House of Commons
Tuesday 24 March 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
Taxation of Online Sales
A change to the taxation of online sales would require careful consideration, as my hon. Friend is aware. Many high street retailers are moving more of their business online, and we want to help them to manage that transition, without increasing the costs for them or their customers. The business rates review that we have announced will work closely with stakeholders to consider this issue in more detail. Meanwhile, as my hon. Friend will be aware, the Government have taken significant steps to support our high streets, including huge cuts to business rates and the £3.6 billion towns fund.
Clearly, we are living through unprecedented times, and I want to say thank you to all the Treasury team for the incredible work they are doing—working throughout the night—to help businesses up and down the country. Many sectors will be hugely impacted by coronavirus, not least my home of North Norfolk. We are now seeing shops being shut on the high street—quite rightly so—and I just want the Minister to consider that they will be hit enormously. When we come out of this pandemic, a 2% or 3% VAT-style tax rise to help high streets would be very well considered and welcome. Let us just remember that our last great leader was Margaret Thatcher, who said that we are a nation of shopkeepers—let us help them.
Order. I think the hon. Gentleman ought not to take advantage. We are just starting. I think he has got the message.
I speak for all my colleagues in saying how grateful I am to my hon. Friend for his kind regards and wishes. Of course, all taxes are taken into account and monitored by the Treasury, and will be subject to consideration at future fiscal events. We are living through very unusual times. I hope my hon. Friend understands that the high street, which was under pressure years before the current outbreak, is something we have supported over a period of time, most recently with a comprehensive package of support. He will be aware of the specific measures we have taken to support eligible retail, hospitality and leisure properties.
I thank the Minister and the Department for all they are doing for businesses at this time; it is much appreciated. Will the Minister further outline whether he has managed to close the loophole that enables massive companies such as Amazon to operate out of the UK yet pay little tax here? If not, what has been done to ensure that no one is exempt from paying appropriate tax in the UK if they trade in the UK?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. He will be aware that, in the Budget, we left in place our digital services tax, which is specifically designed to look at online marketplaces and other areas online that have user-generated content that needs to be appropriately taxed. We continue to pursue that tax.
Local Transport Infrastructure
The Government are committed to improving the vital transport links that people rely on every day. That is why in the Budget we announced a £500 million a year fund for potholes, confirmed £1 billion for shovel-ready local transport schemes through the transforming cities fund, and set out the Government’s intention to agree long-term intra-city transport settlements worth more than £4 billion.
I thank my right hon. Friend for all that he is doing. Businesses in my resort constituency have been delivered a significant blow due to covid-19. In good times, funding for the Burscough rail link would be a boost; in bad times, it could be business critical. Will he work with the Department for Transport and do everything he can to ensure that we get the funding for that vital link for our town?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the impact on hotel and hospitality businesses in particular. I hope he welcomes the significant cash grant support and business rates holidays for those businesses. With regard to his rail line, he is absolutely right about the importance of such links, which is why we set up a £500 million Beeching cuts reversal fund. I know the Department for Transport would be happy to hear from him.
Rail links will be essential to revitalising the economy once we exit this very difficult period. In Burnley, we have a fantastic rail link that connects us into Manchester, but unfortunately, at the minute, the station is not disability friendly. I know several stations across the country have been given funding to get them disability friendly, and I wonder whether a similar scheme will be announced in the future so that Burnley can finally get a bridge over its platforms.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he does championing improved accessibility for his disabled constituents, which is why in the Budget we announced £50 million to remodel 12 stations. I spoke to the Secretary of State for Transport this morning about Burnley Manchester Road station, and he is happy to take a call from my hon. Friend.
Transport infrastructure and, indeed, all infrastructure relies on the construction industry, and in particular its workforce. We have had reports of workers working in close proximity in construction—indeed, I have seen that myself, including at transport-related facilities this morning—in some cases with no hygienic support and no evidence of enhanced cleaning. The industry has been described as a breeding ground for infection. What action is being taken to protect workers in that industry?
The hon. Member is absolutely right: we must ensure the safety of our workers in their industries. The guidance from the Government last night was clear that people should go to work if they cannot work from home. In common with other countries such as Italy or France, construction has remained open, but of course it is right that that is done safely. I know that my right hon. Friend the Housing Secretary is in touch with the sector and I believe that he has had conversations about guidance in this regard.
My local bus company is one of many, I am sure, across the country that has had to introduce short-time working, but it is unsure about the implementation of the Chancellor’s very welcome wage subsidy. Will the Treasury top up the wages of those working two or three-day weeks, or does it have to lay off, say, 70% of the workforce and rely on the remainder to cover the rest of the routes, putting themselves at risk for a similar amount of money? Can the Chancellor clear that up for us, please?
We said that we would aim to have the scheme up and running by the April payroll. This is a brand new system that has to be designed from scratch. Claims could be backdated from 1 March, which will provide significant support to businesses and jobs, and in common with all other schemes like this across the world, the scheme applies to furloughed workers in proportion to the hours they have worked—but to workers who are put on furlough rather than being retained in employment.
Covid-19: Support for Businesses
The Government remain committed to doing what they can to support businesses, our people and public services. In the last week, I have announced unprecedented measures to support business, including over £300 billion of Government-backed loans, £20 billion of tax cuts and grants, a VAT deferral worth 1.5% of GDP and a landmark job retention scheme guaranteeing 80% of the wages of furloughed workers. We believe that these measures represent the most comprehensive and generous suite of interventions of any major developed country in the world.
On behalf of my constituents, I welcome those announcements. The Chancellor, though, will know that 15% of the UK workforce is self-employed, equating to about 5 million people up and down the country. According to the Federation of Small Businesses, there are 5,600 in The Wrekin. When will the Government come forward with plans for the self-employed and freelancers, given the immediacy of their need?
I thank my hon. Friend for the question. I will be making further announcements about progress on these measures. It is something that we have been looking at in intense detail over the past week in the Treasury. What I can say to him is that we are in dialogue with all the key stakeholder groups, including calls that I am having today with several of those bodies. There are genuine practical and principled reasons why it is incredibly complicated to design a scheme that is analogous to the one that we have for employed workers, but he can rest assured that we absolutely understand the situation that many self-employed people face at the moment as a result of what is happening and we are determined to find a way to support them. We need to be confident that that can be done in a way that is deliverable and fair to the vast majority of the British workforce.
On behalf of my residents in North Cornwall, I thank the Treasury for the support that it has put in place for employees and employers over the last few days, with this unprecedented series of events. Like my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), I want to ask about self-employment. I have a huge number of self-employed people in North Cornwall. I know that the Treasury is under a huge amount of pressure at this time, but I urge expediency on that so that we can get a package of measures in place for them, too.
As I said, we are looking at this in immense detail and at pace. As has been acknowledged by many stakeholders in the industry, there are genuine questions about practicality, fairness and delivery of any such support scheme, which is why it requires careful thought.
We have an urgent question on the self-employed after this, but to add to the comments that have been made so far, there is a sense of urgency about this now. There is no Member of this House who has not been contacted by a constituent who is in quite a distressed state about that. One of the most effective ways of supporting businesses is to make sure that the whole workforce is supported. There is another group—2 million workers are on zero-hours and there are part-time workers. They are still not eligible for statutory sick pay and they appear to be excluded as well from the job retention scheme, which is focused on the definition of “employees” while, in law, these are referred to and defined as “workers”. I have written to the Chancellor about this, so will he make a statement urgently that sets out how these workers will be protected in the same way as other workers were in the announcement on Friday?
It is not the case that those who are on zero hours are not eligible for the existing scheme. Depending on their status, they would absolutely be eligible for the job retention scheme. It could be based on an average of previous earnings over a period in order to get smoothing, but there is no reason why they should not be eligible. In fact, any worker who was on a PAYE scheme is eligible for the job retention scheme.
That is really helpful. I have welcomed the statements from the Chancellor to date, and I welcome that as well. I am grateful for the work that he is doing. There was confusion, and many of us had representations on that. I would like him to clarify one other point: he might have done so earlier and I missed it. Some people are being asked to work reduced hours in the interests of the company rather than being furloughed overall, and it appears that those people may also be excluded from the scheme. There is a lack of clarity on that: again, could the Chancellor confirm whether those workers will be included in the scheme? If not, can he bring forward a fairly urgent reform to the scheme to enable that to happen?
One other category we have had questions on is those people who have work available but cannot do it because of the shutdown of their childcare arrangements and as a result have childcare responsibilities. Are they are eligible for the furlough support scheme as well?
In common with schemes all around the world, the schemes are for furloughed workers. The check is that the company decides to put an employee into a furlough scheme rather than retain them as employed. That is exactly the same as every other scheme. It is not possible to design a scheme that deals with flexible hours, with the result that the state would essentially be subsidising the wages of almost the entire workforce. It is something that we looked at in detail and, given the time we have available, we went with a scheme that could be delivered and is in common with almost every scheme around the world that does exactly the same thing.
It is vital that we work across party lines at this time, and the SNP very much welcomes the Chancellor’s economic package for firms and workers announced last Friday. Given that millions of small businesses, freelancers and the self-employed are understandably concerned about their incomes, we welcome the fact that the Chancellor is considering a response to that and understand that it is important to get it right, but when does he expect to be able to come back to the House and announce the details?
As I said, we are looking at these things. I will not commit to a specific day until we know we can work through the details. One of the issues is that of course there are people whose incomes have been enormously impacted by what is going on currently, but there are also millions of people who are self-employed whose incomes may not have been impacted and, indeed, might be increasing. The ability of the Government to distinguish between those people, based on tax returns that are over a year and a half out of date, poses some very significant challenges in terms of fairness and affordability.
I thank the Chancellor for that answer, and our offer to work with him to protect incomes remains open. As part of his deliberations on this and in order to simplify the process of getting the money to where it needs to go, will he consider using the tax and welfare system to roll out a universal basic income in these times?
We are not in favour of a universal basic income, although we have strengthened the safety net for the most vulnerable in our society, with more than £7 billion invested into improving our welfare system for this year, including improvements to universal credit, employment support allowance and, indeed, the local housing allowance. Those payments are all available more quickly, more easily and more generously than they were before, and I know that will make an enormous difference to many vulnerable people.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that seems unique to my constituency. The Isles of Scilly sit 28 miles off Land’s End, and all people and supplies travel via large and small private companies. Those businesses rely on the tourist trade in the summer, but that has completely collapsed, and every single one of those businesses is liable to collapse if the Government cannot move quickly. Can the Chancellor look at this issue urgently, because 2,500 people are relying on urgent action from the Treasury to make sure that their transport infrastructure system is sustained and retained?
I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend further about his particular constituency issue, which I know poses particular challenges. We have committed to providing local authorities—and indeed all Departments —with any funding required to support public services, including local transport infrastructure in their communities.
On behalf of my constituents who will benefit from the measures that the Chancellor announced last week, may I sincerely thank him for the action that he has taken and for the responsibility that he is carrying? We are all rooting for him to succeed in the task ahead. The challenge, as others have described, is that for those who do not benefit, in particular the 5 million self-employed, the anxiety has increased, because they have seen a ship sailing carrying others but not them. I think they will be reassured that the Chancellor has given a clear commitment to do something, but many are facing a cash-flow crisis right now, so can he say a bit more to reassure them about how quickly he can implement the measures that he is considering?
1 am very grateful to the hon. Member for his warm words; I appreciate them. We are looking at pace at what support can be provided. The fact is that the universe of 5 million that we are dealing with contains such a wide variety of different people that we are unable to target support. That is the challenge in designing something that gets to the people who we want to help, while at the same time being affordable and not having to benefit absolutely everybody. That is proving to be problematic, but we are hard at work on it.
In terms of delivery, it is almost certainly going to be the case that we would have to build another brand-new system to deliver any support. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree that, in terms of prioritising system design, the scheme that we have set up for 90% of the workforce who are employed should be delivered first and quickly, and that is what we have committed to do, ideally by the end of April. We are looking at how we can do these things in sequence or in parallel, but I take the hon. Member’s point: people are anxious. That is why we deferred the self-assessment tax return that is due shortly to provide some cash-flow benefit. We have also deferred VAT to a significant degree, which will help with cash-flow benefit, and many self-employed people will benefit from the business interruption loans, which are also interest-free.
Emergency Cash Grant Scheme
We are providing cash grants of £10,000 to over 700,000 small and medium-sized businesses across England and grants of up to £25,000 per property for qualifying retail, hospitality and leisure businesses. We estimate that these combined measures will benefit up to 1 million businesses in England. Local authorities will deliver these grants over the coming weeks and consequently will have information about the number of firms that have benefited at a local level in due course.
I declare my interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council. May I thank the Chancellor and the Treasury for coming forward at top speed with this business support package? May I also thank all the hard-working staff at Kettering Borough Council who will be delivering these grants to local businesses? Will the Minister send out the message to Kettering and the country that when the economy comes roaring back, once this pandemic is over, local authorities will have played a key role in ensuring that that happens?
I thank my hon. Friend for that wise comment. We very much share his views. Local authorities are crucial to delivery of a whole range of the support that we are now giving, and we will be very much acknowledging their role. We will also be supporting them, as he will know, through the business rates process and the hardship fund.
Rent a Room Scheme
As my hon. Friend will know, Rent a Room relief has been a feature of the income tax system since 1992. In 2016, the Government raised the threshold to £7,500. That was designed to deliver the Government’s objective of supporting individuals’ living standards and freeing up space in the housing market. It also reduces and simplifies the tax administrative burden for those affected and has taken some taxpayers out of self-assessment entirely.
Given that some 37% of homes in the country are under-occupied, my right hon. Friend will realise that encouraging more owners to take in lodgers could provide affordable housing to thousands more people. Will he please look to review whether there should be a higher level, perhaps £9,500, for live-in landlords with two or more lodgers, and would he be willing to have a virtual meeting with the Lodger Landlords Association at an appropriate time?
I am always delighted to meet my hon. Friend. In 2016, as I have mentioned, the Government raised the threshold. In 2018, the Government consulted on the scheme and there was consensus among the respondents that the relief provides an effective incentive for people to make spare rooms available for rent. Of course, I take his point and he has put it squarely on the record. As with all tax policy, we will look at this and other measures and keep them under review.
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have specifically ruled out the possibility of eviction for three months, and we will continue to look at that situation as well.
I regularly discuss school funding with the Secretary of State for Education. At the spending round, the Government committed to a £7.1 billion cash increase in the funding for schools in England by 2022-23.
I understand that there are immediate pressing issues for the Department, but after this will my right hon. Friend arrange to meet me and the Education Secretary to discuss the funding of a secondary school in Wolverhampton?
I would be very happy to give that commitment to my hon. Friend. He will be aware of the significant allocation to capital funding that was set out by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Budget, and obviously part of the discussion at the comprehensive spending round will be the allocation of that budget.
When the Minister is meeting the Secretary of State for Education, will he also talk about funding for the early years and nurseries sector? The 30 hours of free childcare is not working, and many of these nurseries were facing unviability before the current crisis.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, because across the House people recognise the importance of early years and early intervention, but he will be aware of the wider package of funding showing the Government’s commitment to education, not just in primary schools and secondary schools but through the measures on further education set out by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Budget.
We have been clear that the NHS will get whatever it needs to respond to the coronavirus. The Chancellor announced at Budget a £5 billion response fund and we have already allocated a significant proportion of that to a range of measures.
