they are strictly temporary. I think that they are proportionate to the threat we face, and they will be activated only on the basis of the best possible scientific evidence. Crucially, to my right hon. Friend’s point, the legislation is time-limited for two years and the measures can each be switched on and off individually as necessary by the relevant authority, whether that is the UK Government or the devolved Government, depending on who exercises the powers. As an additional safeguard, we today tabled an amendment to give the House the opportunity to confirm that the powers are still required every six months.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Everyone admires the steps he is taking. He knows that I have been questioning and corresponding with him on testing for some time. Given that, as he pointed out, the test was developed in this country, can he explain why it seems to be so much less available in this country than in other countries around the world?
We have done more testing than most countries. There are some countries that are ahead of us, and we are racing to catch up. We have tested far more than, say, France or America, but not as much as Italy. It is something that we are putting a huge amount of effort into. I understand the pressure my right hon. Friend rightly puts on me to expand testing capability. We are increasingly using private companies to do the testing—to expand their production and execution of the tests—rather than just doing it in the brilliant public health labs we have at Porton Down and around the NHS.
I commend what the Secretary of State said about working with the devolved Administrations to get the measures in the Bill right. It is crucial that many of these measures are UK-wide; I realise that these are unusual times. There is a specific power in schedule 21 to limit entry to premises and, if necessary, to close them down, which applies to all four Administrations. Can he be clear about whether that will apply to care homes? I have heard a lot of concern from constituents who are worried that some care homes still are not restricting entry to individuals and are therefore putting elderly residents at risk. There is real demand for this to be unified across the country to protect elderly residents.
We have other ways to enforce that with care homes, not least contractually through local authorities. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern; people in care homes need to be protected, and many of them shielded, from the virus, because many of the most vulnerable people are in care homes. I will take away the point and look at whether more needs to be done, but we do have other powers available to deliver on what he and I—I think—agree is needed.
I commend the Secretary of State for accepting the six-month review that he has just announced, but in the event that the House decides that one element of the Bill is working badly, will we be able to amend or strike out that element, or will we have to take the whole thing or reject it at that six-month point?
As discussed with the Opposition, we are proposing a six-month debate and vote on the continuation of the Bill, and before that debate we will provide evidence and advice from the chief medical officer to inform the debate. There is also a reporting mechanism for a report every eight weeks on the use of the powers in the Bill.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the time he has taken in explaining at every stage how he has used the powers of his office to this House and, indeed, to the people through the media. I am hugely grateful and I know many others are. Could I just, however, state that over the last three weeks the world has changed in a rather more radical sense than many of us appreciate? The powers in the Bill, even over six months, are likely to change and to be exercised in different ways. Can he assure me that he and all other Ministers will exercise their powers reasonably, in keeping with only the coronavirus issue, and making sure that they are limited to the purpose for which they were intended, because these powers could—in different circumstances—be used in a particularly malicious fashion?
I can confirm that the Bill is to deal with the current coronavirus emergency, and that is an important point. But I would also say that although the world has changed in the past three weeks in ways that many could not have imagined, every measure that has been taken by the Government has been part of the action plan that we published three weeks ago. Of course, the Bill has been drafted over a long period, because it started on the basis of the pandemic flu plan that was standard before coronavirus existed and has been worked on over the past three months at incredible pace by a brilliant team of officials right across Government. The Bill is consistent with the action plan, so while some people might have been surprised by each of the measures we have taken, they have all been part of the plan that we set out right at the start. I can confirm that it is only for coronavirus.
I also want to give further detail to my previous answer to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), which is that section 21 does not specify what it defines as a gathering or an event. It is deliberately broad, so it could include a care home, should we need it to, and that would be defined in secondary legislation should that be necessary.
I am sure the whole House will want to support my right hon. Friend and the provisions in the Bill. I just want to reinforce two points. The first is that I was very concerned to see the two-year provision, which is why I put my name to new clauses 1 and 6, and I am very pleased to hear what the Government have said about the six-month review. Notwithstanding what he just said about the period of time in which this has been produced, it is a heroic effort— 321 pages of legislation which may well be subject to changes in the next few weeks and months as this crisis develops. I hope, therefore, that he will see the six-month review not just as a rubber-stamping effort, but as a chance to improve the legislation, should it require that improvement.
We could consider that. The proposal is to have a debate and vote as opposed to a whole new piece of legislation and, of course, only to renew it if the measures in the Bill are still necessary. Then, of course, they will fall after two years. I understand the concern of my right hon. Friend and his wisdom. I know that as Secretary of State he dealt with some of these issues, albeit not here but around the world, and he knows the sorts of measures that are needed, which are contained in the Bill.
Will the Secretary of State provide clarity on the six-month period? Obviously, six months is quite a long time for people who are chronically ill or have a serious disability. Some of the proposals have implications for social care for the devolved regions or local government. What will happen if there are negative effects on people who receive social care within that six-month period? What recourse will Members have to bring that to the House?
