House of Commons
Wednesday 25 March 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Strengthening the Union
Before I respond to my hon. Friend’s question, I would like, on behalf of myself, the Scottish Secretary and the Scotland Office, to express our gratitude and appreciation to everyone across Scotland and the United Kingdom who is helping to fight this virus. Under extraordinary pressure, our NHS is again demonstrating why we cherish it so dearly. So to our nurses, our doctors and all the staff at the frontline in the NHS right now, thank you. To the other emergency services, to carers and to teachers, thank you. To those providing childcare or working in our supermarkets, our farmers, and other food producers and processors, thank you. And to everyone who is following the Government advice to keep themselves safe and, in turn, saving lives, thank you. We are fighting a battle like never before, but it is a battle we will win, and win together. In these bleak times, I know our spirits will be lifted by the way we respond to this emergency as one. We will not let coronavirus define us; instead, let our legacy of this pandemic be one where our choices reflected our hopes rather than our fears.
This Government’s No. 1 priority is to ensure that all parts of the United Kingdom are supported throughout the current crisis. It is evident how valuable the Union is to our collective ability to respond. I have regular engagement with the Scottish Government, and I am confident that through continued collaboration we will beat covid-19.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer and for his thanks to all our NHS and key workers, and all our communities and volunteer groups, in Scotland and throughout our one nation, for all the work they are doing together to combat this virus.
Does my hon. Friend agree that leaving the EU has provided many opportunities for Scotland, including becoming an independent coastal state with control over its own fishing waters?
I do agree with my hon. Friend. For the first time in 40 years, we have the chance to control who manages our own waters. Before we get to that stage, however, we have to address the current crisis. In stakeholder discussions with the Scottish Seafood Association, the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, I have been listening to their concerns on behalf of the Government and responding to how we, as the UK Government, can address their needs and concerns at this time.
I very much associate myself with the Minister’s comments commending our public services. I commend in particular our NHS staff in Scotland, who are performing a job that is second to none. They truly are heroes every day.
I want to take the Minister back to the original question about steps to strengthen the Union. For two and a half years, the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) served on the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill Committee, fighting against the Government’s attempt to reduce the number of seats in this House from 650 to 600. I welcome their screeching U-turn on that, but will the Minister tell me if there are any plans to guarantee 59 seats in Scotland going forward?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that yesterday’s written statement by the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), guarantees that the seats across the United Kingdom will remain at 650. I am sure his question has been heard by those in the Cabinet Office. I am in regular discussion with the Minister and we will be discussing that going forward.
Budget 2020: Scottish Block Grant
I would like to start by endorsing the words of my fellow Minister.
I have regular discussions with the Chancellor, and all my Cabinet colleagues, on how the Government can help Scotland, and the rest of the UK, through these unprecedented challenges. That includes the extra £1.9 billion cash boost for Scotland, on top of that already announced in the Budget, bringing the covid-19 funding to nearly £2.7 billion for Scotland. That is on top of a raft of UK-wide measures, such as mortgage holidays and loan guarantees.
The four nations approach to the response to covid-19 demonstrates again the strength of the Union. Does the Secretary of State agree that the bonds run so deep and the relationship is so strong that it cannot be summarised as a simple division of responsibilities or a simple transfer of funds?
I absolutely agree. I would add that the British economy is the sixth strongest economy in the world, and it is that that is seeing us through these difficult times. We are sending funds to the devolved nations with complete respect for the devolution settlement, and I am pleased that Scotland’s two Governments are working very well together.
I would also like to put on record my support and appreciation for the military assistance of the Ministry of Defence, particularly at the weekend when a plane flew from RAF Brize Norton to Lerwick in Shetland to collect a man who needed to be put on a ventilator and take him to hospital in Aberdeen. It is a wonderful thing that we can all pull together in these difficult times. I am also grateful for the work of all those who are working tirelessly and selflessly to help the emergency services.
Quite rightly, our present time is gripped with, and all our energies are focused on, meeting the challenge of the covid-19 virus. Beyond that, however, important and urgent actions need to be taken on climate. For the United Kingdom to realise its world-leading ambition to be carbon neutral by 2050, will my right hon. Friend outline what steps the Government are taking to make sure every industry is playing its part, most notably the Scottish whisky sector?
I think everyone in the House agrees about the climate challenge. In particular, on the Scotch whisky sector, we announced in the Budget £10 million of green funding to help distilleries, and coming to Glasgow in November, covid-19 willing, we will have COP26, which will be not only a showcase for Britain’s commitment to climate change, but a wonderful opportunity for the world to come together, when hopefully we have defeated this terrible virus.
Can I associate myself with the comments of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and the Secretary of State? The shadow Scottish Secretary—my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who is unable to be here today—and I pass on our sincere thanks to all those frontline service workers, our food producers and our shopworkers, who are facing unprecedented pressures to protect and look after the most vulnerable in society. Of course, we thank all those people who are staying at home and following both Scottish and UK Government advice, because staying at home really can save lives.
Coronavirus has shown that local services have been decimated by the Scottish Government, as they passed on to local councils four times the austerity that they have received. Does the Secretary of State agree that any additional budget resourcing should be passed to Scottish local councils to help to bolster local services that are already under pressure?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have given an extra £2.7 billion in funding for covid-19, over and above the Budget measures announced this year. The Budget measures brought, first, an extra £1.3 billion in the comprehensive spending review, and then another £640 million followed on from that. He is absolutely right, but I have to stress that that matter is for the Scottish Government under the devolution settlement.