What frontline staff do in the NHS every single day is remarkable at the best of times, and what we are asking them to do now and in the weeks ahead will be incredibly challenging in terms of both the physical and emotional pressures and the personal risks to NHS staff, so would my right hon. Friend reaffirm that as well as providing the extra money announced in the Budget, the Government will do all they can to ensure that frontline NHS staff get all the equipment they need, including protective clothing, to get the country through this crisis?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Chancellor has made it clear that we will do whatever it takes to protect our NHS frontline, not just through PPE, as he correctly identifies, but by looking at additional capacity, such as in the independent hospitals sector, and at the support available, including the £1.3 billion allocated to speed up the discharge of patients, the £1.6 billion allocated to local authorities for adult social care and, of course, funding such as the £30 million for diagnostics research and £10 million for diagnostic testing that has also been allocated in recent days.
As a House, we require more specific detail about exactly what funding and arrangements are being provided across Government in relation to testing and PPE availability. We are all hearing from staff that they do not have the resources they need. The Minister talked about that funding, but to what extent is it being spent in the field, and what discussions has his Department had with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department of Health and Social Care about pulling in additional manufacturers not just for ventilators but for PPE and testing?
The hon. Lady will know from the statements made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care that significant efforts have been made on this, working with domestic manufacturers and procuring additional resource and stock internationally. On funding, we have been very clear with the Department of Health and Social Care that it will have whatever funding it needs, and that has been the case to date.
Covid-19: VAT Reduction
Last Friday, the Government announced that they were deferring VAT payments for the next quarter, so that UK VAT-registered businesses will not need to pay any VAT, alongside their normal VAT returns, until the end of June. That deferral is worth more than £30 billion, or 1.5% of GDP. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs already offers help to businesses struggling to meet their VAT payments, with arrangements such as Time to Pay. In the light of the covid-19 outbreak, the Chancellor has outlined a range of measures to help businesses through the crisis, including grants, loans and relief from business rates worth more than £330 billion. The Treasury will continue to review this and make further announcements as events unfold.
Scottish National party Members welcome the actions that have been announced so far by the Chancellor to support the economy during this outbreak. Given the particular strain felt by sectors such as hospitality, will the Minister consider reducing the VAT rate they are charged, in addition to the deferrals already announced?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will be aware that those businesses will fall under the VAT announcements that have already been made for the next quarter and that they are also already the beneficiaries of grants of £10,000 for the smallest businesses and of £25,000 for larger ones in the hospitality, leisure and retail sectors.
Marine Renewables: Fiscal Support
The Government take seriously their climate change responsibilities, including the target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. That means enabling a diverse range of low-carbon technologies, and we see the use of marine renewables in the future energy mix, though developers must demonstrate how those can compete with the low prices achieved by wind and solar technologies.
In order to compete with those technologies, these renewables have to get from the research and development stage to commercial deployment. The industry knows that and has come up with a mechanism known as the innovation power purchase agreement. Is there any reason why the Government are not engaging with that? I have to tell the Minister that these developers are not going to hang around in this country forever. If they cannot make that step here, they will go elsewhere and do it.
I am very aware of the 1,700 people who work in this area in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency and across Wales and Scotland. I am also aware that he wrote to the previous Exchequer Secretary, who moved post before he could get a reply. At the moment, renewables are five times more expensive than wind and solar, but the Government will engage in a dialogue with the industry as we look to resolve this and move forward constructively.
I call Andrew Rosindell. He is not here.
Low-paid Workers: Wages Increase
Low-paid workers will continue to benefit from above-average pay rises, with the national living wage set to reach two thirds of median earnings and to be extended to workers aged 21 and over by 2024, providing economic conditions allow. That is projected to benefit nearly 4 million low-paid workers.
I thank the Minister for that response and for everything he is doing to protect jobs in Peterborough and across the country. I was proud to stand on our manifesto in December and, in particular, on our commitment to protect the low paid. The Government have taken vital steps in the short term to protect jobs. Will he confirm that this Budget is also providing a £200 tax cut for the typical family in Peterborough?
Absolutely. I can confirm to my hon. Friend that a typical employee will be about £104 better off next year through the cut in national insurance and the freeze in fuel and alcohol duties, and the abolition of other taxes, such as the tampon tax, will also be of benefit to many of his constituents, for whom he has been fighting hard since he came to this place.
Many low-paid workers are self-employed. When I raised this matter with the Leader of the House yesterday, he said:
“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.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2020; Vol. 674, c. 27.]
Many of these low-paid self-employed people work in the music industry. I know that we have an urgent question coming up, but I say to the Minister that they will be looking for more reassurance than we have heard so far this morning that the Government are going to introduce a scheme and do it soon.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has set out clearly not only the range of measures that we have taken but our determination to come up with an enduring solution that addresses the range of challenges. The whole Treasury team is fully aware of how distressing and challenging people are finding it out there and we are working as fast as we can to come up with a solution that works for everyone.
If the current coronavirus and financial crisis has taught us one thing, it is that we need to look again at zero-hours contracts and the difficulty that they put many of our constituents in. I very much welcome the measures that have been brought forward on support for businesses and employees, and I very much hope that we will hear about support for the self-employed in the response to the urgent question this afternoon, but there is a lot of concern among zero-hours workers. Will the Minister outline what support the Government are going to bring forward for zero-hours workers in Glasgow East?
If they are on pay-as-you-earn, they are eligible for the job-retention scheme, but the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about the range of concerns that exist, and we continue to look carefully at what we can do to enhance the measures that have already been announced. He will be aware of the enhancements to the welfare package—my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has announced that an additional £6.5 billion has been put in so far—and we will continue to look at what more can be done.
I encourage the Minister not to make the perfect the enemy of good in the design of the scheme. Many self-employed workers are worrying about their inability to put food on the table this week. They are finding the universal credit system completely overwhelmed, so I encourage Ministers to announce the scheme and make sure that the cash gets through. It has to be soon; otherwise, people are going to be in real hardship.
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. That issue is why we have tried to move forward on interventions that could be done quickly and have done them as quickly as we can. In respect of universal credit, we have increased the UC standard allowance from £317.82 to £409.89 per month for single claimants. We have increased the local housing allowance, we have relaxed the earnings rules for self-employed UC claimants, and we will continue to look at every measure that we can to make an impact in the lives of those people who are suffering as the hon. Gentleman describes.
The Minister talks about looking at every measure that we can, but the Chancellor just appeared to rule out a universal minimum basic income. Is that not quite disappointing? The way to answer these questions—the way to avoid thousands of people being laid off, ending up on universal credit and potentially getting trapped in the benefits system—is to provide a minimum income guarantee for everyone. That would also help to provide a fiscal stimulus in the economy once we start to get through this crisis.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out clearly the reasons why we have some concerns about, and indeed would not want to have, that universal guarantee. We want to make sure that the interventions we make are targeted at those who are most in need at this time, and not giving money unnecessarily to people who are wealthy.
We are facing an unprecedented challenge as a country, as a Government and as a society. The spread of the coronavirus has precipitated the extraordinary but necessary actions taken by this Government over the past week to protect people’s health and livelihoods and the economy we all rely on. There will be challenging times ahead, and despite the significant economic interventions that we have put in place, we will not be able to protect every single job or save every single business, but I am confident that the measures we have put in place will provide support to millions of people and businesses and ensure that we do get through this, get through it together, and emerge on the other side both stronger and more united.
The start-up loan programme has been hugely successful in getting thousands of new businesses off the ground, particularly in my constituency of Beaconsfield. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the announcement that the programme will be extended is hugely welcome news for entrepreneurs right across the country?
My hon. Friend is a champion for entrepreneurship in her constituency, and rightly so. The start-up loan programme is an excellent programme, providing grants of £25,000 for budding entrepreneurs. It has been operational for some years now and has provided almost 70,000 loans, putting to work more than half a billion pounds. It is absolutely right that, as we think about our future coming through the coronavirus, it will be the entrepreneurs of tomorrow who will help to create new jobs and drive the prosperity that we will all want to see.[Official Report, 21 April 2020, Vol. 675, c. 1MC.]
May I again welcome much of what the Chancellor is doing, and say that we wish to work with him as positively as we possibly can in this very difficult period? I just wish to return to the issue of zero-hours workers. The Chancellor said very clearly that this applies to all those who are on PAYE, and I welcome that, but the point that we have been making is that many of these zero-hours contract workers—in fact, most of them—are not on PAYE. They are called limb (b) workers, so the scheme does not apply to them. I understand that he is doing his best and I understand the complications, but he has also said that for zero-hours workers, employers may compensate on the basis of average hours worked. The unions in this field representing those workers have urged that this should be mandatory and applied to all zero-hours and variable-hours workers based on average earnings over the previous weeks. That is exactly how those workers’ holiday pay is calculated at the moment, and it is an accurate reflection of what they earn. We need some urgent action for this sizeable group of workers. There are at least nearly a million zero-hours workers, perhaps a million more.
As we are putting in place the detailed guidance for the scheme, we are actively considering the question of how best to average the earnings of people in this situation. I very much take on board the suggestion that the right hon. Gentleman has made, and I know that my team are engaging with those unions as we speak to try to get the details right.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of cash flow, which is why we have targeted our interventions specifically at smaller businesses by providing extra cash flow support. We have done so through the £10,000 grant to every business in receipt of small business rate or rural rate relief and, indeed, through the deferral of VAT, which starts from today for the quarter. As my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said earlier, that represents more than £35 billion, or 1.5% of GDP-worth of tax deferral, providing immediate cash-flow support. We have done the same thing for self-assessment payments that are due in the coming months and have also, as of yesterday, launched a business interruption loan scheme, which my hon. Friend has done fantastic work developing. It will provide 12-month interest-free loans to small businesses, again, to help provide them with the liquidity that they need to get through this.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for the suggestion, and we will certainly look closely at the Child Poverty Action Group’s recommendation.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and pay tribute to the work that he is doing to represent his constituents and make sure that his local businesses get the support that they need. I hope that his businesses welcome the various interventions that we have provided in terms of cash flow support, tax relief deferrals, and subsidised loans to help them get through this difficult period. If he has further ideas that he thinks we should consider, I would be very happy to talk to him further.
Supply teachers play a vital role in our schools. Many thousands, including my constituent Ellie Atkinson, have found themselves out of work, so may I urge the Treasury to look at a way of supporting these vital workers, either with direct financial support or by ensuring that they can actually work in the schools that are being kept open?
The right hon. Gentleman will know that school budgets have been allocated, so the schools already have that money to spend; that will not change. The announcement that the Chancellor has made about the PAYE system is about supporting people through that mechanism. If the right hon. Gentleman has other proposals, I am happy to engage with him to discuss them further.
I thank my hon. Friend for her support, and join her in paying tribute to Sandwell Community Caring Trust, which we will be relying on through this difficult period. I can confirm that charities are eligible for the job retention support programme. Further to that, we have allocated extra funding to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to provide money to local charitable or caring organisations, especially to help those we are attempting to shield—the most vulnerable—in order to protect them against the effects of the coronavirus.
Yesterday in the Chamber, I and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) raised the question of escalating prices in local shops and concerns about profiteering. We understand that the Competition and Markets Authority may be looking into this issue, but may I ask the Minister to urge it very rapidly to look at where this is taking place? Is it local shops, wholesalers or cash and carry, or suppliers? Is it even to do with the international market in terms of perishable goods? This is a matter of real concern. Once the Government have found out where the problem is, will they bring forward measures to crack down on this profiteering?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very reasonable point, and sets out a range of issues. The Government will be looking into this, and I will liaise with my colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that they are focusing on all the dimensions of the problem that he has outlined.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. It is certainly possible to use those historical returns. They are a year and a half out of date, so they will be necessarily imperfect. They also do not provide an easy way to distinguish between those who are deserving of support and whose incomes are being affected by what is happening, and those who are much wealthier and whose incomes are potentially increasing currently, but they do provide a basis and a universe to look at.
When I mentioned earlier that the universal credit system was overwhelmed, the Minister may not quite have taken on board the point I was raising. A self-employed worker sent me a screenshot of their attempts to use the system yesterday; 33,383 people were ahead of them in the queue to use the claims section of the website. Unless this is resolved, people who need money right now—limited though that money is under universal credit—simply will not be able to get hold of it through the system.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the pressure on the Department for Work and Pensions at this time. That is a key reason why the design of the schemes that we have been looking at and that have been put forward by the Chancellor do not add complexity and pressure on the DWP. We have been actively working on identifying where we can free up and reprioritise resource in DWP to assist with this issue. I have been discussing the matter with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and working closely with her on it.
Obviously, airports and airlines are particularly adversely affected by the covid-19 situation.
My hon. Friend is right, especially given his constituency, to highlight the importance of airlines and airports. They have been particularly impacted by what is happening. I am in active dialogue with the Secretary of State for Transport and expect to write soon on that matter.
In Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath and other constituencies, public service workers, not bankers or nuclear weapons, will get us through this crisis. We must therefore change our focus. Will the Chancellor consider whether the nurses, doctors and other public service workers, who will be doing double shifts and working extra hours to get us through, can get tax relief on those extra hours so that they are properly rewarded and recognised for their tremendous efforts?
We pay tribute to our public sector workers, particularly those who are on the frontline of the NHS as we speak. We have said that we will make any and all funding available to the NHS to provide and support that workforce. That is exactly what we are doing, as my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary outlined earlier. In the Budget, we specifically changed the taper relief, which was causing hours challenges for senior doctors and GPs. That was a significant fiscal intervention—we are providing more than £2 billion of tax relief to ensure that there is no disincentive for those senior clinicians to provide the extra work at this time.
The economic interventions that the Chancellor spoke about are greatly welcome in Bournemouth East. Will he join me in paying tribute to the armed forces for what they are doing and what they will do? We should all recognise that that is in addition to their day job of keeping the nation safe. What will happen in the spending review? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that there is additional capacity for our armed forces so that they can deal with the threats that continue to exist, but also have the ability to step forward to help the nation in times of crisis?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of our armed services, and I join him in paying tribute to them for what they are doing, not just to keep us safe every day, but right now when we are calling on them to help us meet this public health emergency. As we speak, they are doing extraordinary work to help our healthcare system to respond to what is coming. We recognise that, and it will be recognised when we think about funding for the armed services not just today, but in the future.
One newspaper is already reporting that the Chancellor will implement an income protection scheme for the self-employed and make an announcement in the next 24 hours. I must say I got a slightly longer timescale from the Chancellor’s earlier reply, when he talked about the end of April. To come back to the point about reassurance, will he give some real reassurance now to those anxious self-employed people across the country that an announcement will be made very shortly?
We hope to have something to say very shortly. Implementation will take longer for the reasons I outlined, when a good point was made about capacity, whether at HMRC or DWP, to deliver brand-new schemes. However, in terms of saying what we plan to do, hopefully we can do that relatively shortly. Implementation will take longer because of the clear delivery challenges that the scheme would pose.
I thank my right hon. Friend and the Treasury team for all their work to help people through this crisis. Will my right hon. Friend outline when employers can access the scheme for job retention scheme and furloughed workers?
Detailed guidance is available. Further guidance will be provided and our aim is to build the new scheme so that it is operational by the end of April. That is a challenge. We are already working night and day to construct something from scratch, but claims will be allowed to be backdated to 1 March so that businesses have the security of knowing that the cash-flow rebate will be coming. As I have said, the aim is to have the scheme up and running so that the April payroll can be reimbursed through it.
