Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 674: debated on Monday 23 March 2020

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 throughout 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 is 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, not just in the Home Office. We are engaging with the Treasury and 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.

T2. In the light of the panic buying, profiteering and rising tensions occurring at some shops across the country, what measures is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that sufficient security and public safety personnel are present to keep such premises open and to maintain the availability of essential goods to all, especially the elderly and vulnerable, and our much-valued NHS workers? (901703)

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 these issues being looked at urgently and could we simply receive a comprehensive update from the Home Office in early course?

T3. One of the things that the current crisis is teaching us is that many people who we considered to be low-skilled are actually pretty crucial to the smooth running of our country—and are, in fact, recognised as key workers. Once we are through this situation, will my right hon. Friend consider reviewing our points-based immigration system to reflect the things that we have learnt during this time? (901704)

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 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.

T4. The fire services are vital for our safety. My right hon. Friend knows that they do far more than running into burning buildings to save people, including with regard to wider public safety and public health measures—even more important now, perhaps, than usual. What conversations has she had with the fire services about what role they might play in supporting our efforts to tackle coronavirus, and will she ensure that they have all the resources they need for this particular crisis and for the future? (901705)

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.

T5. A huge amount of tourists came flooding to my constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire at the weekend. But, as beautiful as it is, Powys simply cannot cope with visitors at the moment. I am urging people to stay away from the area, as visiting puts a huge strain on our already stretched rural resources—not least our police force. What can the Home Office do to ensure that members of Dyfed-Powys police and other forces across the UK are protected as they carry out this vital work? (901706)

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.

T6. In the time of extreme crisis facing this country the vast majority will pull together, and they are doing so in the spirit of community and solidarity. Unfortunately, there are always those who will attempt to exploit or take advantage of vulnerability and weakness. What measures is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that the British people, our streets and our communities remain as safe as ever? (901707)

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?

Fines will be put in place, but licensees also run the risk of losing their licence and their livelihood.

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?

I have already indicated that many measures are under review. We are working at pace across Government to consider what changes we will bring in.

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?

We are going to announce changes we will make very soon. I will write to my hon. Friend and all colleagues about how we will enable extensions.

Coronavirus is driving many aspects of our daily lives online. Hopefully that will help to 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.