I associate myself with the comments in support of our emergency services, but we also need to recognise that exceptional effort has been put in by our local government workforce. Any additional funding to the Scottish Government is welcome, but in this current climate of unprecedented challenge, does the Secretary of State agree that more steps need to be taken, and will he continue to press Cabinet colleagues for additional support for self-employed workers and to move forward with the argument for a universal basic income?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The self-employed and freelancers are still waiting to hear about a package for them. We have been encouraging the Treasury to push forward with that, and I hope that it will come very soon. Members of the Scottish Government have been doing the same—it is an effort across the devolved Administrations—and we need to find a solution. It is a complicated problem, because if someone is a self-employed van driver, they are probably doing very well on deliveries at the moment, but other self-employed people and freelancers are really struggling. We need to recognise that this has to be tailored to those in need.
Transport Connections: North-East England and Scotland
The UK Government are committed to ambitious infrastructure improvements across the United Kingdom, as highlighted in the recent Budget announcement to improve connectivity and level up all parts of the United Kingdom. I reassure my hon. Friend that I have regular engagement with the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity in the Scottish Government on this and other matters.
The A68 is the third major road link between the north of England and Scotland. It runs through many constituencies, including Darlington, Sedgefield, Bishop Auckland and Hexham, as well as Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk on the Scottish side, going up to Midlothian. Given the importance of the road link and the fact that Transport for the North has recommended that it joins the major roads network, will the Minister raise the issue of the A68 with his colleagues at the Department for Transport to help the north-east and the Scottish borders to thrive after the coronavirus outbreak has finished?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question, because the A68 is an extremely important road in the United Kingdom, running from Darlington and connecting to the A720 in Edinburgh, and therefore it is vital in strengthening the links between England and Scotland. As he asked, I would be delighted to discuss with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and Transport Scotland how we can improve this critical network in the United Kingdom.
Cross-border connections are vital to both the north-east of England and Scotland. I know that the letter from the Chancellor to the aviation industry will have shocked and disappointed Newcastle airport just as much as it did Scottish airports, Scottish airlines and all the vital aviation support services in and around Scottish airports. What representations has the Scotland Office made to both the DFT and the Chancellor on the importance of support for this vital industry in Scotland?
Clearly, the airline industry and airports across Scotland are crucial hubs, and we need to continue to have them operating as much as possible during these troubling and exceptional times. The Secretary of State and I regularly attend Cobra meetings, which discuss a range of issues, along with the Secretary of State for Transport, so this has been raised as a UK-wide issue but with Scotland’s input at the heart of the discussions as well.
Trade: Scotland and the Rest of the UK
Scottish exports to the rest of the UK increased in 2018 by £1.2 billion to £51.2 billion. The official Scottish Government figures show that more than 60% of all Scotland’s trade is with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. As a result, the rest of the UK continues to be Scotland’s largest market for exports, accounting for three times the value of exports to EU countries.
When it comes to trade, does my right hon. Friend agree that in these challenging times, regions across the country, from my constituency of Stock-on-Trent South all the way to the Scottish highlands, are stronger and more secure working together as a strong Union?
First Minister: Meetings
I am committed to a constructive relationship with the First Minister of Scotland and other Scottish Government Ministers. Now is not the time to be planning face-to-face meetings; rather, we should be enhancing our virtual relationship and communications. The people of Scotland benefit the most when Scotland’s two Governments work collaboratively, and that is essential in these difficult times.
Will the Secretary of State discuss with the First Minister and the Foreign Secretary the plight of those of our constituents who are trapped abroad and feel badly let down? For some reason, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office seems to be struggling greatly with this. Perhaps it is time for other Government Departments to get involved and to help to ensure that our constituents can come home.
The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. I think we have all received in our parliamentary inboxes cases of people who are trapped abroad. Only yesterday, I heard about five or six cases of people in New Zealand and Australia, and I raised them with the Foreign Secretary. The Foreign Secretary has made a statement on the issue. We are hoping to bring people back and keep some airline hubs open—the Prime Minister of Singapore has kindly agreed to keep Singapore open for that purpose—and the Foreign Office is coming up with a plan. I encourage all British nationals to register with the high commission or the embassy in the country concerned and get their name on a list, ready for when we are able to organise flights.
On behalf of all of us in the Scottish National party, I endorse the comments made by the Under-Secretary of State in extending thanks to everyone who is helping us to get through this crisis. Many of the people in the NHS and the care sector, delivery drivers and people stacking supermarket shelves are European nationals, and it turns out that these are not low-skilled, poorly paid people; they are essential people who are helping us to get through the crisis. I hope the Secretary of State will reflect on that.
There are many in Scotland who came to our country seeking asylum and refuge, and many of them have medical expertise and other skills that could help their adopted communities get through the coronavirus crisis. Will the Secretary of State discuss with the First Minister and the Home Secretary how and when the right to work can be granted to asylum seekers who want to make a difference to our society, not just during this crisis but permanently?
I think it is fair to say that that is a UK-wide issue. Normally, asylum seekers cannot work while their case is being considered; however, they can volunteer. NHS England announced a volunteering scheme yesterday, and I hope the Scottish Government will do the same.
I hope that anyone who volunteers under those schemes, whether or not they are seeking asylum, feels supported. Many asylum seekers are left destitute, without recourse to public funds. To be asking them to give their time and labour without recognition would not be appropriate.