One of the problems with this crisis is that we do not know how long it is going to last. I have businesses in my constituency—events companies, conference companies and sporting companies—that have long lead-in times to organise their events, but they cannot cancel them yet and thereby claim insurance because there is no Government guidance. Do the Government have any plans to give guidance, particularly to the insurance companies and events companies, that will perhaps say, “No events for the next six months”?
We are working closely with the insurance industry, and obviously events companies are underpinned by contractual obligations. We established that if they have cover relevant to non-specified diseases, the announcements by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have triggered those policies to be paid out, but I am happy to look at any specific cases that individual Members want to bring to me, which I can take up with industry representatives.
In the wake of the last economic crisis, when we needed the banks to stand on the side of small businesses, too often they did not, and many of us have seen too many examples of small businesses being bullied into bankruptcy. What can my right hon. Friend the Chancellor say about the posture he wants to see from the banks at this time?
The Chancellor and I have had dialogue with individual heads of high street banks. I have been speaking to the head of UK Finance this morning and will be convening a meeting of bank representatives later today. We anticipate that the banks should be taking the most sympathetic forbearance measures possible, and we have set out very clearly, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor did, that the loan scheme is interest-free for the first 12 months, with no fees or repayment penalties. I expect the banks to step up to the mark, as I know they will. We have to remember that many of the people actually delivering this service in high street branches or in call centres are not very well paid and are working flat-out to deliver a key service to our nation at this time.
The message from the Prime Minister last night for our constituents to stay at home could not have been clearer, but many of our constituents who are staying at home will have increased energy bills as a result. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) is co-ordinating a cross-party letter to the Government asking for a reduction in VAT on energy bills. Are they willing to look favourably upon that to support our constituents, who will have higher energy bills as a result of staying at home?
We are certainly very happy to look at whatever letter the hon. Gentleman or his colleagues on a cross-party basis may wish to present.
I want to follow on from my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) and talk about our great armed forces. I expressed my delight at the budget of £10 million identified for veterans’ mental health. Will the Chancellor confirm that that will remain a priority, as the problem does not go away?
I am happy to give that assurance. I know my hon. Friend is a champion—rightly so—of our armed forces and speaks with great experience and authority on that. He will be aware of a number of measures that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has announced. That is one of them, and we stand by it.
A couple of times in the context of the self-employed, the Chancellor has mentioned wealthy people whose incomes are increasing. That is not who we are talking about. We are talking about people who have lost their entire income overnight. Will he please provide some more reassurance that it is his intention to provide help to those people? Does he intend to say how he will do that very soon and say to the banks in the meantime that they should be extending credit on a free basis, on the basis of what he has promised, so that people can get on with their lives?
The hon. Gentleman illustrates exactly the issue with such a scheme. Looking at historical tax return data from a year and a half ago gives absolutely no guide as to whether someone today who is self-employed is prosperous, and indeed that their income may be increasing versus someone, who is not. Of course I am sympathetic to those whose situation is being adversely affected by what is going on. The issue is one of finding a way to target help at them, rather than having something that provides blanket cash subsidies to 5 million people, many of whom will not need it, which will end up costing all our constituents on modest incomes a considerable amount. It is about finding a way to target support for those who most need it, and that is what is requiring time and thought.
Will the Chancellor join me in thanking Shropshire Council and the hard-working people at Telford and Wrekin Council? Cash flow is becoming a real issue for many local councils, with many having to borrow. Could he encourage his officials in the Treasury to be a bit more flexible as to where finance can come from and the use of reserves?
I am happy to look at specific suggestions. I pay tribute not only to my hon. Friend’s council but to all councils for the sterling work they are doing in delivering our grant schemes to many of their small local businesses. We are in dialogue already with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, to ensure that councils’ cash-flow needs are adequately met. There are things we are doing actively in terms of the timing of the various grant payments we make, to ease some of the near-term cash-flow pressures.
Can the Chancellor clarify whether the emergency cash grant scheme is intended to help per shop for businesses with more than one premise in different towns, or is it just for the business as a whole?
The detailed eligibility criteria are online and will be provided by local authorities. The grants of £10,000 are done on a per premise basis for businesses that are in receipt of small business rate relief and rural rate relief. There are larger grants for those in the retail, leisure and hospitality sector of up to £25,000. The Business Secretary has written already to local authorities, which are, as we speak, writing to businesses that are eligible for those grants to seek their bank details and start making cash payments as soon as is practically possible.
Before we move on to the urgent question, I should say that I am bothered that Members are rather close in some areas of the Chamber. If it is possible to spread out, I would be very grateful.
Self-employed Persons: Financial Support
(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor to make a statement on financial support for the self-employed in the light of the covid-19 pandemic.
We know that many self-employed people are in real distress, but we are working urgently to address this problem, and I say to the self-employed: we have not forgotten you—help is coming. But the policy and delivery are complex, and we cannot and should not rush to announce a scheme that gives rise to more questions than it answers. The Chancellor has held meetings this morning with representatives of the self-employed and will continue to meet them this afternoon.
It is important to remember that covid-19 is an urgent challenge to our entire economy, affecting workers of all types. It is essential that we respond swiftly, so that people can keep their jobs and businesses can carry on. That is the basis of our coherent, co-ordinated and comprehensive plan. It is a plan that gives those on the frontline the tools they need to tackle the virus, with all the support the NHS needs, backed up by an initial £5 billion fund for public services. It is a plan that puts a shoulder behind business with a statutory sick pay relief package for small and medium-sized enterprises, business rates holidays for all retail hospitality, leisure and nursery businesses in England, and grant funding for small enterprises, as well as support through Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ time to pay scheme. As of yesterday, businesses with cash-flow concerns are also able to access the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, offering up to £5 million for SMEs through the British Business Bank. For larger firms—[Interruption.]
Order. It might be easier if Members pass notes down the line, rather than going round and speaking to everybody.
The coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, on which Members across the House have raised questions, is now available, offering up to £5 million for SMEs through the British Business Bank. For larger firms, the Bank of England is providing a new facility to help support liquidity.
I urge all Members of the House to continue speaking—as I know many are doing—to the business leaders in their constituencies and ensure they are aware that they are not alone and that help is coming. In this House, we are all standing behind business and everyone who works in it. To encourage businesses to retain staff, we are deferring VAT, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has announced the job retention scheme to facilitate that.
Taken together, this is a huge programme of support, and we will keep thousands of workers in jobs, but we know that there are thousands of self-employed people who have been wondering what the future holds for them. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has already set out a range of measures in support. Sole traders and freelancers will be able to access the business interruption loan scheme as long as activity is channelled through a business account. We are also removing the minimum income floor for the self-employed workers affected by coronavirus so that they too can access universal credit in full. That is not only the standard allowance, but a wider package of support for those with children, disabilities or, indeed, housing needs. At the same time, the next self-assessment income tax payments will be deferred until January 2021, helping those who have set money aside for those payments with immediate cash flow. That means there is a package on tax, on loans and, more widely, through universal credit, to support those with that safety net.
Let me reassure everyone in this House and the self-employed people they represent that further help is indeed coming, but we have to make sure we get this right and that we target the right support to those who are most in need. The Chancellor will provide a further update on support for the self-employed in the coming days.
I thank the Chief Secretary to the Treasury for that answer. He knows that parties on all sides of the House have been supportive of the way in which the Chancellor and the Treasury have given support to businesses and to employees. But I have to tell him that the 5 million self-employed people across the country, who are in all our constituencies, are in real stress and are deeply worried. While we all understand that there are complications, the Government have to move as fast as possible to meet their concerns, because they are literally, in many cases, simply running out of money.
I want to say to those on the Treasury Bench that it is important we remember who the self-employed are: 80% of the 5 million self-employed are sole traders. They are our neighbours, our friends, our family. The vast majority are not wealthy people. They are cleaners, taxi drivers, plumbers, hairdressers; they are musicians, tutors, journalists; and they are builders, electricians and child minders. These people are literally running out of money now, and we have to support them.
Of course there will be stories about wealthy people who are self-employed, but they are the minority. If we look at the figures from HMRC’s own data, 36% of sole traders—the majority of the self-employed—have taxable incomes of less than £10,000 a year. That compares with just 15% of employees on incomes that low. We are talking about people on low incomes: 60% have profits of less than £10,000 a year. These people were struggling before the coronavirus pandemic, and they are now facing ruin.
I think that an urgent package of help is needed now, and it needs to be at least the equivalent of that offered to employees. While we all know the problems that the Treasury is facing, may I say to the Chief Secretary that if the package is capped as it was for employees, if it is temporary as it was for employees and, especially for the self-employed, if there is some sort of clawback mechanism if people are given money that they did not need, surely we can come together as a House and as a country to make sure these people get the support they need? It is not uncommon for the self-employed, when they do their annual self-assessment tax return, to have to pay money back to the Treasury. Surely, if money is given now so they can deal with cash flow—capped, in a temporary scheme—then that money can be clawed back the next time they do their self-assessment, if it turns out that they did not need it.
I honestly urge those on the Treasury Bench to move fast, and not to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. People need the money now: please act now.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the importance of timing and speed in this regard. He spoke about how that can be targeted and the fact that there are many very deserving causes within the population, but it is probably useful to draw the House’s attention to the fact that one in 10 of those who are self-employed are over state pension age. Over two in 10, according to the 2017-18 figures, were earning less than £2,000, which suggests that it was not their main source of income. Between one and a half and two out of 10 are already on universal credit. Some remainders will be quite well paid, such as law partners and so on, and some will be in employment and returning self-employment tax forms for part of their income in addition to their employment. The point is that the population itself is complex and we need to ensure that the measures are targeted correctly.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the mechanism. One of the themes that has informed the Treasury’s approach is this: what is operationally deliverable? That is one of the things we are working through. For example, HMRC does not hold people’s bank accounts, which is why the support the package for those in employment was through the PAYE—pay-as-you-earn—system. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out at Treasury questions, tax data is one and a half years old. Those are the issues we are working through. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that urgency is important—that is why the Chancellor is engaged on this—but we are seeking to target a complex population.
Recognising the complexity of solving this problem, can my right hon. Friend give some indication of how quickly we can expect to have at least an interim solution in place for those who are desperate for help and desperate for clarity at this point?
For some within this population—not all—there will be some solution already through the £5 million loan that is available as of yesterday. That will not cover the entirety of this population, but, in accordance with the business needs of some who are self-employed, there is support. For some of the population—again, by no means all—there will be some relief through some of the measures the Chancellor set out on property and business rate relief, but part of the complexity of the target population is that different measures work for different groups. That is part of what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is working through, but I recognise the point my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) and others have raised. We do recognise the importance of timing on this issue.
Can I say to the right hon. Gentleman and other Members that no one is looking for a row over this? We are looking for a solution. The reason some Members became irritated earlier was the emphasis, in one of the Chancellor’s responses, on the rich self-employed. They are not the people who are contacting us. The ones who are contacting me at the moment are the plumbers and the hairdressers. Yes, some freelance artists and others are in desperate straits, but I do not think there is a Member who has not received representations. We are just looking for something we can go back with today to give them some assurance. We know how complicated it is, but we have to find a solution quickly. I urge the Government to at least set a deadline, so we can go back to our members and say, “By the end of this week, there will be a proposal brought forward.”
The other assurance that people want was raised by the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey). If we can go back and say, “You will get the equivalent of the 80% or whatever that was offered to other workers,” it would lift people’s spirits that something was on the way.
Many self-employed workers, just like other workers, are having to sign themselves off sick. They do not have access to statutory sick pay—still. I have to say that asking people to survive on £94.25 a week is just an impossible ask. When the Secretary of State for Health was asked on television last week whether he could live on it, he said no. I agree with him. We need the level of sick pay raised for everybody if we are expecting them to choose not to work, and not have to choose between health and hardship.
Finally, in Treasury questions my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) raised a point about different categories of workers. I know that it is complicated, but we do have to consider agency workers. I have had many emails and telephone calls from people working in the construction sector who do not know whether they should be at work today, or whether they would be safe if they were. Let us use this opportunity to look at the exploitation by payroll companies and umbrella companies of people who in many instances are forcibly designated as self-employed.
We do not want a row over this; we want to work with the Government. In fact, Anneliese and I are happy to come and work a shift in the Treasury, if that is what Ministers want. [Interruption.] We might come up with slightly different solutions. We need this quickly and we need it to be effective as soon as possible.
Order. I am aiming for this to last until about 1.20 pm.
May I first welcome the constructive tone that the right hon. Gentleman has struck? His offer to come to the Treasury might contravene some of the recent social distancing requirements, but I appreciate the spirit in which it was made. He is right that we need to move at pace and to work together. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was involved in further meetings this morning, as he will be later today, as we work through how to take this forward.
The Chancellor was drawing attention to the complexity of the target population. I think that a number of Members would have concerns, not least as we look to the future, if we were subsidising some very wealthy self-employed people. I take the point that they are not the ones getting in touch with the right hon. Gentleman, but it is important that our approach is mindful of the target population.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of reassurance, which is a legitimate concern, and one shared across the House. I draw the attention of his constituents, and those of colleagues across the House, to the Chancellor’s comments this morning. We are working at pace on this and we recognise the issue being raised. I hope that provides reassurance, certainly in terms of an announcement, although the operation of any solution may take further time, as the Chancellor set out.
Considerable work is being done, but the population is complex. We are looking at the burdens of different delivery mechanisms, whether on the Department for Work and Pensions or local authorities, which have their own staffing pressures because of the number who are ill. That is why we are exercising flexibility in lots of other areas in order to reprioritise resources, but it is important that the scheme is deliverable and mindful of the other challenges we are dealing with.
May I make a point from a public accounts point of view by urging the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to consider a system that is humane, rapid and, above all, simple? The Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions have traditionally been obsessed with complexity, targeting and clawback, but what we need is a simple system. About 40 years ago I suggested having a universal basic income to Mrs Thatcher, and I got an earful for my pains. But we need something like that, which could be rolled out very simply and claimed by taxi drivers, cleaners and those sorts of people, because rich people would not bother with it. So just get on with it, make it simple and do it now.
My right hon. Friend wants us to get on with it. I refer him to the meetings and the considerable work being done to allow us to get on with it. As a former Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, he well knows that many policy ideas start with the simple but then the devil is in the detail of delivery. I recall many an interview that he has given to draw attention to simple schemes that were then less simple in their delivery. It is worth bearing in mind that a small number of self-employed people—a very small proportion—might be doing quite well in the current climate, while many others are suffering, but that is not what we are focusing on now. The question that we are seeking to address is how we target our measures at those who are most deserving, which is what the attention of the House is focused on, and we need to ensure that the scheme that is brought forward does likewise.
Years ago, I read in the newspapers that there was a red Ed in the House of Commons; I did not realise that it was the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh).
I, too, will try to strike a conciliatory tone in talking to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Obviously, there is very real concern. Like other hon. Members, I have been bombarded with emails from people who are self-employed. When this crisis is over, we should really sort out who is self-employed and who should be directly employed, but that is a debate for another time. Countries such as Norway, Denmark and Belgium have come up with schemes for the self-employed; is he looking at those international examples? Surely what works in those countries can work in the UK. There are 330,000 self-employed workers in Scotland, working in areas such as the creative industries, agriculture, forestry, fishing, construction, and as taxi drivers. Are the Government looking at increasing weekly sick pay from £94.25 to the equivalent of a week’s pay at the real living wage? Are they considering removing the lower earnings limit for qualification for sick pay to ensure that everyone can access it? Are they looking at ending the five-week wait for universal credit, so that the first payment is a grant—a real payment—and not a loan?