There will be recourse, and I will come on to that in a moment. The purpose of the social care measures in the Bill, which are very important, is to allow for the prioritisation of social care, should that be necessary. However, there are a number of restrictions on that, because local authorities will still be expected to do what they can to meet everyone’s needs during that period. While local authorities will be able to prioritise to ensure that they meet the most urgent and serious care needs, there are restrictions to require them to meet everyone’s needs and, indeed, to fulfil their human rights obligations to those in receipt of care.
I thank the Secretary of State for the excellent work he has done to ensure that individuals get the care they need in these difficult and challenging times.
On the human rights perspective, I thank the Secretary of State and the Government for listening to faith organisations. Initially there were concerns that under part 2 loved ones would have to be cremated. As somebody from a Muslim background and the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, it was completely unacceptable to consider that if taking account of the views of the Muslim and Jewish communities. I therefore thank the Government for ensuring that the wishes of the deceased will be taken into account in relation to their final rites.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has worked hard to ensure that we come to a solution in the Bill, through the amendments we have tabled today, that ensures we can not only have dignity in the case of a large proportion of the workforce not being available, but accede to the wishes of families from the many different faith communities who had concerns about the way it was originally drafted. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General, who found a way through that I think everybody can be content with.
Essentially, the Bill gives all four UK Governments a legislative and regulatory toolkit to respond in the right way at the right time by working through the action plan. While I hope that some of the powers never have to be used, we will not hesitate to act if that is what the situation requires.
To follow on from the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), I am grateful for the work the Government have done in this area, because many of my constituents—both those from a Muslim background and those of the Jewish faith—were naturally concerned. It is one of the major tenets of faith that everybody has the right to dignity in death, so I am grateful to the Government for listening. Will the Secretary of State join me, at this difficult time for all our communities, in thanking our faith communities for the role they are playing, the difficult decisions they are taking and the support they are giving?
I entirely agree. This exchange is an example of the cross-party approach we are all taking. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for the work he has done, together with the Paymaster General, to bring this point to light.
I am also grateful for the work the hon. Member and many others have done with faith groups of all religions who want to gather. Understandably, it is upsetting not to be able to do that, but it is right that they cease large gatherings—or, indeed, any gatherings—where there is social contact that can spread the disease. It is happening around the world. It is a difficult thing for some, and I pay tribute to the faith organisations and faith leaders across all faiths who have made the right decision. I urge all faith leaders to see what has been done by those who have taken the right steps and to follow them.
I wish to thank the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) for his constructive approach to the passage of this legislation and his constructive tone in respect of this whole crisis. I reassure him that I listen to what he says very carefully. Even when he does not agree, he has done so in a calm, sensible and evidence-based way. I think the House can see from the Bill that we have taken on many of his suggestions, and they will go into law. Along with the Labour Administration in Wales, the SNP Government in Scotland and the multi-party Administration in Northern Ireland, we have taken on ideas from all parties.
The measures in the Bill fall into five categories: because we rely on the NHS and social care staff now more than ever, the first set of measures will help us to increase the available health and social care workforce; secondly, there are measures to ease the burden on frontline staff, both in the NHS and beyond; thirdly, there are measures to contain and slow the spread of the virus so that we can enforce social distancing; fourthly, there are measures on managing those whom the disease has taken from us with dignity and respect; and fifthly, there are measures on supporting people to get through this crisis. I shall briefly take each of them turn.
The first part of the Bill is about boosting our healthcare workforce at a time when it comes under maximum pressure, both through increased demand and because of household isolation and the fact that large parts of the workforce may fall sick. The Bill allows for the emergency registration of health and social care professionals, including nurses, midwives, paramedics and social workers. I can update the House with numbers: 7,563 clinicians, including Members of this House, have so far answered our call to return to work, and I pay tribute to every single one of them. These are difficult times and they have risen to the call of the nation’s needs. We know that many more will join them.
Our thanks also go to the social workers who play such a vital role in protecting the most vulnerable in this country. The Bill protects the income and the employment status of those who volunteer in the health and social care system. Volunteers will play a critical role in relieving the pressure on frontline clinicians and social care staff. Again, I offer our thanks.
Is the Secretary of State aware that many people in the refugee community in the UK are qualified healthcare professionals? I have spoken to the refugee charity RefuAid, which says it has 514 qualified healthcare professionals on its books. These are people who are willing to work and fully qualified in their own country, but there are bureaucratic barriers to their coming forward. Will he please look into this matter with great urgency so that such people can help us out?
Yes. If the right hon. Gentleman emails me with the details, we will get right on to it. He refers to bureaucratic barriers; we of course have to make sure that people are able to do the work that is necessary, but we have already shown in the Bill that we are willing not only to bring people back into service but to put into service those who are towards the end of their training, to make sure that we get as many people as possible in full service. I absolutely want to pick up on the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal and take it up with the General Medical Council or the relevant regulator to see whether we can find a way through for the period of this crisis.
I wonder whether the Secretary of State may not need an additional power in relation to the Home Office being able to waive fees for tier 2 and tier 5 visas for foreign nationals who are already working in the NHS and are about to have to renew their status in this country, or for those who have been studying as students.