On another matter, when the Secretary of State speaks with the First Minister, will they discuss the challenge faced by many of our distilleries, particularly craft distilleries, that are keen to switch production from products that we all enjoy consuming to products that could help the health sector—hand sanitiser and cleansing products? Many of them face duty payments in advance, which means that they literally cannot give this stuff away. Will he speak urgently to the Treasury and the Scottish Government about how we can help our distilleries rise to the challenge?
Yes, and we have done so. We want Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to speed up the registration process for those companies, because the tax treatment of alcohol used in hand sanitiser is no different from the tax treatment of alcohol used in the production of food, chemicals or many other things: as it is denatured, it is duty-free once the company is registered.
Oil and Gas Industry
I regularly discuss with the ministerial team from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy matters of importance to Scotland, including the significant support that the UK Government provide to the oil and gas industry. As I said earlier, I have been communicating with stakeholders across Scotland, one of which is Oil & Gas UK. I spoke to it last week to ensure that the industry is informed of current arrangements, and to ensure that the Government understand the impact of those arrangements on the industry and can support it wherever possible.
Clearly the future of the oil and gas industry in the North sea is of the utmost importance to the UK economy, and the industry will need a long-term view. What measures can my hon. Friend introduce to ensure that the industry is protected and enhanced as we move towards a carbon neutral future?
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend’s assessment. It is crucial to continue to support the oil and gas industry in the transition to net zero. That is reflected in our manifesto commitment to working with the sector on a transformational sector deal. The oil and gas sector is already assessing what could form part of this deal through its “Roadmap 2035”, which addresses how the industry can be part of the solution to the challenges that the transition to a net zero economy will bring.
I ask the Minister to speak with some urgency to Oil & Gas UK about the situation of offshore workers. In the last week or so, I have received representations from constituents who are offshore, who have had their crew change delayed and so have to work extra weeks. Some are concerned that going offshore may take them into an environment in which they are not properly protected. Can he assure us that while offshore workers may well be out of sight, they will not be out of mind?
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Offshore workers may be out of sight, but they are not out of mind for him as a constituency Member, for me as a Minister in the Scotland Office, or for the Secretary of State. This issue has been raised with me by others in the Aberdeen area. Last week, I discussed this and other matters with Oil & Gas UK, and we have a call later this week to discuss this further. I will reference the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks to them, and will perhaps get back to him after that further discussion.
Will my hon. Friend update the House on what discussions he has had with the Business Secretary regarding the latter’s role as president of COP26 in Glasgow? Does my hon. Friend believe that this vital conference will promote the UK as a world leader in tackling climate change, and that we must ensure that it goes ahead after coronavirus ends?
Understandably, all the efforts of this Government, and Governments around the world, are focused on tackling the coronavirus outbreak, but we look forward to welcoming leaders from around the globe—in November, hopefully—to discuss this emergency, and to hear the concerns and solutions of Governments across the world. Glasgow will be a hub for these discussions, not just in the 11 days of COP26 in November, but in the period leading up to it, and after it.
Covid-19: Economic Support
The UK Government are working in lockstep with the devolved Administrations, the World Health Organisation and our international partners to keep the whole UK safe. The UK Government will continue to work closely with the devolved Administrations as the situation develops to ensure they have the funding needed to tackle the impacts of covid- 19.
I add my thanks to the people of Scotland for the effort they are making, particularly those who are already volunteering and providing vital services to those in their communities who are vulnerable.
In the past 24 hours, I have been contacted by several different local businesses in the self-catered accommodation industry. They thought they would be eligible for covid-19 grants for small and medium-sized businesses in retail, leisure and hospitality, but yesterday they discovered that they had explicitly been listed by the Scottish Government as not being eligible. Anyone who operates a chalet, a caravan or a B&B is eligible, but self-catering accommodation is specifically excluded, alongside ATM sites, jetties and pigeon lofts, among others.
If my constituents operated elsewhere in the UK, they would be supported. The message from them is clear: without these grants, the self-catering accommodation industry in Scotland is in peril. We cannot let this happen. I appreciate that this is a really difficult and challenging time for Governments, but will the Secretary of State make representations to the Scottish Government to reconsider their exclusions, in order to ensure consistency of support and the future of this industry?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that really important point. The self-catering industry, including self-catering cottages, is a massive issue for rural Scotland, and not just in her beautiful constituency but in my more beautiful constituency. An emergency package of measures will be announced next week. Our colleagues in the Scottish Parliament are discussing that today. The Scotland Office has already raised the issue and we are very keen to see a support package for those rural businesses, particularly self-catering businesses and others, including caravan parks. If they only have residential caravan stayers, we want them all to be supported in whatever way necessary. As the Chancellor has said, we will do whatever it takes.
May I press the Secretary of State further on support for freelancers, the self-employed and sole traders? Will he, the Chancellor and First Minister speak urgently, this week, to ensure that a package of measures is put in place for those groups that need support? I understand what the Secretary of State is saying about these things taking time, but people are deeply worried about their futures, including paying their mortgages and feeding their families.
It was remiss of me not to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his role, albeit maybe a temporary one—a reshuffle is coming, so it may be a brief role. If he is invited back, that would be excellent news, obviously.
The answer is yes, absolutely: we have been discussing in ministerial meetings support for the self-employed and freelancers. We recognise that it is a very serious issue and the Government are giving it their full attention.