On the issue of advance payments and universal credit, the Chancellor has increased the standard allowance. That is not the total quantum that people will get; I referred earlier to those with children, housing needs or a disability, who would get more. We have also made changes to access, so that people can get payment quickly, from day one, without face-to-face meetings. Concerns about subsequent repayments have often been raised in the House, but clearly, the £20 a week increase in universal credit that has been announced eases some of the repayment issues; it means that there is more in the allowance with which to address the issue of repayments. There has been a significant increase in universal credit, in part to address those issues. There is some operational complexity around a shift to a grant system because of the way that the universal credit IT system has been set up. We have sought to address the concern to which the hon. Gentleman refers through the increase, and of course an advance can still be offered.
Changes have been made to facilitate statutory sick pay being paid from day one, and changes have been made in respect of employers with 250 or fewer employees; the Chancellor set out measures to support those businesses with those costs.
The hon. Gentleman made a point relating to what I said about simplicity in a previous answer. Let me clarify the point that I was making. The vast majority of people who are self-employed are suffering; we recognise that. We are looking at how we can design a scheme that addresses the operational challenge that Members have spoken about.
Let me give an example. Part of the merit of the scheme that the Chancellor set out on furloughing members of staff, which is, I think, for many people a new concept, is that it gave clarity about delivery of the scheme. In answer to the previous question and the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, we are looking at what is operationally deliverable quickly; what recognises other challenges in the Department for Work and Pensions and elsewhere; and what will not result in support going to a small proportion of people who should not be getting this targeted action, and instead allow us to focus it on the much larger cadre of people who deserve that help.
In designing his scheme, will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury recognise that many self-employed people in the tourism sector have very seasonal businesses, so using February, for example, as a reference month would not be appropriate? Will he see what can be done to help recreational charter fishermen, who, because they pay harbour dues rather than business rates, have not been able to access the grant aid that their friends across the road from the harbour have been able to?
My right hon. Friend draws attention to the challenge that emerged from some earlier questions: the simpler the scheme, the less it accommodates often legitimate and deserving issues that Members raise on behalf of their constituents. I am very happy to have further discussions with him, but he will recognise the tension between simplicity and addressing all the concerns that colleagues raise.
Two of my constituents are musicians. One is in an orchestra, and the other is a freelancer. One will get 80% of his income paid, and the other will be on statutory sick pay. Surely, it would be better to have a system where one wealthy freelancer benefits but 100 do not go hungry.
I refer to my earlier comments. We are trying to target the support towards those who are in need, in a way that is operationally as deliverable as possible, mindful of the issues that have been raised. We also want to accommodate the other point that colleagues from across the House have raised, namely that we must ensure that those who have legitimate needs are not excluded from the measures.
Will Ministers consider suspending the application of the loan charge for the period of this emergency, thus stopping the hounding of the self-employed people who were the subject of an important debate in this place last week?
I can provide a degree of reassurance to my right hon. Friend that the self-assessment has been deferred from July to August. That is one of the areas where the Chancellor has taken action to address concerns.
Many of us, up and down the country, depend on sole traders for jobs around the house. People in many communities that experienced flooding are expecting others to come to their homes and do work for them. How on earth are those households supposed to say, “We cannot have you helping us out and repairing our homes?” They are desperate for plumbers, electricians and so on. Those electricians, those plumbers and the owners of those properties want to do the right thing. What is the advice of the Government?
Without straying into individual cases, the key advice from the Government is to follow the medical advice that was set out following the Prime Minister’s statement and updated on the Government website. That sets out the advice to workers, including what is safe to do and what is essential.
In its unprecedented support for employed workers, the Treasury took a fairly generous overarching approach. I urge the Treasury—I am not the only one saying this; it represents the mood across the House—to take a similarly broad approach to benefit the majority of self-employed people who will need support, accepting that certain people may get support even if they do not quite need it.
The Treasury is looking at those issues in the design of the scheme. We recognise that the vast majority of self-employed people face very considerable challenges, and we are mindful of the urgency that goes with that.
More than 400 self-employed sole traders and freelancers have contacted me over the past 24 hours, and many of them have already lost their work because of this crisis. As well as echoing others’ calls to introduce support for them as soon as possible, can I ask the Minister to ensure that such measures are backdated, as in the job retention scheme, to help to address the disruption that has already been caused by the covid-19 epidemic?
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about backdating. The Treasury has brought forward a range of measures, and one of the challenges to date has been that it is not always understood what has been announced and what is already available. I draw attention to the fact that we are deferring income tax self-assessments, which will not need to be paid until January; we are supporting people through the welfare system with the measures that I announced earlier, including on contributory ESA; we are increasing universal credit and working tax credit by £1,000; we are suspending the minimum income floor for 12 months; we are increasing a three-month mortgage holiday for those in difficulty; the self-employed will be eligible to receive support with their tax affairs through time to pay; the business interruption loan scheme will be available for some self-employed individuals, up to the £5 million limit; and we have delayed IR35. Members of the House can assist our small business community, and particularly the self-employed, by drawing attention to the measures that have been announced. We in Government also stand ready to do that through a comms campaign.
I know that my right hon. Friend is working night and day to help businesses, and to help people stay in work. I am incredibly grateful for all the support he has given me as I respond to the self-employed in Wealden. The decision to take out a loan is proving to be quite an anxious one for the self-employed, if that is the only thing on the table. I will read out an email from Anna, a self-employed wedding photographer who has had to give up work, and who is going to try to find work elsewhere:
“I am loath to take any…loans offered, as there is no guarantee that future work will be able to take place because we have no idea how long this pandemic will last.”
I ask my right hon. Friend to take into account Anna’s dilemma before making any announcement concerning the self-employed.
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the pressure
and decisions that Anna and so many self-employed people are facing at this time. I draw attention to the fact that the loans are interest-free for 12 months. One of the key themes we are very conscious of is that it is a health emergency that is impacting on our economy. These were viable businesses before that health emergency arose, and they will be viable businesses after we have overcome it. The question is, how do we bridge the gap? How do we support Anna and others through this period? The interest-free loans are not the only measure; I have just drawn the House’s attention to other measures that are available, and I urge Anna and others to take advantage of them.
I appreciate the difficulties in coming up with these arrangements, but I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that small traders are simply applying for universal credit, blocking up the universal credit system, because they are desperate for money from somewhere. That is causing a problem for the Department for Work and Pensions, so delay does not get the problem to go away. People do not wait; they just try to find something else, which causes a knock-on problem.
I accept the concern the hon. Lady raises, but I think she would equally accept that this is an unprecedented challenge and that staff in the DWP and elsewhere are working heroically to address the increased volumes. The best way for all of us to address this issue is through wider support for the economy as a whole. That is what was behind, first, the £30 billion of fiscal measures announced by the Chancellor at the Budget; the further announcement of the £350 billion, including £330 billion of loans, and the wider package last Tuesday; and the further measures announced by the Chancellor on Friday. That is on top of the measures the Bank of England has taken—for example, reducing base rates, and the £200 billion of bonds. A range of measures have been taken to support the economy and to reduce that blockage, but I absolutely accept that the numbers have increased, and we are reprioritising work in the DWP to assist with that.
My rural constituency has one of the highest concentrations of self-employed people in the country, so while I and other Conservative Members thank my right hon. Friend for the timely and unprecedented measures he has come forward with, I add my voice to the growing consensus across the House for measures to be extended to the self-employed.
My hon. Friend speaks with considerable business and financial experience, and he will know the cash-flow issues and the challenges that many of the businesses in his constituency face. We absolutely hear his message, just as we do the message from Members across the House, and that is why we are moving at pace to address them.
Further to the point I raised at Treasury questions, which was echoed by the shadow Chancellor, the newly under-employed must be supported further. One of my constituents is a self-employed taxi driver with no work, due to the lockdown. His wife and four children have underlying health conditions. Any universal credit application would mean their tax credit ceasing. A jobseeker’s allowance application would mean having to prove that they are seeking work and engaging with their accountant. Will the Chief Secretary tell them how they can possibly put food on the table and pay their bills?
The hon. Gentleman speaks to a real concern and a real issue, but I draw attention to the fact that one of the challenges is to communicate what support has already been announced by the Chancellor. To give an example, a family renting in Sheffield with two children would be eligible for around £1,750 a month in support—far more than the £94 per week, if we take account of additional things such as housing and children’s support. It is about what package of support is available, and the Chancellor has already announced considerable measures in that regard.
I listened carefully to what my right hon. Friend said. He acknowledged that the vast majority of self-employed people were being impacted. If he makes sure that whatever help is given is taxable, we can claw back any money that is overpaid to those who are doing well. However, what self-employed people are looking for is a clear commitment today that whatever scheme is set out is of a similar magnitude to that for employed workers. If the Chief Secretary can say that, it will give people confidence to borrow, knowing that they can pay the money back. That will go a long way towards solving the problem.
As I have said, the Chancellor held meetings with small business leaders this morning. He is having further meetings on this issue today. He is very aware of the concerns raised by my right hon Friend and other Members, and we continue to work at pace on this issue.
I am sorry that the Chancellor is not here, but may I ask the Minister to pass on to him that the self-employed people contacting me are not wealthy individuals? They are individuals such as Andrew Brown, who I raised last week—a self-employed graphic designer whose income has disappeared. They are taxi drivers. They are small catering companies. Unless action is taken now for these individuals, not just to relieve the hardship they are facing, their businesses will no longer be in existence. My fear is that we will generate unemployment among these people for a long time to come.
I agree with the first part of that. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the vast majority of these people. I have made that point repeatedly. I referred earlier to the fact that the target population has different elements, but the vast majority of those who are self-employed face enormous challenges. We absolutely hear that, and I accept that. On his second point, we have taken a number of measures, but we recognise that more is needed. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is meeting leaders on this issue today to look at what further measures we can bring forward.
May I say that I do understand that this is difficult? If it were easy, the Chancellor would have announced it last Friday with the rest of the package. The self-employed people I represent just want a sign; they just want some hope and an indication. I think they have had that today from the Chief Secretary and the Chancellor, but may I make a suggestion? For self-employed people and all other people right now, if they cannot get the same in, they have to send less out. The Government worked magic last week with the mortgage companies, which seem to be falling over themselves to offer mortgage holidays, but all the other fixed costs that our constituents face—utilities; insurance premiums; car finance; council tax bills, which landed on the doorstep last week; and even, for some, a business improvement district levy due next week—are still there. I wonder whether there is something the Minister can take back to the Treasury, perhaps with help from the shadow Chancellor, on those sorts of fixed costs, because they are dragging people down at a time when they have a lot less coming in.
My hon. Friend is right that there is a range of costs. As I say, we are looking as part of our support at what action can be taken. He can see, as an illustration of that, the action that has been taken on mortgages and in support of renters—both for mortgage holders directly and in terms of the buy-to-let market. Measures have been taken, but we stand ready to look at further measures.
The local economy in Brighton and Hove is overwhelmingly dependent on the self-employed, so I cannot overstate how urgent it is that we have action on this. I do not know whether the Minister gave a deadline when he spoke to his colleague earlier, but if he did not, will he please tell us that we will have action by the end of the week? Universal credit is not a fair option for many freelancers, because it means they have to delve into savings that they have put aside because they do not have pensions. We are going to push them into greater insecurity right now if we cause them to have to rely on that instead.
As I said in my opening statement, the Chancellor is meeting on this today and we hope to bring forward proposals in the coming days.
I welcome that the Treasury is working hard on supporting the self-employed. We must remember that these are local freelancers. They are mobile hairdressers, childminders, freelance driving instructors, photographers, musicians, IT consultants and home-based travel agents. They have lost all their income. Can the Minister confirm that the package for the self-employed, freelancers and sole traders will be announced by the end of the week?
I refer to the answer I gave a moment ago. We are actively looking at this and we hope to bring forward proposals in the coming days.
The way around the problem that the Minister, and the Chancellor before him, identified of giving money to people who do not need it was given to him by the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey). The money can be recovered later. Do not let that concern about a handful of people get in the way of putting the scheme in place and deny desperate people, who cannot put food on the table, money they need right now.
As the hon. Gentleman’s earlier question in Treasury questions suggested, that is not the sole consideration. It is a question of what the operational delivery issues may be: for example, we do not hold details of people’s bank accounts, so how would we do it? It is how we roll this out, but we recognise his wider point that there are immediate issues for many self-employed people. That is what we are actively working on, and that is what my right hon Friend the Chancellor is engaged on in further meetings today. As I said in my previous answer, we hope to bring proposals forward in the coming days.
My right hon. Friend mentioned earlier the business interruption loan scheme. Will he confirm that all self-employed people will have access to it and that they will not have to give personal guarantees? Will the Government widen the scheme to include institutions such as OakNorth and Aldermore, which are currently excluded from eligibility?
We are looking into that, but it is available as of now. It goes up to £5 million and my understanding is that it does not require personal guarantees. If it is any different, I will come back to him on that point.
A constituent in East Fife runs a mobile catering business, providing a service to both private and public events such as festivals. Having no fixed premises means that they will not benefit from the support announced so far, and the relaxation of planning rules that other food outlets can benefit from to do home deliveries is also an issue. They are also struggling, like many others, to access business interruption insurance. The independent mobile catering sector could be utilised to support and provide sustenance for our key workers. What amendments to the measures will the Chief Secretary consider to support that critical sector?
I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is looking at a range of options in terms of how we adapt to the change of circumstances. For example, many pubs and restaurants had significant food orders, so we are looking at what can be done there. There is food that would have been exported previously, but that may now be difficult, so there is a range of measures in terms of the food supply within which mobile caterers will have a role. I know that my right hon. Friend is looking at those issues.
In my constituency I have a large number of families where one partner works in the national health service and the other is self-employed. The children have been sent home from school and there is no one to look after them, because if the self-employed parent does not work, they do not get paid. Can my right hon. Friend look urgently at a scheme? Also and specifically, council tax bills are due on 1 April—next week—and people are worried, particularly in London, about how they will be able to pay. Can council tax bills be suspended?
My hon. Friend will recall that the Budget included targeted action specifically on council tax, with a £0.5 billion package to allow targeted support on council tax. I think he is drawing his attention to a slightly wider issue of concern, particularly where one member of a household works in the NHS as a key worker and one is at home, but of course that draws attention to the fact that this is a complex scheme that we are seeking to design. Those are the sort of issues we are working through.
I have so many self-employed workers in my constituency, including more than 1,000 taxi and private hire drivers. They will understand from what has been said this morning that the Government have good intentions, but they will respond to me that good intentions do not pay their bills. Given that there will be a lag with the new system coming in, what more can the Government do in the meantime, through offsetting tax bills and also encouraging banks to be more generous with free overdraft facilities to help families through this? Let us not forget that we all bailed out the banks when they needed it, so maybe it is time for them to do something now.
The hon. Gentleman is right in terms of the role of the banks, and a clear message has been sent by the Bank of England Governor about the importance of banks showing forbearance at this time. That applies to things such as credit card debts, but also he will be aware that, for example, for many of his constituents in a London constituency, their rent is a significant issue, as well as the measures we have taken on mortgages. We have looked at what we can do to assist on some of those fixed costs, but the banks have had a clear message from the Governor about the need to show forbearance.