Will the Secretary of State look at the immigration surcharge for doctors and nurses who are working in intensive care units? Will he also look personally at the issues relating to research trials for potential new drugs or treatments, or existing drugs or treatments that are being used? Concerns have been raised with me that those processes are all being delayed by the traditional randomised controlled trial processes, which may not be appropriate given the emergency we face.
Absolutely. The chief medical officer is personally looking into that issue to make sure that when there is a treatment, we can bring it to bear as soon as is safely possible. There is a challenge with a disease that has, thankfully, a mortality rate as a proportion of the overall population as low as this one, which is that we do not want to do more harm than good. Many of these drugs are safe, because they are licensed for another purpose. It is a question of repurposing them—this is for treatment, rather than vaccine—and that is something we are actively working on. If the right hon. Lady has examples of particular barriers that we need to crunch through I would like to know about them. If she could email me I will take that up with the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.
I want to bring to the attention of the House to the professional indemnity clauses. Where there is no existing professional indemnity agreement in place the Bill provides legal protection for the additional clinical responsibilities that healthcare staff may be required to take on as part of the coronavirus response. I do not want any clinician not to do anything that they can do because that they worry about indemnity and what might happen if it goes wrong. I want everybody in the NHS to do their very best to the top of their qualification, looking after people and keeping them safe.
I commend the Health Secretary on everything that he and his team are doing. To ensure that returning healthcare professionals can do so at the right time, when the disease peaks around Easter, we have to move at pace to put the indemnity that he has cited in place, to ensure that people are physically and mentally fit to do this work and, crucially, to ensure that they are skilled or reskilled to do what we are asking of them. Can he assure the House that those three things are being put in place?
I thank the Secretary of State for everything that he is doing. We are all rooting for him to be successful. I am genuinely worried about what is happening in London hospitals, and what it says about the prospects for the rest of the NHS. He is right to try and get staff to return, but we have to be able to keep them when they arrive. I have seen disturbing reports over the weekend of agency staff walking out mid-shift because they do not have the right protective gear, the right sanitising hand gel, and the things that they expect to keep themselves and patients safe. Can he look urgently at this issue, because London is the story that will follow for the rest of the country if we do not get this right?
Yes, this is what I have been spending the weekend on—absolutely; it is incredibly important.
Turning to the second part of the Bill, which is about easing the burden on the frontline and follows from that intervention, that refers not only to the NHS frontline but to the dedicated public servants who guard our streets, who care for our children, and look after communities, in local government—in short, all those who keep the UK running safely and securely. By cutting the amount of paperwork that they have to do, by allowing more remote working, by delaying some activities until the emergency has ended, we can keep essential services going while we get through the pandemic.
Some of the measures are difficult, and not what we would choose to do in normal times. For instance, the Bill will modify temporarily mental health legislation, reducing from two to one the number of doctors’ opinions needed to detain someone under the Mental Health Act 1983 because they pose a risk to themselves or others. In circumstances in which staff numbers are severely affected, the Bill allows for the extension or removal of legal time limits governing the short-term detention of mental health patients. The Bill also allows for an expansion of NHS critical care by allowing for rapid discharge from hospital where a patient is medically fit. NHS trusts will be permitted to delay continuing healthcare assessments, a process that can take weeks, until after the emergency has ended. The people who need this support will still receive NHS funding in the interim.
The Bill contains powers allowing local authorities to prioritise the services they offer, as we discussed earlier in relation to social care, and that prioritisation, while challenging, is vital. The measures would only be activated in circumstances where staff numbers were severely depleted. They do not remove the duty of care to an individual at risk of serious harm or neglect. We do not take any of these measures lightly. I hope that many will not have to be used, but we will do whatever it takes to beat this virus.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He is being very generous. On frontline care, particularly those working in intensive care units around the country, may I press him again? When will those staff be tested? There are many staff who want to go to work, but are afraid that they may be carrying the virus. For those who are at work, if they are tested and they have the virus, they want to isolate so that they can return as quickly as possible to the frontline. When are they going to be tested?
The answer is as soon as the tests we are buying are available. Expanding testing is absolutely critical to everything we are doing.
This part of the Bill also covers other mission-critical parts of public services, not just the NHS, including schools, borders, justice and national security. The Bill empowers schools, for instance, to respond pragmatically to this situation, including the ability to change teacher ratios, to adapt school meal standards and temporarily to relax provisions for those with special educational needs. The Bill also gives the Home Secretary the power to close and suspend operations at UK ports and airports, powers that will deployed in circumstances only where staff shortages at the Border Force pose a real and significant threat to the UK’s border security. It expands on the availability of video and audio links in court proceedings, so that justice can continue to function without the need for participants to attend in person. To ensure that the Treasury can transact business at all times, the Bill makes it possible for a single Minister or Treasury commissioner to sign instruments or act on behalf of other commissioners.
At a time of unprecedented social disruption, it