I thank the Secretary of State. There are 330,000 workers in Scotland who are categorised as self-employed. They need reassurance, quickly, from the UK Government. The Irish Government have announced a new flat-rate extra payment of €350 a week to those who are self-employed. I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that that would be a start while a full support package is put in place. The reality is that while the self-employed in Scotland or anywhere else in the UK have no guarantees to protect their income, they will continue to work, putting themselves and others at risk. I urge the Secretary of State, most sincerely, to press the Chancellor to ensure that a package is delivered, and quickly.
May I associate myself with the remarks of my right hon. Friend and others recognising the health and emergency services and public services in general? I also note the volunteer and community groups that are active in Banff and Buchan and elsewhere in Scotland and around the United Kingdom.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s confirmation that the Scottish Government will receive at least £2.7 billion in new funding, following announcements made by the Chancellor during and after the Budget statement, to support people and businesses through the current crisis. What discussion has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had with the Scottish Government to use that funding to support the rural and coastal economy in Scotland, particularly businesses in the food supply chain?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the rural economy in Scotland is in desperate need of support. The money will flow from the strength of the British economy—from the huge £350 billion of guaranteed loans for businesses and the £2.7 billion of extra funding that comes through the Barnett consequentials. Also, now that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in his place, I will mention that, on agriculture, the first tranche of the £160 million convergence funding, which he rectified in discussions with me when he first came into office, was paid to farmers in Scotland only last week. We are right behind the rural economy in Scotland. This Government will do what it takes to support the economy and get us through this.
The Secretary of State will be aware that some companies are operating at the moment that should not be—they are defying the advice from the Prime Minister. Will the Secretary of State therefore raise this issue with colleagues in the UK Government to ensure that these companies still trading at the moment will have closure orders put on them and will face heavy fines if they continue trading from today onwards?
I have a short statement to make about the conduct of today’s Prime Minister’s Question Time. It is exceptional and I will run it until 1 pm. It will serve as an effective replacement for separate statements on the situation of coronavirus. I will allow the Leader of the Opposition two sets of questions—he will have a total of 12, which I expect to be taken in two sets of six. Similarly, I will allow the leader of the second largest party four questions, in two sets of two. I will also, exceptionally, call a further question from an Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson. In order to maximise participation, may I ask for short questions and short answers?
The Prime Minister was asked—
First, I wish to pay tribute to the Prime Minister and his Ministers for navigating my constituents through these unprecedented times with their decisive action. I also pay tribute to my constituents and those working in the NHS for their truly heroic work. No one can afford to be complacent at this time, and I applaud my right hon. Friend’s address to the nation on Monday, which reinforced the need for us to stay at home and protect our NHS in order to save lives. Will he assure me that the Government will ensure that people have the support they need in order to do that?
I fully echo my hon. Friend’s tribute to our amazing NHS workers, and it is in order to protect them and help them that we are taking the extraordinary measures that this country is. I repeat my advice to the nation, which is to stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for making the best arrangements possible today to ensure not only that as many Members as possible can ask questions, but that the Government are held to account, which is the function of Parliament.
Many more people will be mourning the loss of loved ones as a result of coronavirus this week. Our hearts go out to all of them and to those suffering from the disease at the present time. Across our country people are working day and night to keep us safe, fed and warm: our wonderful NHS staff; police; firefighters; prison and probation workers; teachers; civil servants; local government staff; and social care workers. All of them are showing the value of public service. They are the unsung heroes, keeping the transport system running, the post delivered, utilities running and our supermarkets properly stocked. I wish to give a special mention to one group who are usually ignored, forgotten and decried as “unskilled workers”—cleaners. All around the country, and in this building, they are doing their best to keep our places hygienic and safe.
Over the past few weeks, I have asked the Prime Minister many times what action is being taken to ensure that testing is being prioritised, and I have received assurances that everything that could be done was being done. Yet a leaked email shows that it was just three days ago that the Prime Minister wrote to UK research institutes to ask for help, saying that there were “no” testing machines “available to buy”. Why was that not done weeks ago, if not months ago, when the Government were first warned about the threat of a global pandemic? What action is now being taken to get testing machines?
Perhaps I could begin by pointing out that this is the right hon. Gentleman’s last Prime Minister’s questions, and it would be appropriate for me to pay tribute to him for his service to his party and, indeed, to the country over the last four years, in a very difficult job. We may not agree about everything, but no one can doubt his sincerity and his determination to build a better society. I pay particular tribute and thanks to him and all his colleagues for their co-operation in the current emergency as far as possible across party lines.
I very much agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about cleaners. They do an extraordinary job and they deserve all the protection and support that we can give them in this difficult time.
On testing, the right hon. Gentleman is quite right that testing is vital to our success in beating the coronavirus. As the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has explained many times, we are massively increasing our testing campaign, going up from 5,000 to 10,000 to 25,000 a day. In answer directly to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, testing has been a priority of this Government ever since the crisis was obviously upon us—for weeks and weeks.
I thank the Prime Minister for his very kind remarks. I believe in a decent, socially just society. He was talking as though this was a sort of obituary—just to let him know: my voice will not be stilled, I will be around, I will be campaigning, I will be arguing and I will be demanding justice for the people of this country and, indeed, the rest of the world.
We can protect the health of us all only if we protect the health of our carers, yet the Sue Ryder charity, which provides care to people with neurological conditions, has said that its workforce is depleting daily as it has no access to tests. When will all social care staff have access to regular testing? They are very important and obviously very vulnerable in this crisis.
The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right. I do not want to repeat what I just said, except to say that social care staff, in common with NHS staff and, indeed, other public sector workers, need to be tested as fast as possible. The answer to his question is that we will do it as fast as possible.