I commend those on the Treasury Bench for the calm way they are dealing with this unprecedented situation, but clearly something needs to be done for the self-employed. One of my constituents has made three points. First, they will be disadvantaged because they will not get the topping up that an employer might give an employee. Secondly, there will not necessarily be an immediate return to work, and finally seasonality may affect their income, which of course it would not for an employee. Will those three very good points be taken into account by those on the Treasury Bench?
They are good points, and again they draw attention to the conflict between simplicity and addressing the various specific issues that Members have raised. One of those is seasonality, which obviously has an impact. That is why the design of the scheme is more complex than perhaps meets the eye, but we are looking at the issues and we intend to bring forward proposals in the coming days.
Like many other Members, I have been contacted by many self-employed people in my constituency who are welcoming of the support already offered, but in need of the absolute guarantee about what is still to come and quickly. Going into the shop to buy essential groceries for feeding their family and telling the checkout supervisor that the Chancellor says that they can pay for it soon is not going to get them their shopping, so how soon can we give that certainty?
We hope to bring forward proposals in the coming days. I absolutely appreciate the concern that the hon. Gentleman is quite rightly raising for his constituents. This does not address his specific question but, in part, that is why we have been strengthening the safety net of the welfare system, and why the main measures we have taken are to support the economy as a whole. That is the best way to get viable businesses, including the self-employed, back and earning money once we have dealt with the health emergency. We are looking at the specific issue of the self-employed, and we intend to bring forward proposals in the coming days.
While many of our supermarket shelves are empty at times, a food source currently going to waste is fish. Most of our fishermen are self-employed, but they have seen their markets collapse, because pubs and restaurants are closed and overseas markets are closed to them. Will we look for a bespoke package to support our fishermen through this time and, in particular, to find ways to get their fish sold to people who could buy it to feed their families?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and one that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is aware of. I am sure that he will be happy to have further discussions with him in the coming days. My hon. Friend is right, the pub and restaurant trade having collapsed, there is not only food that would have been provided to them, but capacity in our fishing catch, because of the quota rules.
I know that the Minister has been sent out with a new three-word slogan from the Government’s three-word slogan unit, namely, “Help is coming”, but may I remind him that the previous one was, “Whatever it takes”? That is what the Government pledged, and it should apply to self-employed people too. He just said that, in the coming days, there will be some further clarity. There is fear across the House that we might not sit next week, and that the Government may be getting to the point where they do not have to come back to the House to account for what they are doing for the self-employed. What assurance will he give us that whatever “Help is coming”, it will constitute “Whatever it takes” and will be equivalent to what is being offered to employed people?
I am very happy to make it a six-word slogan, if the hon. Gentleman prefers: “Help is coming”, and we will do, “Whatever it takes”. As to whether the House will sit, that is not an issue for the Government, as he well knows as an experienced Member of the House. Whether the House sits—whether Ministers are called to answer questions—is a matter for the Chair, and not for Ministers. In fact, we had an urgent question last week, and we have one here, so that suggests that Mr Speaker is keen to ensure, quite properly, that Ministers are held to account.
Many self-employed have already taken the right decision and socially distanced themselves—the hairdressers who have not gone into care homes, the taxi drivers, the driving instructors—but they are looking for some reassurance from my right hon. Friend that they have done the right thing and will not be penalised for it.
Again, that is quite right in terms of the self-employed, which includes many hairdressers, but my right hon. Friend will also be aware of measures we have already taken—they will support many hairdressing businesses—such as the business rate relief and the grants. The £10,000 grants targeted at the 700,000 smaller businesses are, again, part of the package of measures to apply to some of that population. However, it is clear from many of the questions that populations are not tightly set, and that there is a degree of overlap and underlap, which is what we are working through.
Many farmers are self-employed, often on family farms, with a husband and wife team, or a son or daughter. The Minister and others in the House will know that lambing is taking place now, and the first lambs will be sold in July, but the prices for lambs and beef cattle are the lowest they have ever been. What help will the Minister and Government give to farmers who face financial ruin at this time?
As I see from the farmers in my own constituency, there is considerable demand from for UK-produced food. I am very happy to continue to work with the hon. Gentleman, and we have often had conversations about farming issues in the past. I am happy to continue those conversations, alongside those with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, about how we support our farmers, but I think their products will be in great demand moving forward.
May we please have further clarity on how builders, plumbers, electricians and plasterers should be conducting themselves at work or, indeed, whether they should be at work at all? There seems to be some confusion as to whether they should be on site or in premises. A leading builders merchant contacted me this morning to say that it had to shut up shop because it feared that the collection of the builders outside its premises were failing to socially isolate, and it was concerned about what that would mean. It seems that there has been some confusion over the past 24 hours, so I wonder whether the Minister can clarify the advice for those crucial people.
I am very happy to draw my right hon. Friend’s concerns to the attention of the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care so that precise medical guidance can be given to address the concern he raises.
I am sorry that we have to come to an end. There will be disappointment, but if we had helped each other, nobody would have missed out.
British Citizens Abroad: FCO Help to Return Home
To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on what measures he plans to introduce to assist British citizens abroad to return home.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. We have FCO staff in all our 280 posts in 168 countries and 10 overseas territories, and they are working round the clock to respond to this global pandemic. Over the last three days, we have seen 80 countries place restrictions on their borders. That situation is unprecedented in scale, and our overriding priority now is to assist the thousands of British travellers who need and want to return home, bearing in mind the hundreds of thousands of UK nationals who may be travelling at any point in time.
Following last week’s decision to advise against all but essential travel globally, last night I changed our travel advice again because of the rate of new border restrictions. We strongly advise British people who are currently travelling abroad who live in the UK to return as soon as possible, where they are still able to because commercial routes are still running. Where commercial options are limited or prevented by domestic restrictions, we are in close contact with the airlines and local authorities in those countries to overcome those barriers to enable people to return home. With my ministerial team, and indeed across the diplomatic network, we are engaging with numerous Governments to keep commercial routes open, particularly in transit hubs. The Department for Transport is working closely with airlines to ensure that travellers can rebook or find alternative routes home.
I know that hon. Members in all parts of the House will have had constituents contact them in relation to particular countries, so with your forbearance, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on just a few of those countries. I spoke to the Peruvian Foreign Minister at the weekend, and we have agreed special arrangements for flights to return British nationals later this week and for Peruvian nationals to get back to Peru. I spoke to the Singaporean Foreign Minister this morning, and we have agreed to work together to help those stranded to get back to their homes in the UK. Given Singapore’s role as a transit hub, this commitment to work with us to enable UK nationals to transit via Singapore is particularly important, not least for those currently in Australia or New Zealand. In New Zealand, the high commission is working with airlines, airports and, indeed, the Government to keep flight routes open and to reopen some that have closed. In Australia, the high commission is doing the same. It has also opened a register of British nationals hoping to return to the UK and is supporting British nationals via phone calls and walk-in appointments at the high commission, as well as updating social media pages.
For those trying to get home in other countries, we are providing as much practical advice as is physically possible. We would first advise all travellers to take a look at the travel advice online, which is the best and most comprehensive source of information and is updated in real time. If people are in need of urgent assistance, they should call our embassies and high commissions. They will be automatically connected to our consular contact centres, the global centres based in Malaga and Ottawa—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) will allow me. We know that there has been considerable pressure because of the restrictions being placed in countries around the world and the rate at which that has been done, with either limited or no notice. We doubled our capacity. We are now doubling it again to deal with the surge in demand. We are helping to reduce travel costs by encouraging airlines to have maximum flexibility on changing return tickets. Where people are in real need, our consular teams will work with them to consider their options. As a last resort, we offer an emergency loan.
More broadly, the United Kingdom is working alongside our international partners to deliver our international strategy, which rests on four key tenets: to provide resilience to the most vulnerable countries; to pursue a vaccine; to keep vital trade routes and supply chains for foodstuff, medicines and other things open; and to provide reciprocal support for the return of our nationals who otherwise are at risk of being stranded. These are the right priorities. We are working day and night to keep British people safe at home and abroad.
There is an MPs’ helpline that rings with no answer. Emails are acknowledged but not replied to. Embassies are closed, with staff flown home days ago and doors shut to our travellers. Guidance was issued by the Foreign Office yesterday advising British tourists to return to the UK where commercial flights are available, but they are not available. They are either banned entirely, are trying to transit via countries where no layovers are permitted, or are priced at tens of thousands of pounds and via airports that are expected to close imminently.
What help exactly is my right hon. Friend’s global network offering? He knows that the situation is dire, but he knew that last week when he stated in this House that
“we will look and liaise with the airline operators…to make sure that, where there are gaps, we can always provide as much support as possible for vulnerable or stranded constituents.”—[Official Report, 17 March 2020; Vol. 673, c. 809.]
There are gaps. My constituents stranded in Argentina, Honduras, Venezuela, Australia, New Zealand, India, Peru and Egypt have much in common: an inability to get through to consular services on the phone, a standard acknowledgement email telling them to contact their tour operator, airline or insurer, and an increasing inability to find accommodation. Hotels are shutting, flights are cancelled, borders are closed and there are no routes home. Many are hours away from large airports in countries operating curfews. Those in Australia and New Zealand are looking for routes via Singapore, so I welcome the comments my right hon. Friend made about working with Singaporean allies, but to them, it looks like his words of last week were empty. I ask him today, as I asked him last week, to explain how he is working with airlines with unused planes parked at airports around the globe to bring our people home. He must get the process fully under way. The vision of British citizens sleeping rough on the streets of Caracas is not a good one.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. In relation to embassies, she said that they have been closed, but actually, a very small number of posts have had to be closed. What we have found—this is not a choice that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has made; it is a direct result of the restrictions that have been put in place by Governments in those countries—is that they have had to work remotely, and indeed, a large chunk of the consular staff work from home. That is not a decision that we made—it was forced upon us—but I reassure her that in all the jurisdictions that she mentioned, we are trying to respond to what I hope she will understand, given her experience, is an incredibly fluid situation. Some of these restrictions are being imposed with no notice or limited notice, and that is very difficult, of course, for our constituents, but we are making sure that we provide them with as much advice and support in real time as we can.
My right hon. Friend mentioned Peru. As a result of the work of the FCO, and having spoken to the Peruvian Foreign Minister, we now have agreement for flights to come out of Peru. There is, of course, a challenge because not everyone is based in Lima, which has the international airport, so we also have to try to work out how we get UK nationals travelling in more remote parts of the country to the capital. We are actively working on that. We have several flights lined up, but we also need to work around or try to overcome the restrictions that have been imposed.
I hope I have explained what we are doing in Australia and New Zealand. My right hon. Friend is right, and I thank her for her remarks, about the critical importance of keeping the international hubs open, and not just in relation to Singapore. We are concerned about other international hub airports. We must try to keep those open. Tomorrow, I will lead the discussion among the G7 Foreign Ministers on this and our wider international strategy for tackling coronavirus. This is extremely difficult. We have hundreds of thousands of British nationals abroad, but I can reassure her that, from the call centre to the support they are receiving at post, we are doing everything we can to give them as much support as swiftly as possible.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I thank the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for securing it. This is a medical crisis, not a wartime one, but she certainly gave the Foreign Secretary some friendly fire, and she spoke for us all in the concerns she expressed for the hundreds of thousands of British nationals stranded overseas.
Since the House last discussed these issues, we have seen some progress, especially in the planned provision of repatriation flights for British nationals stranded in Peru, and I thank the Foreign Office for its work on that, but as today’s media coverage shows—indeed, as is shown by the dozens of emails, calls and letters that Members from all parties are receiving from Indonesia, New Zealand, Morocco and Pakistan, where I understand no outbound flights are now available—this is not a crisis that can be resolved one traveller, one airline, or indeed one country at a time. It is a crisis affecting British nationals in every continent, many of them accompanied by young children, many of them with worsening health conditions, and many of them running out of money and in danger of losing their accommodation.
They are all in desperate need of reassurance from the Government, so I hope the Secretary of State will take the chance today to clarify the statement he made yesterday, which was reported across the media as an instruction to British nationals abroad—indeed, this is a direct quote from him—to
“come home…now while you still can.”
Despite the headlines, the Secretary of State obviously meant that for individuals who have the option of taking a commercial flight to Britain, but does he accept that that is now very much the exception, not the norm, and that for hundreds of thousands of British nationals the option he highlighted is simply no option at all? Will he make it absolutely clear that the Government remain committed to helping all British nationals; that embassies will have telephone lines available so that they can get the support and advice that they need, whenever they need it; that the Government will find a flight to get them home, no matter how long it takes; and that they will be guaranteed continued accommodation in the meantime?
Does the Secretary of State have a plan to ensure the safe care and medical assessment of British cruise line passengers and their current health assessment? Is he negotiating with countries to ensure their safety during quarantine? Is he arranging safe travel home for all who are stranded? How is he keeping in touch with worried citizens abroad and their families here in the UK?
What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his foreign counterparts about the extension of visas, which may expire during the lockdown in other countries? What action is he taking on airlines to stop the profiteering that is going on, with inflated prices for flights home? In other words, will he send a simple message to those British nationals stranded overseas: “You are not in the last chance saloon; you are in safe hands, and this Government will get you home”?
The hon. Gentleman makes some important points, and we certainly want to give as much reassurance and as much advice as possible, but he will know—he has worked on the international brief for a while—that we have in this country a great tradition of travelling abroad, and that even if we take expats out of the equation we are talking about hundreds of thousands of people at any one time. Given the national restrictions that are being imposed, at pace and sometimes without notice, it is very difficult to give cast-iron guarantees about the situation. What we can do is lead internationally, in the way I described, with the G7, which we are doing tomorrow, and work as hard as we can with all our international partners.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the progress in securing the return home of UK nationals; I can tell him that we have already repatriated more than 1,000 British nationals, and also 254 non-British nationals, where we have had capacity, from 26 countries—places as far-flung as Wuhan over to Cuba.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Morocco in particular. We have facilitated the return of thousands of British nationals via commercial routes, with 49 commercial flights bringing 8,500 passengers home—in fact, it is even more than that now.
The hon. Gentleman is right that we cannot do it alone, which is why I am spending any moment that I am not in this House talking to Members hitting the phones, talking to Foreign Ministers and working our way through the problems. We have talked to the Peruvian Foreign Minister, as I mentioned, and I spoke to the Singaporean Foreign Minister first thing this morning.
The hon. Gentleman rightly raised the issue of accommodation, because where people are travelling for two to three weeks, that is ultimately the issue for them. In Spain, where a large number of Britain nationals are holidaying, the original Government decision in Madrid was to close all hotels today. I spoke to the Foreign Minister of Spain and we secured the flexibility whereby they would not be kicked out on to the streets, as the hon. Gentleman suggested. We have also secured flexibility to ensure that the airlines can come in and, given the large number of Brits in Spain, we can secure those flights home. On the detail of the travel advice to which he referred, we have given that advice based on the rapid rate of new restrictions that Governments and jurisdictions are placing, sometimes on internal travel, which will inhibit people’s ability to get to the airport, but more often on external flights coming in and out.
The hon. Gentleman also asked, rightly, about cruise ships. To the best of my understanding, on the basis of advice from the Department for Transport, no further cruise ships are hitting the water, so we are dealing with the stock of existing ships. We have successfully returned 684 people, including 669 British nationals, from the Braemar cruise ship, which was in the Caribbean, struggling to find a port of entry. We did that via Cuba. That is a good example of reaching out to—[Interruption.] I thought that would get the Leader of the Opposition excited.
You did say it.
I am happy to say that we work with all our partners across the world; we would not allow dogma to get in the way of securing the rights of British nationals. I am proud that we have that flexibility and I am grateful to the Cuban Foreign Minister for arranging it. We also had close to 3,000 British nationals on the Azura, docked in Bridgetown, and they arrived back in the UK over the weekend without incident. We had 355 British nationals on the Norwegian Spirit, and they took a flight back to the UK on 23 March. That is the progress we have made, but the hon. Gentleman is right to highlight cruise ships that were travelling after we changed the travel advice for such ships. We have a specific eye and focus on making sure that Brits on board those cruise ships get back safe and sound.
Let me help the House by saying that I am thinking of running this until 2.15 pm.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the progress he has announced on the Peru cases, and thank him and his team for the discussions we had last week about the need for a repatriation plan for my young constituents who have been stranded there. Given that so many of us across the House have numerous constituents stranded in different countries and given the problems they are all facing in getting timely, correct information from embassies and consulates, will he impress on all the ambassadors and high commissioners in these countries that we expect them to be leading the effort? We understand the constraints that the embassy staff are under in these countries, but we are expecting the people at the top of these organisations to be leading from the front and helping to put together plans for all British citizens stranded overseas.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that. He is absolutely right in what he says. I can reassure him that every one of our networks takes this incredibly seriously. The ambassadors and high commissioners are apprised of their leadership role in securing the return of UK nationals or otherwise protecting them as best we can. I say honestly to the House that there has been a challenge because of the spike in calls—I have been absolutely straightforward with the House on that—and we have doubled the capacity and we are looking to double it again. We want to make sure that that first point of contact—the pastoral care that the consular officers provide—is there, and then further detail, the technical advice, can be provided. He mentioned Peru and I can tell him that the first flight has capacity for about 200 passengers. Obviously we would want to prioritise the most vulnerable. He mentioned his constituents. We will have a final manifest shortly, before the flight departs tomorrow. Given the numbers in Peru and, as I mentioned, the issue of the remoteness of some of them from Lima, the capital, and the airport, we are, of course, going to have more flights. We hope to confirm the details of all that in due course. I can also tell him that 1,000 UK nationals have registered with our embassy in Lima, so although there is this idea that we have not got a system in place in Peru, we have actually responded very swiftly.
Since the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) left Government, I find myself agreeing with her on a regular basis, and I commend her for securing this urgent question.
As with everything else at the moment, I appreciate that this is a challenging and fast-moving situation, but we all have constituents stranded abroad who are worried sick about being able to get home, many of whom have no further funds to support their continued stay if that were to prove impossible. Many of us have constituents stranded in Peru, and I am grateful for the Government’s commitment on that. I have constituents stranded in Australia and New Zealand who have made every effort, as the Foreign Secretary has asked, to get home but have been blocked by cancelled flights, internal travel restrictions and international travel bans. Two of them are NHS doctors, and some of them have health issues, including asthma and a chronic respiratory condition, and are running low on medicines. I am sorry to say this, because I know that the service is hard-pressed, as the Foreign Secretary outlined, but they have all been particularly scathing about the lack of consular support available.
Can the FCO commit to providing clarity about the situation directly to UK citizens abroad who are worried and isolated, and about support for returning home, or support from UK embassies to get accommodation and access to healthcare that they need, should that not be possible? I strongly urge the Foreign Secretary to support citizens to get home, whatever it takes. In addition to our own citizens, will he commit to ensuring that all foreign nationals living in the UK will be treated with compassion and flexibility should they find themselves in need of essential treatment and care in this country, particularly if they are not able to imminently return home? Will he pass on the Government’s support to concerned embassies that are trying to look out for their citizens?
The first thing to say is that we have all had constituents contact us to say that they feel vulnerable or are stranded, and I think we all understand how anxious people are in that situation. The No. 1 thing we want to do is provide some certainty. That starts with the point of contact, which is why I mentioned the call centre. It also relates to the missions. There have been some mistaken, if not outright flawed, suggestions that embassies or high commissions have closed. The buildings may have been restricted because of the measures taken by domestic Governments and local authorities, but those embassies and missions—with a very small number of exceptions, all of which are subsidiary missions —are all open for business, with people having to work remotely.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the cost of flights. We are working closely with airlines and travel companies to ensure that as many people as possible can get commercial flights home in a rapidly changing and fluid situation, and we are encouraging airlines to be as flexible as possible when people have to change their return flight.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Australia and New Zealand. I have set out in some detail the support that is being provided, but given the new restrictions that the Governments have introduced and the question hanging over transit hubs, I appreciate that there is acute concern for people there. We have had to rapidly respond to that. I have given information to the House on what Australia is doing. The high commission is open. UK nationals abroad can call the embassy or register their details. I have an email here about how that can be done, which I can give to Members on both sides of the House. I can tell the House that more than 1,700 British nationals have registered their interest. In relation to New Zealand, in addition to the work being done, we are—as I think I mentioned in my opening remarks—working to find accommodation for those who want to know that they at least have a place to stay, if they cannot get a commercial flight out.
I have a number of constituents who are key workers, including in the NHS. What specific support can the Foreign Office offer to ensure that those individuals can come back, so that they can support the efforts against covid-19?
We are providing support right across the board. If there are key workers abroad, that just highlights the imperative of getting people back. I have to say to my hon. Friend that we are prioritising the most vulnerable, but where we can get commercial flights out of those jurisdictions, we are looking to have enough capacity to get all of them out. I hope that that provides him and his constituents with some reassurance.
I understand what the Foreign Secretary is saying about embassies and consulates being open, but the reality is that, when constituents are calling and calling and getting no answer, they assume they are not open because they cannot get any response. May I raise Bali in particular? British news reports that 150-odd British nationals are stuck at the airport after Emirates cancelled flights and said they would have to stay in Bali for three months. I tried to raise that on the Foreign Office line and the covid-19 line. The covid-19 line said nothing could be done and those people would have to remain in Bali. Surely the Foreign Secretary could think about commissioning a repatriation flight for all those British nationals stuck in Bali, including two of my constituents.
I am very concerned about the situation in Bali. The embassy office in Bali is open and has been reinforced from Jakarta. The consular team is in direct contact with UK nationals there. Flight options have obviously been curtailed in the way the hon. Member described. The Emirates route is closed, but operational routes are still available via Jakarta.
There are something like 6,000 British nationals in Bali—that is an estimate—and in fairness 2,000 of them are long-term residents. We are working with London, Gulf posts and the transit hubs in the way I described to try to free up many of those links to enable those people to get home.
The Foreign Secretary is making efforts to rescue people abroad and bring them home, but is he aware that many high commissions and embassies are simply not responding to British people in desperate need of help? The British Government have an absolute duty to deal with that without delay. Will he please use all the Foreign Office’s staff to ensure that they are there to look after people in their hour of need?
I thank my hon. Friend and give him this reassurance. There are only three posts that we have drawn down in their entirety: Wuhan and Chongqing in China, which are subsidiary posts, so they can be backed up from Beijing; N’Djamena in Chad; and Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That was done as a last resort, thinking about the situation there. We are ensuring that, in those jurisdictions I described where Governments have taken action, we have as much capacity, albeit working remotely. We have doubled call centre capacity and we are looking at doubling it again. I hope I can reassure him that we are doing everything we can to ensure that constituents of all Members on both sides of the House have a point of contact. Again, I stress that posts and the Foreign Office network are trying to deal with an unprecedented situation in terms of scale and the rapidity with which restrictions are being imposed.
As others have said, the reality on the ground does not correspond to the picture being painted by the Foreign Secretary. I have constituents stuck abroad and I am particularly worried for David and Ann Watts, who are stuck in the Dominican Republic after British Airways cancelled their flight. He has serious health conditions and has run out of medication. Flights are available from the Dominican Republic to European Union destinations, but they have been told at the airport that there is no guarantee they will be accepted into those countries, which is not my understanding of the situation. Will the Foreign Secretary speak to other European Governments and to the airlines concerned to make it clear that we should be mutually supporting each other to repatriate our citizens from wherever they are?
We are regularly talking to European Governments and I am speaking to my opposite numbers in Europe and across the world on a regular basis. I will look into the case of the Dominican Republic. Of course, it is less well travelled than some of the other routes, which is part of the challenge, but that just means we need to redouble our efforts.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly raised the fact that we will not get the hundreds of thousands of Brits stuck abroad back home by just lobbying airlines or engaging unilaterally on actions that we can control. I reassure him that I will lead the conversation on behalf of the UK at the G7 meeting, which will take place tomorrow remotely through virtual media, and that the four prongs of the strategy are: helping the most vulnerable countries; pursuing a vaccine; dealing with the economic response; and, critically, ensuring that we improve international collaboration on returning our nationals. That is true for me, as it is for the Peruvian Foreign Minister—we talked about Peruvian nationals here who want to get back home. We must ensure that we keep vital air links and, in particular, regional and international hubs open to drive that effort forward. I will lead the conversation for the UK in the G7 tomorrow.
It is important that we put on record the enormous thanks of everyone in this House to the FCO staff who are working in the crisis centre and across the country, and who have brought thousands of Brits back to the UK in the last few weeks. Nothing matters more to Foreign Office staff than protecting British nationals, and I know that because I have worked at the Foreign Office in this crisis. Let us remember that it is not easy. The Malaga team took 28,000 calls in one day a few Fridays ago. As Foreign Office staff, we are spat at and abused when trying to help British nationals to come home. These staff are working in tough situations, so I caution any Member suggesting that there are easy solutions. Will my right hon. Friend kindly reassure the public that, as he has said, when an embassy is closed it is, in fact, not closed? Will he also confirm that the safety of our staff is important, and commit to scrapping the cost of calls to consular lines?
I thank my hon. Friend for paying tribute to consular staff and FCO teams, and the work that they are doing, and for the general points that she has made. I can reassure her that embassies are being kept open wherever possible in order to give British nationals who find themselves stranded or in a vulnerable position the support that they need, even if they cannot physically access the embassy or the high commission building. I can go further than that and tell her that we have spent the last fortnight reprioritising the work of the Foreign Office and our missions, so that the lion’s share—all but the most essential alternative business—is focused on the consular effort. We are limiting the drawdowns, in the way in which some hon. Members have suggested, to those that are required because of vulnerability or safety, and reprioritising them to meet the challenge of providing the consular services that we need.
I have constituents stuck in Peru, Australia, New Zealand and Spain, and I just wonder whether the Foreign Secretary might be able to use Members of Parliament as a way of disseminating information. Doing so might mean that multiple constituents are not phoning FCO lines but coming to us for information. I have to say that the current communication flow has not been acceptable. I have one constituent who is stuck in Peru, but in Cusco, not Lima. They want to get from Cusco to Lima so that they can get home. Can the Foreign Secretary try to ensure that we as Members of Parliament are involved, in order to take some of the load off the Foreign Office and help our constituents?
Yes. Cusco is a very good example of the challenge in Peru, but we believe that we have the capacity. We have the political agreement of the Government in Peru; we just need to ensure that the military, who run the airport, deliver on that. In Cusco and elsewhere across Peru, 1,000 UK nationals have registered with the embassy to ensure that we are in contact with them. This is a logistical challenge, because I think—from memory—it is at least a day’s drive from Cusco to Lima, so in all likelihood for most people the journey will require an additional internal flight, and we are working very hard to secure that. The hon. Gentleman will know the challenges involved, but certainly the more that he and all hon. Members can disseminate the contact points and information about signing up for real-time travel advice, the better; that would be helpful.
I commend the Foreign Secretary for his statement. At present, I have constituents stuck in Bali, Peru, New Zealand and on the Coral Princess. May I just highlight a couple of issues? Commercial flights in New Zealand are currently collapsing like a stack of dominoes. With the Coral Princess currently docked in Rio, it also looks as if my constituents will not be able to disembark and will be on that ship for another two and a half weeks.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I have addressed the situation in New Zealand at some length. We are of course looking at that as a matter of urgency. The big thing for getting people back from Australia and New Zealand is going to be the international hubs; I hope that he has been reassured by the reassurances that I secured from the Singaporean Foreign Minister first thing this morning. My hon. Friend also asked about the Coral Princess cruise ship. Our embassy in Brasilia is working with the Ministry there and the cruise operator to secure permission for the ship to dock at Rio in order to take advantage of the onward flights available to London. Some British nationals have already got places on board confirmed flights. We are doing as much as we can logistically to support them, and to get them and the other nationals home.
I have 32 constituents who are stuck in eight countries—that we know of. I am concerned that some of them are running out of money. What support might be available, how should they access it and what can my caseworkers do to assist?
I do understand the situation in which people find themselves: they planned to be abroad for a certain period of time and have run out of cash. Given the scale, the Foreign Office cannot provide a direct subsidy or grant. Our priority is to try to ensure that people can get back home and, in extremis, if they have run out of money, we are willing to offer temporary loans to facilitate that situation, so we are doing everything that we practically and realistically can.
Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) about the Coral Princess, may I urge the Foreign Secretary to check on what is happening with this vessel? The information that I had from Ken and Doreen Hodge on board is that they are heading for Fort Lauderdale in the US, and they fear that they may then be required to stay for 14 days in isolation before coming home. Will he make a particular point of checking what is happening to the Coral Princess and the people on board?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I think that I have described the latest data that I have, but, of course, we are tracking the cruise ship in real time. It has been a challenge on that bit of coastline and, indeed, in that region, to get onward flights and to get permission to dock in order to take advantage of them. None the less, we are tracking the situation. I track the cruise ships in real time every day. I can also reassure the House that we have changed the travel advice on cruise ships, and my understanding is that no further cruise ships are setting sail, so we are dealing with the stock that is at sea and making sure that we do everything we can to get everyone home. I have already explained the success that we had with the Braemar, the Azura, and the Norwegian Spirit. We are looking to do the same for those on the Coral Princess.
I have constituents trapped in New Zealand, Bali, the Philippines and Peru. Some have understood only the message that their local embassy is closed. Others are still being told to contact their airline or their insurer, when, at this point in time, the Foreign Office is the only place that can help them. Even in Peru, where I understand that good work is taking place, my constituents are dismayed at the lack of communication on the internal travel arrangements that need to be made to get them to Lima. May I urge the Foreign Secretary to look again as a matter of urgency at the quality of communication that his Department is providing to people who are very, very distressed?
The hon. Lady can certainly help in that regard, because I can give her the special email address that the embassy has set up to make sure that all those who need to register for flights can do so. I do not think that the situation is quite as dire as she suggests; 1,000 British nationals have already registered, but flights are limited. We are working to make sure that we have enough flights to deal not just with UK nationals in Lima, but, critically, with the logistical challenge of getting to Lima in time for those flights those who are not necessarily in Lima, close to the main international airport, but in other parts of the country.
I acknowledge the work of Foreign Office staff who have already helped some of my constituents return safely to this country. However, I do have a constituent who is stuck in Bali. They are recovering from cancer and have a hospital appointment at Addenbrooke’s on Tuesday. I urge my right hon. Friend to press the airlines, including Emirates, to give more information to passengers who are struggling to find out whether flights exist and whether they will be taking off.
Yes, I certainly will take on board all of those concerns.
I have updated the House on what we are doing in relation to Bali. Flight options are still available, but they are decreasing hour by hour, and we are working not just with the Government and the transit hubs but with the airlines to try to keep as many options available as possible. Of course, in a case such as the one my hon. Friend described, we will do our utmost to get people on board the first available flight.