Obviously, if carers have to self-isolate because they suspect they have the disease and cannot get a test, their work is lost for a week and those who need care and support do not get it during that time.
There are reports that care-home workers are being turned away from supermarkets in relation to priority shopping and not being allowed to buy more than certain items that they desperately need to feed their residents. What is the Prime Minister’s plan for making sure that care workers can get the vital food and supplies that they need for the people they are caring for?
As the right hon. Gentleman and the House can imagine, we have been in regular contact with all the retailers—all the supermarket chains. I had a conversation with all of them a couple of days ago, and they were absolutely determined to ensure that key workers do get time in supermarkets. If there is a particular problem, I will raise it with them again.
I hope the Prime Minister will, because care workers are on the frontline looking after the most vulnerable people in our society. Keeping our care homes safe and well should be, and must be, an absolute priority.
The Prime Minister has been saying for quite a long time that NHS staff will get the equipment they need, yet the Health Care Supply Association—get that: the Health Care Supply Association—has been forced to use Twitter to ask DIY shops to donate protective equipment to NHS staff. This is an appalling situation. When will NHS staff, social care staff and community nurses, and all other staff relating to healthcare, get the PPE equipment that they absolutely, desperately need?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this issue, which I know has been a concern. We had a long meeting on it this morning. I am assured that not only are the stocks now there but the Army is now distributing the supplies to all the NHS staff and all the hospitals that need it, and in the past 24 hours has distributed 7.5 million pieces of equipment.
It is important that they get that equipment because, yesterday, 77% of NHS chiefs who responded to a survey said that the lack of staff testing and staff shortages were the two biggest areas of concern for them.
Last week, the Prime Minister stood in this Chamber at the Dispatch Box and said that he would
“protect private renters from eviction.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2020; Vol. 673, c. 995.]
He absolutely said that, yet some renters will be getting eviction notices as early as next week. The Prime Minister appears to have gone back on his word. Will he now, finally, absolutely ban evictions for six months in line with the renewal period of the emergency legislation, which is going through its parliamentary process at the moment?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a very important point about the need to protect renters, which is why I answered in the way that I did last week. We have actually gone further now, as he knows, by lifting up the local housing allowance to the 30th percentile of median rent, which will be very important for many people on low incomes across the country, but we are also, as he knows, making sure that no-fault evictions are no longer legal, and that is part of the Bill.
Unfortunately, that is not the reality on the ground, as many of my colleagues will point out. Constituents are getting in touch with us, saying that they are being threatened with eviction now. They are in rent arrears because they cannot work during this shutdown over coronavirus. To be absolutely clear about this, will the Prime Minister make sure that it is legislated that nobody can be evicted from the private rented sector during the first six-month period of this emergency?
I will continue my questions shortly in the second part of this session, but I just want to ask this question of the Prime Minister. Many British people abroad feel a bit abandoned by their Government, with many fast running out of medicines, with the host countries in lockdown, with flights and accommodation being cancelled, and with insurance either about to expire or not covering the much-needed costs until they are able to return home. These British citizens have a right to turn to their own Government for help. Hour-long delays on phone calls are not acceptable. These people feel abandoned. Will the Prime Minister update the House, as the Foreign Secretary was asked to do yesterday, on what his Government are doing to bring people home and to provide the emergency costs for the medical needs that many British residents abroad have at the present time?
The right hon. Gentleman can take it that we are certainly doing everything we can to bring back British citizens from abroad. A huge operation is going on now to repatriate them, as he will have heard from both the Health Secretary and, indeed, the Foreign Secretary. We are also protecting renters in spite of what he says. We are doing everything that we can to protect our fantastic NHS. As a society and country, we are doing a quite extraordinary thing: for the first time in our history, to get through this crisis, we, as a country, are putting our arms around every single worker and every single employee in this country. It is a quite unprecedented step and he will be hearing more about that—[Interruption.] I know that there are concerns about the self-employed, but he will be hearing more in the next couple of days from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.
The right hon. Gentleman said something the other day about how this country would come through this experience changed, and changed for the better. On that, he and I completely agree. We will get this country through this crisis with these exceptional steps, and I can tell him that we will do absolutely everything that it takes. We will do whatever it takes to get our country through this together. We will beat this virus together, but the most important advice that I can give him as he retires—[Interruption.] I am delighted to hear that he is not retiring. That will be warmly welcomed by his successor. The most important thing that we can all do is stay at home to protect our NHS and to save many thousands of lives.
I thank my hon. Friend very much for raising that matter. He is entirely right. As the right hon. Gentleman, the Leader of the Opposition, has just said, that is uppermost in people’s minds. We have produced a quite incredible package to support the businesses and the workforce of this country. We do need to ensure that we protect the self-employed as well, and he will be hearing more about that in the next couple of days.
I must say, in response to the questions from the Leader of the Opposition, that we all need to do what we can to bring all our people home, and that needs to happen now.
The Prime Minister said that the UK is putting its arms around all our workers. I hope that that will become the case because, as of today, it is not. This morning, the Resolution Foundation estimated that one in three people in self-employment—a total of 1.7 million workers—are now at risk of losing their income. In Scotland, that means that 320,000 self-employed people are deeply concerned about their jobs and the families they support. Last Friday, the Prime Minister and his Chancellor promised the self-employed that help was coming. Only yesterday, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury told them,
“we have not forgotten you—help is coming.”—[Official Report, 24 March 2020; Vol. 674, c. 207.]