Like many others here, I have a number of constituents trapped abroad, including a group from St Andrew’s University who are currently trapped on the Honduran island of Utila with no medical services. I was advised last night by the FCO that commercial flights from Australia and New Zealand were still available, but with worldwide hubs closing, that simply is not the case. Although I appreciate that this is challenging, and I am grateful for the update, I probably expected a bigger list. People contact their MP when they have no other options, so what measures are in place to ensure that the info that we are given as MPs is accurate and up-to-date and that we are not causing unnecessary distress to people at this time?
I thank the hon. Lady and greatly appreciate the way in which she approached her question. Junior Ministers, and I as Foreign Secretary, are always available to provide as much detail as possible. We can always be contacted via our Parliamentary Private Secretaries. We are aware of the particular situation with the St Andrews group and we are in touch with the university about them. We have also made the Honduran authorities aware of their situation, so I hope I can reassure her that that has not slipped off the radar for either the Foreign Office or Ministers, and that we are doing everything we can to cater for them and for the others who are in Honduras.
I have a number of constituents abroad in difficulties, and that number is increasing as the travel situation gets worse. May I also place on record my thanks to the Foreign Secretary, his ministerial team and his PPSs for the prompt attention that they gave to cases I raised last week? I know from my experience as a Minister that everybody in our posts abroad and in the Foreign Office, from the heads of missions down, will be working their damnedest to get our people supported and home. They should know that they have our support as they work very hard to do so.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and for his championing of his constituents, particularly when they are in a vulnerable situation. It is important to pay tribute to the incredible work the consular teams are doing. We are doing everything we can to reinforce them in terms of manpower and resources, from call centres to posts, and they are doing an incredible job. It is not just British nationals; when I talk to my interlocutors around the world, I hear that even some of the smallest and poorer countries have nationals doing the same thing. Given the number of Brits travelling abroad, the consular teams are putting in a great shift, but the reality is that we will do everything we feasibly can to increase that capacity and provide as much help and support as we can to get Brits back home.
Given that we are still in a transition period with the EU, can the Foreign Secretary clarify whether UK nationals can access flights operated by EU countries? I understand that a number of them are operating flights and it might be possible and easier to get back to the UK from European countries rather than from other continents.
In general, nothing in the transition period regime is hampering the repatriation effort. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that, given the number of Brits in European countries, we also have more airline capacity coming back. It is probably easier to pick up the phone to some of our European colleagues, who we know very well. The key thing is the bilateral dialogue: the calls I am making, and those that our embassies and junior Ministers are making hour by hour—not even day by day—to cover all the particular circumstances. The biggest problem is perhaps not some of the cases we all know about, such as people in Spain and Peru. Once we are on the case we can put a plan in place to get those nationals home. What catches out both British nationals and missions abroad is the fast-changing situation in smaller jurisdictions or those to which people travel less.
The Italian-owned company Costa Crociere has a number of cruise ships in and around the Mediterranean, in particular the Costa Victoria, which has literally hundreds of UK citizens on board. Unbelievably, they are going full steam ahead to dock at Venice. Of course, everyone on board is concerned about how they will get home from Venice, whether they will be admitted to Venice, and whether they will be infected with coronavirus as a result. Will my right hon. Friend make representations to ensure that these ships dock not in Italian waters but in other countries that will offer a safe haven and the chance to get home?
I shall certainly look into that particular case. The key thing for all cruise ships right now is to find a port of call where they can dock safely and to get those people a cordoned corridor to a repatriation flight as soon as possible. That has tended to be the basic two-point mechanism that has worked in getting British nationals back home, but I shall certainly look into that case.
I also have constituents stranded in Vietnam, Australia, Bolivia and Costa Rica, but I want to ask about the travel advice the right hon. Gentleman issued yesterday. Where UK citizens abroad have an underlying health condition and feel it would be better not to travel home and are able to stay, perhaps because they are with family, for example, does his advice potentially invalidate their insurance if they choose to stay and subsequently become ill?
I cannot comment on individual cases, but I understand exactly the hon. Gentleman’s concern. That is why, when we have changed travel advice, we have always said that people have to take into account the circumstances and look at the pros and cons of staying put if they have accommodation, financial resilience and medical support, as opposed to returning home, depending on how quickly and easily that will be to do. Of all the various things I can do, I do not want to give medical advice.
In terms of insurance, the standard terms of insurance tend to follow the travel advice rather than the other way around. What we cannot do—there are legal reasons for this—is base our decisions on anything other than the risks to British nationals abroad.
I put on record my thanks to Foreign Office staff in the UK and around the world, as well as the FCO team, who are doing an incredible job in very difficult circumstances. I am reassured by what my right hon. Friend has said about the conversations he and his team are having with other Foreign Ministers around the world. Is there more we can do not only through the G7, but the G20, which has a number of key transit hubs within its membership?
I thank my hon. Friend, first, for the credit he has given to the consular team at the Foreign Office, but also for raising the point of the G20. We also have a G20 leaders meeting, which will be virtual and remote, coming up. It is critically important that we make sure we work not only with the G7, the G20 and within the EU, but with all international forums, not least because of the broader range of countries involved and the ability as a result to secure routes back via hub routes and, in particular, transit routes. I have mentioned Singapore, but there are many others we can talk about, particularly in the Gulf.
I thank the Secretary of State’s Parliamentary Private Secretaries, who have been enormously helpful. He may be aware that in Australia, British embassy officials are telling people to contact their Members of Parliament, so there are two things I ask him to raise. First, the travel insurance companies are providing no help and are refusing assistance to people who have been stuck abroad. Secondly, there is the exploitative nature of some airlines. The cost to leave Australia with Qatar Airways has ramped up to 10,000 Australian dollars. Will the Foreign Secretary condemn that practice and take those sorts of practices up with airline companies?
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for the tribute he paid to FCO staff. I can tell him that we are constantly talking to the airlines about limiting the additional cost expense put on travellers. Of course, the airlines are under acute pressure right now, with the number of jurisdictions to which they can fly limited. The high commission has set out the details so that people who are concerned can register so that they can be informed about the flights that will be organised to take them home. We have more than 1,700 British nationals who have already registered. That works, so the key thing is to disseminate those contact details. If he needs them, I am happy to provide them.
I thank the Foreign Office team for their help in getting constituents home from Vietnam and Morocco. A couple of young constituents of mine have just made it safely to Lima for their flight home later this week, but I still have constituents stranded in Mauritius, India, Australia, Bali and New Zealand. Will the Foreign Secretary and all his team continue to work hour by hour through the night to secure the airline capacity we need to get those constituents home?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I thank him for his kind words. With the effort to get people out of Morocco, where we have worked with the airlines in what was a model and template for the future, we managed to get 8,500-plus passengers back home. We will seek to replicate that in all the jurisdictions he has mentioned.
I have been contacted by constituents stuck in India and Pakistan because of the closure of the airports there, but all around the world thousands of planes and pilots are underemployed or, indeed, even laid off. Is there not a real role for Government to mobilise the aviation industry and the airports and, indeed, to co-operate with those other Governments to actually get the airlift working to bring our people home?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Transport Secretary is already engaged in those discussions with individual airlines. There is a practical, legal question of whether those airlines can get into the relevant countries and jurisdictions, and that is why I will be raising the matter at G7 level tomorrow.
The Foreign Secretary has mentioned thousands, and in one reply he said that hundreds of thousands of UK citizens are currently abroad. Could he provide the House with a more definitive estimate of the number of UK citizens abroad? He will recall that last week I pressed him on the use of the Royal Air Force in extremis. What further discussions has he had with Defence Ministers on deploying the RAF when required?
We do not regularly have a register of UK nationals travelling abroad. I checked in response to his earlier question, and we are obviously engaged with the Ministry of Defence, but the approach we are taking is to keep as many commercial routes open as possible. We have already arranged or worked with our international partners to charter flights in extremis. That is the surest way to get home the number of people who are currently travelling as opposed to being resident abroad. The range is in the hundreds of thousands, so we are talking of a scale that is unprecedented.
Countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Peru have not only closed their international borders, but are considering imposing internal travel restrictions. Under such circumstances, can the Foreign Secretary reassure us that UK nationals who find themselves under lockdown will be supported to get from remote towns and villages to the main transport hubs?
In relation to Australia and Peru, there is a possibility of commercial flights, but of course they are limited. The reason that there is a possibility is that we have been working closely with those Governments and the airlines to make sure that there is a link out for UK nationals to avoid their being stranded. We are doing the same with New Zealand, and we will continue to put our shoulder to the wheel to get all those people, who might otherwise remain vulnerable or stranded, back home.
I thank my right hon. Friend for all he is doing. Like other colleagues, I have constituents all around the world, but the bulk are in Spain. Will he tell the House exactly how we will get them home as soon as possible?
In relation to Spain, where we have probably one of the largest numbers of UK nationals travelling and resident abroad, my hon. Friend will know that all sorts of domestic restrictions have been put in place, as has been the case across Europe. There are also restrictions on travel in and out, and indeed there was an announcement that it would close the hotels, which was due to take effect today. I have spoken to the Spanish Foreign Minister to make it clear that, as we pursue that effort with the commercial airlines to get the Brits back—that will take some time, because of the volume—no British national should be kicked out of their hotel as a result of the new regulatory restrictions being put in place.
My 78-year-old constituent David Keating is stranded in Brazil with his wife and daughter. He has an underlying heart problem and requires medication, and he has only nine days’ medication left. He has had four flights cancelled already. The consulate is telling him that other European countries are arranging flights for their citizens. Please will the Secretary of State intervene with other European countries to help him and his family get home?
I will check, but it does not seem to me to be correct that others are pursuing options that we have just sat on our hands and avoided. That is not the approach. I can tell the hon. Member that, in relation to Peru, we will be the first of the European countries to have a flight coming home, on the current projection. In relation to Brazil, of course we will be working actively, as we are in all the South American countries where we are particularly concerned about the restrictions put in place, to get British nationals—including his vulnerable constituent, who I understand has a particular medical condition—back home as soon as possible.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for all the work he is doing in returning Wolverhampton residents back home. I have two major concerns in relation to India and Pakistan. I have people there with medical conditions who cannot get the medication they need and cannot return home. Will he do everything in his power to return my constituents back to Wolverhampton?
Yes, I certainly will. I understand the difficult situation that my hon. Friend’s constituents find themselves in. India and Pakistan have had logistical challenges that are separate from the ones I have mentioned in the House, but I assure him that we are well aware of the particular challenges, and we are working day and night to try to overcome them.
My constituent Dean Lawson is stuck in New Zealand. He is hoping to come back through Australia, but that has not been confirmed. The Secretary of State has mentioned that Singapore was a hub on the way home. I am not here to embarrass anybody, but I understand, as of an hour ago, that Singapore is no longer an option. If it is not an option, may I ask him what happens with those people who cannot go to Singapore? Where do they go?
The hon. Gentleman is certainly right that the Singaporeans have introduced fresh restrictions. That is why at 8 o’clock this morning I was on the phone to the Singaporean Foreign Minister. We talked about the need to act reciprocally, and the understanding was very clear that we would work together to make sure British nationals can get back via Singapore—not just those travelling in Singapore but those who use it as a transit hub.
I have a couple of constituents stuck in New Zealand who are intensive care unit doctors. For obvious reasons, how can the Foreign Secretary help, please?
We are working to get all the Brits in New Zealand back home. I have updated the House in some detail about the measures we are taking. If my hon. Friend has any problem getting his constituents the advice that the high commission is providing, please get in contact with me and we will make sure that we personally make that happen.
The right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) talked about poor communication. That is leading to constituents contacting their Members of Parliament. They are rightly worried, and individuals here are worried, about loved ones abroad. Yesterday afternoon, the MPs’ hotline did not work when my office contacted it about a constituent stuck in New Zealand. Will the Foreign Secretary give an assurance that, if we are given email addresses or telephone numbers at the Foreign Office to raise individual cases, they will actually work?
The email addresses all work. The right hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the challenges the call centre faces, but it is not a question of it not working; when a whole string of Governments announce restrictions, demand goes through the roof. We understand that. We have doubled the capacity—I have mentioned that already—and we are looking to double it again so that we can deal with this issue. I hope that he will be mindful not just of the scale of British nationals abroad but of the rate of new restrictions that Governments—
The right hon. Gentleman says, “No”. Well, then he is staring the challenge in the face and not quite appreciating it. The rate with which changes have been imposed over the last few days has made it an unprecedented challenge, but I am confident that we will rise to it.
I have 18 constituents stranded overseas who have contacted me for help getting home. Some of them are running out of money or medication. I recognise the extraordinary circumstances that we are in, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, his Ministers and consular officials for the work they are doing. One constituent, Brianna Lewis, who is in Cusco, has lost her passport and has no travel documents. She cannot contact the consular offices to get a replacement passport or emergency travel documents. Will my right hon. Friend say what someone in those circumstances should do? She is worried that if she turns up to the airport, she will not be able to get on the plane.
I suggest that my hon. Friend contacts me or one of the junior Ministers and we will look into that case directly. Obviously, that creates something of a challenge, but not one that should be insurmountable.
I have around 20 constituents affected, one of whom is in Peru with his Irish partner Niamh, who has lived and worked in England for around 19 years. Last night they got an email from the FCO saying that it will try to help him but that it does not think it will be able to help her. At this hugely stressful time, they face being separated, in spite of the fact that Niamh was advised by the Irish embassy that their best chance of getting out together was to go via the UK Government. I wonder whether there is anything the Foreign Secretary can do to help those constituents.
That is a plight that quite a few people have found themselves in. When we have talked to the Peruvian authorities, we have been clear that we will bring back UK nationals and any foreign national dependants who are with them. We have had excellent co-operation with the Irish authorities. I have spoken to Simon Coveney in the last few days. We are always willing to share the burden of getting UK nationals, Irish nationals and European nationals back home, including their dependants, who may not be of the same nationality. I will look into that case.
This morning I received a couple of emails. One was from Lucy Kelly, who is stuck in Australia facing a 140% hike in air fares to get back to the UK. The other was from Kamaljit Dhesi, who, like many families from Warwick and Leamington, is stuck in India due to the lockdown there. Does the Secretary of State agree that we must either introduce some sort of price cap for these carriers or exercise some sort of requisitioning powers to get our people back?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions, and the spirit in which he makes them. In relation to India, if there is a full lockdown we will need to negotiate with the Indian Government to facilitate access for commercial or charter flights. In relation to the other situation, we are working closely with the airlines, and that is work that the Secretary of State for Transport is taking forward. We want to get to a situation, given the huge pressure that the airlines are under, where we can provide stability but also the reassurance that repatriation or return flights can take place. This is an urgent priority for the FCO, and we are working closely with the Department for Transport to secure it.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on covid-19. The spread of coronavirus is rapidly accelerating across the world and in the UK. The actions that we took yesterday are not actions that any UK Government would ever want to take, but they were absolutely necessary. The goal is clear: to slow the rate of transmission in order to protect the NHS and save lives. Our instruction is simple: stay at home.
People should only leave their home for one of four reasons: first, to shop for basic necessities, such as food, as infrequently as possible; secondly, to exercise once a day, for example a run, walk or cycle, alone or with members of the same household; thirdly, for any medical need, or to provide care or help to a vulnerable person; and fourthly, to travel to and from work, but only where it cannot be done from home, and employers should be taking every possible step to ensure that staff can work remotely. Those four reasons are exceptions to the rule. Further guidance is available on the gov.uk website.