These are the same promises that have been made for weeks now, yet they, and we, are still waiting. Can the Prime Minister explain why a package of support for the self-employed was not put in place before we announced the lockdown?
As the right hon. Gentleman will understand, we have done a huge amount already to strengthen the safety net for everybody in this country—not just those who are currently in employment—with a package so that they get 80% of their earnings up to £2,500 per month. This country has never done anything on that scale before. We have increased universal credit by £1,000 a year, as he knows. We have deferred income tax self-assessments for the self-employed until July, and are deferring VAT until the next quarter, as he knows. There is also access to Government-financed loans. But there are particular complexities of the self-employed that do need to be addressed; they are not all in the same position. All I can say is that we are working as fast as we possibly can to get the appropriate package of support for everybody in this country. That is what we are going to do, and we will get through this together.
The Prime Minister knows that we want to work with him on this, but there is frustration because we have gone into lockdown and workers are without income. This is an emergency. The truth is that the health and economic costs of this virus are deepening by the day. People deserve strong leadership, financial support and straight answers. As we stand here, these people are losing their incomes. Telling them to wait another day simply is not good enough.
In Norway and Denmark, wage support schemes have already been extended to cover the incomes of the self-employed. In Germany, there is a €50 billion programme to ensure that the self-employed do not go bankrupt. In Ireland, the self-employed are eligible for a special pandemic payment of €350 a week. The Scottish Government have written to the Chancellor, asking him to expand the job retention scheme that he announced last week to include the self-employed. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, when the Chancellor eventually does announce measures, there will be parity and equality of support between the already announced job retention scheme and the new scheme for the self-employed? They must not be left behind, Prime Minister.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very important point. I totally share his desire to get parity of support. I remind him that we have extended mortgage holidays, and are giving all sorts of help and interest-free loans to everybody across the whole country. There are particular difficulties with those who are not on PAYE schemes, as I think the whole House understands. We are bringing forward a package to ensure that everybody gets the support they need. That is the way to get this country through this. But, if I may say so, the better we tackle the epidemic now—the more vigorously we are able to suppress the disease now—the faster we will come through it, and that means—[Interruption.] Yes, it certainly means testing, but it also means staying at home, protecting the NHS and thereby saving lives.
I would indeed like to thank all the staff at New Cross Hospital in Wolverhampton for everything that they are doing, as I thank everybody in the NHS across the whole country. Just since yesterday, when we asked for volunteers to come forward, we have seen a huge number of people—170,000—asking to volunteer to do whatever they can to support, and tens of thousands of doctors and nurses are coming back to our fantastic NHS. I pay tribute to every one of them, some of whom, if I may say, are in this House of Commons.
Yes, indeed. The profiteering is something that we should be looking at from a legislative point of view in this House, as has happened before in this country. I can tell my hon. Friend that the supermarkets do have adequate supplies; as he knows, our supply chains are very good. We have relaxed delivery hours, but it is very important that in their shopping everybody acts reasonably and considerately of other people.
I would like to convey Plaid Cymru’s thanks to the health workers, social care workers, teachers, cleaners and all those who are fighting this virus on the frontline. Today, an elderly constituent telephoned my office in dismay, as she and her husband are struggling to get food. Both are vulnerable and both are self-isolating according to Government advice. They have been told that the next available food delivery slot is 16 April. What support can the Government offer to ensure that vulnerable people in remote and rural areas such as Ceredigion are prioritised for food deliveries?
Charities, including those on the frontline of our national response to coronavirus—those working with the seriously ill, the elderly, the young, victims of domestic violence and providing food to the vulnerable—are in dire straits and face a £4.3 billion drop in income. Furloughing staff providing essential services to the vulnerable is, frankly, not an option. When will the Prime Minister come forward with an urgent package, as my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) and 150 colleagues from eight parties across the House have been calling for, so that those charities can continue their life-saving work?
The hon. Member is absolutely right to pay tribute to the work of the voluntary sector and the charitable sector. They are crucial to our national response to this crisis, and my right hon. Friends the Culture Secretary and the Chancellor are looking at a package of measures to support charities as well.
When all of this is over, I think the Prime Minister will genuinely have earned himself a proper break on a paradise island, and in that regard I commend to him the paradise islands of Orkney and Shetland, where we have a fantastic tourism offer that has built up over many decades, but which has at its heart tour guides, craft businesses and small food and drink businesses, who are overwhelmingly self-employed. Will the Prime Minister give an assurance today to those self-employed people that, when the offer of help comes, they will not be in any worse a position that they would be if they were in employment?
I cannot in all candour promise the House that we will be able to get through this crisis without any kind of hardship at all, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman—he and I have talked face to face about the issue he raises—that we will do whatever we can to support the self-employed, just as we are putting our arms around every single employed person in this country. I well understand the point he makes. As for his generous invitation, he should be careful what he wishes for.
The Prime Minister will have heard my question to the Secretary of State for Scotland. There are companies defying his advice, which is for public health and to save lives. Can he tell the House and those watching what the consequences will be for businesses that are still operating today but should not be?
I salute the tone of the Prime Minister’s very difficult, sombre address to the nation on Monday night. I know that heroic efforts are happening to ramp up the amount of testing. Could he give us some idea of when we will be able to get back to routine testing in the community, as happens in Korea, Germany and other countries? Should we not now introduce weekly tests for NHS staff, so that we can remove their fear that they might be infecting their own patients?