I want to be clear that where people absolutely cannot work from home, they can still go to work. Indeed, it is important that they do so in order to keep the country running. Key workers, for example in the NHS and social care, pharmacists and those in the medicines supply chain, should go to work, unless they are self-isolating because they or someone else in their household has symptoms. We will be publishing guidance later today to explain the steps that employers must take to ensure that employees are safe, including making sure that there is a 2-metre gap between workers wherever possible.
In addition, all non-essential shops and community centres are closed as of today, and gatherings of more than two people in public must stop. These measures are not advice; they are rules. They will be enforced, including by the police, with fines for non-compliance starting at £30 but up to unlimited fines.
I want to update the House on the shielding that was introduced yesterday. We are writing to up to 1.5 million of the most vulnerable people in the UK to advise them that they will need to shield themselves from the virus in the coming months. We will provide targeted support for all those who need it so that they have the food supplies and medical care they need to make it through. Guided by the experts, we will look at the evidence and continually review the effects of the measures.
We are engaged in a great national effort to beat the virus. Everybody now has it in their power to save lives and protect the NHS. Home is now the frontline. In this national effort, working together, we can defeat this disease. Everyone has a part to play. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State, as always, for advance sight of his statement. As he knows, yesterday we called on the Government to move to implement the enforcement of social distancing measures, so the Prime Minister was quite right last night to call for people to stay at home.
May I put to the Secretary of State a few quick questions? The virus thrives on inequalities. It is the most vulnerable, without financial security, who are especially at risk. I therefore urge him to consider abolishing prescription charges for the duration of the outbreak, especially for those with conditions such as asthma. We are very mindful of the mental health implications of asking people to stay at home, and we are also deeply concerned about the potential for domestic violence to increase. What support is available on those two fronts?
We also need clear and unambiguous advice around which workers can and cannot go out. The Opposition would call for just key workers to be able to go to work. We have seen Sports Direct, for example, insisting that its workers turn up today. We are hearing stories about warehouses insisting that agency workers turn up and about construction sites not putting in place social distancing measures. That is putting workers at risk, and it is putting the lives of us all at risk. We need clear enforcement; if we are telling people that they will be fined for leaving their house, why are we not fining employers for insisting that their employees turn up to work when they should be staying at home? My right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor will be putting more points to the Government about income protection in the debate later today.
Let me quickly turn to personal protective equipment. I understand the efforts the Government have made, but there are still NHS staff saying that they have no access to adequate PPE. We still have hospital chief executives expressing concern that they do not have access to FFP3 masks, that they are not getting the visors and sanitisers they need on time and that, when they do get masks, they are different from the previous masks, so staff have to be retrained. I urge the Government to move heaven and earth to get the PPE our staff need to the frontline. We also need PPE in social care. We are beginning to see outbreaks of covid-19 in social care homes. What support is in place for the residents of care homes, and when will we get the PPE that we need into the social care sector?
Enforced social distancing is welcome—we called for it—but in many ways it is a blunt tool without ramping up testing and contact tracing. That is how countries such as South Korea have managed to suppress the virus. We are still testing only around 5,000 people a day. We do not have enough community testing. We are still not testing enough NHS staff. As the World Health Organisation has instructed the world, test, test, test.
Leaked emails today suggest that, on Sunday, the Government were asking to borrow research institutions’ testing kits—we have called for that, and we do not disagree with it—but the emails also said that the Prime Minister had said:
“there are no machines available to buy”.
Many of our constituents, and indeed NHS staff, will be asking why we did not procure machines and kits sooner.
On intensive care capacity, there are reports today that the ExCeL centre will be turned into a field hospital of 500 beds and that staffing ratios for intensive care are being relaxed. We understand that, given the staffing demands we face, but if we are setting up more field hospitals, will the Secretary of State tell us what oversight there will be? That change also means that more of our specialist staff will be stretched further—we understand why—but what guidance will be in place? Will the Secretary of State update the House on how many intensive care beds are now open, and how many more will be opened; how many ventilators we have, and how many more will be purchased; how many beds with oxygen we have; and what the current extracorporeal membrane oxygenation capacity is?
Will the Secretary of State quickly update the House on an issue that has emerged overnight about access to abortion care, as a result of some of the implications of the Coronavirus Bill? Will he assure the House that women who want access to abortion care will continue to be able to get it?
Our constituents are worried; our constituents are fearful. I hope the Secretary of State understands that when we put these questions to him, we are doing so because we want the national effort to defeat this virus to succeed.
I will go through the answers to the questions the hon. Gentleman reasonably asked. He asked about the most vulnerable. A programme of work is under way to ensure that those who need support because they are staying at home—especially those who are victims of domestic violence—get that support. It is incredibly important and difficult work, but we are doing what we can in that space. He also asked about prescription charges. Only around a fifth of people pay prescription charges, so those who are the least able to pay already get free prescriptions.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Sports Direct. Sports shops are not essential retail, and therefore they will be closed. I have seen a bit of the noise that has been going on around today about Sports Direct in particular. I want to be absolutely clear that sports kit is not essential over the next three weeks, so we will be closing Sports Direct, along with other non-essential retail. He also asked about fines for corporates as well as individuals—absolutely, those fines are available if that is necessary.
The hon. Gentleman asked about protective equipment, and he is quite right to do so, because as we discussed yesterday, having protective equipment for staff on the frontline—especially those in the NHS and social care, but also in other frontline services—is very important. We are moving heaven and earth, and the military involvement is ramping up the delivery of that equipment. He asked specifically about social care. I am glad to say that the current plan is to get protective equipment to all social care settings by the end of this week, and then we will have to keep going. We have put in place a hotline. If someone needs PPE and they are not getting it, they should call the hotline so that we know where the difficulties are in getting PPE to the frontline, and we can respond to those calls and get it to them. I feel that very strongly.
The hon. Gentleman asked about testing. As we have discussed many times, we are ramping up testing as fast as we can, including buying millions of tests. My team are currently buying these tests, which we will make available as quickly as possible. He asked about there being no machines ready to buy. I do not recognise that at all. I have not seen any leak, and I would not want to comment on a leaked email—certainly not one that I have not seen. It is true that we are bringing testing machines together to provide a more efficient testing system, and I am grateful to the universities that have put these testing machines into the system. This is a national effort, and they are playing their part. We are also buying machines where we can.
The hon. Gentleman asked about staff ratios, which have been publicised this morning. It is true that we are having to change the standard staff ratios for delivery of certain types of procedure, including ventilation. The reason is that we cannot easily train somebody to intubate a patient and put them on a ventilator. We are training those who we can train to the standards necessary, but this is an incredibly difficult task, and it is therefore safer to have the doctors who are trained to do it and experienced in doing it doing it to more people, with more support staff than in normal circumstances. That is absolutely necessary to respond to the quantity of need, because this is a very specialist part of the NHS and of medicine that suddenly has much bigger demand than could ever have been envisaged outside a pandemic scenario.
I pay tribute to the staff who will be working much more intensively and who are putting their vital skills at the service of the nation in order to save lives. I am grateful to all those who have worked with the royal colleges to ensure that we get these ratios right and stretch the capabilities we have as far as we safely can in the circumstances. Finally, the hon. Gentleman mentioned abortion. We have no proposals to change any abortion rules as part of the covid-19 response.
I thank the Health Secretary for the superhuman efforts he has taken to resolve the issues around PPE in the last week. The evidence is that we are in a much better situation now than we were a week ago. He will not mind if I follow up what the shadow Health Secretary said about testing. The concern is that we appear to be testing on a daily basis virtually no more people than we were over a week ago, when the commitment was to increase the daily number of tests from 5,000 to 25,000. Given that this is a vital part of the success of the suppression strategies in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, can he give us an estimated date when we will get back to routine covid-19 testing in the community of all suspected cases? Even if that is three or four weeks away, a date means that there is a plan, and without a date, people will not be confident that this really is the plan.
Although I was not in the Chamber, I heard the comments that my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee made about this yesterday, and he is right to push on this issue. I am not going to give him a date today, because we are in the middle of buying the tests that are needed, especially the new tests that have just come on stream. I have been able to give him the update that we have now purchased millions of these tests, which will arrive in the next days and weeks. I will be in a position to give him a more concrete timetable, and I will make sure he gets that as soon as we can make it public.
I extend our continued thanks and gratitude to all who are working around the clock to help keep us all safe, and to look after us and the most vulnerable in our communities. I also extend our thanks to the millions of people who have already acted on the Government’s advice to stay at home. The importance of that cannot be stressed nearly enough, because that is what we all need to do to protect our friends and families and the vulnerable people in our communities. It is deeply unfortunate that some employers, such as Sports Direct, seem to be acting in an entirely irresponsible manner, and I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments about that.
In looking to see what more we can do, will the Secretary of State outline when he expects all frontline NHS staff to have the PPE that they need? We need to do everything we can to support them, given the extent of the risks that they are facing. How many additional ventilators have we managed to procure since the Prime Minister put out the call to manufacturers? Are the Government planning to accept the EU’s offer to share in central procurement of ventilators, testing kits and PPE?
Scotland has a number of qualified doctors and nurses who arrived in the country during the refugee crisis. Will the Secretary of State commit to talking to the Home Secretary about what possible actions could be taken to relax the existing rules, to allow those qualified medical professionals to support the country that they have adopted as their home?
In the light of the outcome of the Keeling study, which was published by the Government on 20 March, is the Secretary of State ensuring that we have rapid and effective contact tracing? The review showed that such action could reduce the number of people infected by each case from 3.11 to 0.21, and that would be a significant step towards greater containment of the current outbreak.
Finally, I stress to the Secretary of State the need to impress on other Cabinet members the urgency of finding support for the self-employed, who are still waiting to find out what position they will find themselves in. We know that people with no financial backing come under pressures that may have an impact on their health, which would put further pressure on the system.
On the last point, there was an urgent question about exactly that issue. It really is a matter for the Treasury. The hon. Gentleman is right that contact tracing is incredibly important, and the amount of contact tracing that we have done is one of the reasons why we have managed to be behind other European countries in the curve. At this stage in the epidemic, it is not possible to have contact tracing for everybody, as we can when there is a very small number. We are looking at how we can do that better and enable individuals to contact trace, including by using technology.
The hon. Gentleman asked about refugees. I do not know whether he was in the Chamber yesterday, but that subject was brought up and I said that I would look into it. I will get back on that as soon as I can.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the number of ventilators. We started with around 5,000 and we now have more than 12,000, which we have bought. We have also made the call to arms for manufacturing capability to be turned over to ventilators, and that has been very successful.
I strongly endorse and support the backing of the Scottish Government and the SNP in the UK-wide approach to getting the message out to everybody that the most important thing anybody can do is stay at home.
I commend the Secretary of State for his heroic efforts in our defence so far. Given that the proscription on travel is now legal and not simply a recommendation, will he give us some clarification on what is meant by the care exemption, and confirm that it does not apply just to professional carers? At the moment, and since special schools have been closed in the last week, a great deal of support has been given from one family to another, for example in providing respite care for special needs children. That is very important and the people doing it are often being very responsible about self-isolation, which they are already applying to their families. Will that continue to be possible, and will my right hon. Friend enable it in future?
I will say three things in response to my right hon. Friend’s questions. On special schools, one of the carve-outs in the closure of schools was keeping open schools for those who are vulnerable, including those with special educational needs. The Bill includes a power to enable us to move from that position, but we do not propose to exercise it unless absolutely necessary. The position therefore is that if someone wishes to send their child to a special school, that is fine. It was one of the specific carve-outs. In the same way, if a key worker needs to send their child to school and cannot look after them at home, schools are available.
My right hon. Friend asked about care. I want to make it clear that for people who are volunteering in response to covid-19 and those who are caring, even if their responsibilities are unpaid or informal, they are okay to do that and should do that. They should stay more than 2 metres away from others wherever possible, but that has to be a practical instruction, because of course we need to care for people. As I said in the statement, travel allows for caring, and I want to make it clear that volunteering in the response to covid-19 is a legitimate reason to travel. For example, the increasing numbers of volunteers in the NHS are important. Although it is not paid work, it is work in the national effort to respond to covid-19.
My third point is that the Patient Safety, Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Minister is sitting next to me and close to me, because she has recovered and all the evidence shows that people cannot catch covid-19 twice, at least not in quick succession. I welcome her back to her place.
Following on the volunteering theme, I know that the Government have already made arrangements for schools and given advice that volunteers may still go in for certain purposes. Will the Secretary of State expand that to cover organisations such as Samaritans, which uses volunteers to travel to call rooms? Will he make it clear that it is acceptable for volunteers to do that?
Yes, it is acceptable. It is right that volunteers in that sort of work, for example Samaritans, should travel to do it.
The Secretary of State will know that, following the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday, all tourism and leisure providers have closed. I commend those in my constituency that closed before the advice was given, in order to protect people. However, those who take lots of deposits are obviously being pressed by our constituents to return that money, and that may put them in financial distress, but equally our constituents need the money back given their financial circumstances. I accept that the Secretary of State may not have an answer for me now, but will he at least commit to take the issue away and see whether an answer is forthcoming, perhaps with the support of the Treasury?
Yes, I will get my right hon. Friend an answer from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
The Independent Food Aid Network oversees the work of many food banks, and I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s comments about volunteering. That organisation is worried about the closure of community centres and churches. Will he reassure it that its valuable work and volunteers will be covered by the guidance?
We will set out the breadth of the guidance precisely on gov.uk.
Like my honourable colleagues, I commend the Secretary of State’s superhuman efforts. On the subject of procurement, may I say two things? First, he will know that the Public Health England change of guidelines has caused some concern. Will he ensure that they are clear to people? Secondly, a senior A&E consultant reminded me that they need more blood gas machines as well as more ventilators.
Yes, both are important points that we have in hand.
It is good to see the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), back in her place—I am not sure whether the Secretary of State still needs to have 2 metres distance.
May I press the Secretary of State on personal protective equipment? I hear what he says, and it is good that the military are being involved in the distribution, but is there enough PPE available for all healthcare workers and social care workers? If not, what is happening with manufacturing and the procurement from around the world, because we are told there is some available from around the world?
Yes, we have a huge quantity that we hold ready for an eventuality such as this. That was, in fact, enhanced in our no-deal preparations, but of course we are also using that up, so we are buying to make sure that those stocks are replenished.
I am very reassured to hear that by the end of the week, care settings will all get PPE, which is not what the leader of my council was being told recently. I accept the Secretary of State’s reassurance: it is really good news. Can he further reassure me that the PPE, when it arrives, will be to the right specification, in particular FFP3 respirator masks and not simply paper masks, which are next to useless?
If there are specific concerns about the non-delivery of PPE to council settings, I want to know about them through the hotline that we have set up precisely to short-circuit such problems having to be brought to my attention on the Floor of the House. Let us fix them directly. On the second point, it has got to be the right stuff according to the clinical guidelines.
We have been told that by the time covid-19 peaks, 44,000 women will need access to early medical abortions. Women should not have to leave their homes during lockdown to access basic healthcare, so will the Secretary of State commit not to oppose moves in the other place to enable individual healthcare practitioners to certify abortions and to reinstate the regulations that were put up for a short while on the Government website last night, so that we can have use of abortion medication and one practitioner being able to prescribe on the phone?
There are no proposals to change the abortion rules due to covid-19.