I can tell the House that both on antibody testing and antigen testing, we are making huge progress. We are buying millions of antibody tests, which show whether or not someone has had the disease. On my right hon. Friend’s point, which has been raised several times, about how soon we can get NHS staff and other public sector workers tested in advance to see whether they currently have the disease, the answer is: as soon as we possibly can.
Thousands of jobs in my constituency and nearly 1 million across the UK rely on the aviation industry for work, from pilots to baggage handlers, cabin crew, security staff and many more. The aviation industry is vital now and will be crucial when we come out of this dreadful coronavirus situation. The Chancellor and the Transport Secretary committed to a bespoke support package, but yesterday they wrote to industry to renege on that commitment. Can the Prime Minister tell the industry why the Government have washed their hands of it?
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we have certainly not washed our hands of any sector of UK business or industry. We are in regular contact with the aviation sector and doing everything we can to help. Schemes such as Time to Pay and many other loan support schemes are already available to that sector and others, but I can assure him that there is other contact going on as we speak.
I thank you again, Mr Speaker, for making these arrangements today, so that more colleagues can come into the Chamber. It is a little odd, however, that we are having to have a double session of Prime Minister’s Question Time to question the Prime Minister, when he himself should have volunteered to come here and make a statement at some length on the subject, rather than just doing it through press conferences and television addresses. This House is the place where the Government should be held to account.
Construction sites are still operating and still working on non-emergency work, despite the new rules. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said yesterday that sites will continue to stay open. We heard this morning on the radio a call from a self-employed construction worker who said that he had contracted coronavirus and was suffering from it—he knew he had got it—but he had no option other than to get on the London tube and go on to a site to work, putting himself at greater risk and putting all other passengers and all other workers on that site at risk. Why was he doing it? Because his site had not been closed down, and he had no other source of income to feed his family, so he is going to work, putting all of us more at risk as a result. Can the Prime Minister be absolutely clear and give unequivocal guidance now that non-emergency construction work should stop now?
Everybody should work at home unless they must go to work—unless they have no alternative and they cannot do that work from home. If a construction company is continuing with work, clearly it should do so in accordance with the guidance of Public Health England, and it has a duty of care to its employees. But overwhelmingly, what we are saying to the people of this country is that, unless you need to leave the house to take exercise, for medical reasons or to buy essential supplies, you should stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.
Obviously people should stay at home and protect others, but if they have no other source of income, then these very difficult, very personal choices are going to be made, and we are all put at greater risk as a result of it. The self-employed are having to choose whether they go to work or stay at home and face losing their entire livelihood, relying instead on an overstretched welfare system, which could pay as little as £94 per week. One self-employed person said that they need to pay for baby food, rent, council tax and insurance for the car they use for work, being “faced with a decision to feed your family and pay your bills, or stay at home and not get paid”. Why has it taken the Prime Minister so long to guarantee income for all self-employed workers? There are millions of them—our economy has changed.
We are making it absolutely clear to everybody in this country that they should stay at home and save lives, but when it comes to the self-employed and the particular pressures that the right hon. Gentleman raises, as I think I have now said several times in this Chamber in answer to other hon. Members, we are shortly bringing forward a package. I think that he would recognise that the steps that the Government have taken to provide support for workers, for employees in this country, are quite exceptional and unprecedented, and they were warmly welcomed, I may say, by the trade unions themselves.
I am asking questions about the self-employed, those on zero-hours contracts and those with no recourse to public funds, who have no support. They are in a very difficult situation, and the Prime Minister should understand that many of our constituents —constituents of every Member of this House—lead a hand-to-mouth existence. A few days’ pay lost is catastrophic for them.
Time and again, Government Ministers have told us that workers affected by the crisis could get help via universal credit. Last night, there were queues of over 110,000 people trying to get on to the Department for Work and Pensions system in order to register to apply for universal credit. Will the Prime Minister now put in extra resources and funding to boost DWP capacity and relax the often quite draconian requirements on people claiming, so that money gets where it is needed quickly—to those people who have got to feed the kids, got to pay the rent, got to survive somehow.
The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly right, and that is why we have increased the funding for universal credit so that it goes up by £1,000 a year. That will benefit 4 million of the most vulnerable households in the country. Overall, we are putting another £7 billion into the welfare system altogether. And, as I say, we will be bringing forward a package for the self-employed. What we are not doing—and this is fully in accordance with the scientific and medical advice—is closing down the whole UK economy, and he will understand the reasons for that.
We are not asking for the entire UK economy to be closed down. We obviously want people to be safe, but clearly things have to go on. My question was about the DWP resources, which the Prime Minister did not answer. [Interruption.] Well, it was not an answer that was satisfactory to me. [Interruption.] One of his colleagues is claiming it was a yes. I will take that, so that means more staff now for the DWP quickly so we do not have 110,000 people waiting.
This is not a time for levity.
The statutory sick pay level is £94.25 a week, which the Health Secretary admitted he could not live on, and despite the Prime Minister promising he would ensure workers get the support they need, we still have not seen action on that. Unless we increase statutory sick pay and give protection and access to benefits for those on zero-hours contracts, the dangers we are all aware of—of people going into work or trying to work when they should not—are going to continue. We do need very urgent action on this.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: this is not a time for levity; it is time for serious action and a serious response to the crisis. That is what he is seeing from this Government, and that is why, from day one, we insisted that statutory sick pay should be payable from day one and that is why we have advanced universal credit. Just to repeat the answer I gave a moment ago, we have increased universal credit by £1,000 a year. That will benefit 4 million people in the poorest families in the country. I pay tribute, by the way, among the many fantastic workers in this country—not just in the NHS, in social care, and of course in the teaching profession—to those in the DWP itself. They are doing an incredible job. They are facing huge, huge new demands, and they are doing an outstanding job. And yes, we will support them, and that is why we are putting another £7 billion, as I said just now, into our welfare system.
I do not want to appear totally negative, but it would be better if the whole place had been better staffed in the first place. But I will take it from what the Prime Minister said that there is going to be an increase in DWP staff in order that people can access universal credit more quickly.
It is right that Parliament be virtually closed today, and that the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers continue to deliver daily public information sessions. That is absolutely correct. However, I understand that it may be some time before the House meets again. There has to be scrutiny of what Governments do. That is what Parliament is for and what Oppositions exist for. I would therefore be grateful if the Prime Minister could indicate how, over the weeks until Parliament opens again, he will make himself open to some form of scrutiny—electronic or whatever it happens to be—so that Parliament can hold Government to account, given the levels of stress and concern of all the constituents we represent.
The right hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. We have tried to handle this crisis by being as open and transparent as we possibly can be with all our working and all our thinking. I will work with you, Mr Speaker, if I may, on how we can ensure that Parliament is kept informed throughout the recess.
All I can say to the Prime Minister is: please make sure you make yourself available for scrutiny by this House and everybody else, because we represent people who are desperately worried about their health and economic wellbeing. If you are living in a small flat and you are told to isolate, when you have a large family with a large number of children, the levels of stress are going to be huge. The levels of stress throughout our society are huge. It is up to all of us to do what we can to reduce those levels of stress and bring this whole situation to a conclusion as quickly as we can. We need clarity, not confusion; we need delivery, not dither.
This crisis shows us how deeply we depend on each other. We will come through this as a society only through a huge collective effort. At a time of crisis, no one is an island, no one is self-made. The wellbeing of the wealthiest corporate chief executive officer depends on the outsourced worker cleaning their office. At times like this, we have to recognise the value of each other and the strength of a society that cares for each other and cares for all.
I really want to do nothing else except associate myself fully with the closing words of the Leader of the Opposition. What this country is doing now is utterly extraordinary. We are coming together as a nation in a way that I have not seen in my lifetime to help defeat a disease and to help save the lives of many, many thousands of our fellow citizens. We all understand that that will involve a sacrifice, but we are gladly making that sacrifice.
The most important point I can make to the House today is that that sacrifice is inevitable and necessary, but the more we follow the advice of the Government, the more strictly we obey the measures we have put in place, the swifter and more surely this country will come back from the current crisis and the better we will recover, so I repeat my message in case the right hon. Gentleman would like to hear it one more time: the best thing we can do is stay at home, protect our NHS and save many, many thousands of lives.
I echo my right hon. Friend’s words.
London transport services have been severely curtailed. The journeys from my right hon. Friend’s constituency into central London are around one every 15 minutes, as opposed to every five minutes. The result is trains packed with people who can potentially infect others. Clearly, some of those people are being selfish. What advice does my right hon. Friend have for his successor as Mayor of London for resolving the problem on London transport?
I understand very well the job that the current Mayor is doing. My view is that we should be able to run a better tube system at the moment and get more tubes on the line. I do not wish in any way to cast aspersions on what is going on at Transport for London because it is an outstanding organisation. We will give the Mayor every support we can to help him through what seems to me to be his current logistical difficulties.
As of Monday, more than 3,300 inquiries have been made in Scotland about NHS staff seeking to return to work to help us defeat coronavirus. Those people and all those already working tirelessly in our NHS are our heroes. Every last one of them, from consultants to cleaners, carers to nurses, drivers to maintenance workers, GPs to paramedics, are performing vital work to save the lives of others. When the crisis is over, we in this House will need to find some way to honour those amazing heroes, but there is one way that the public can honour and support our NHS staff now: by staying at home. Staying at home and adhering to social distancing will save lives, protect our health and social care services and begin to flatten the curve. We can avoid unnecessary deaths, but only if we all act together. Does the Prime Minister agree that we owe it to everyone in our NHS and those willing to return for non-essential workers to stay at home?
I thank the Prime Minister for what he has just said.
Many Members will have had constituents contacting them in recent days about evictions. Will the Prime Minister join me in praising Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, Aileen Campbell, who has announced the Scottish Government’s intention to use the emergency powers granted by the Coronavirus Bill to protect people from losing their homes? The Scottish Government’s plans to impose a six-month ban on evictions from private and social rented accommodation are as welcome as they are necessary. Will the Prime Minister also join me in sending a message from this House that in such times, we need a truly loving and compassionate society? No one should face the threat of eviction at a time of national emergency. Will the Prime Minister send out that message today?
Yes, indeed. I want to repeat what we are doing—the sense and the thrust of it. It is not just putting £1 billion more into supporting the rented sector through local housing allowance, but stopping no-fault evictions. The difference is between three months and six months, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that we will keep that protection under review.
I thank Broxbourne Borough Council, particularly the leader and the chief executive and all the staff for their brilliant work in co-ordinating aid and support across my borough. They are fantastic people, working with a range of heroes.
There is an army of black cab drivers in and around London, itching to get involved, like the Spitfires in 1940. If we need to get doctors and nurses safely across London, can we find a way of using those black cab drivers, not on the meter, but perhaps on a contracted basis?
We have already heard about the huge increase in applications for universal credit, and whatever measures the Chancellor comes forward with to help the self-employed will take time to implement. What is the Government’s plan to help people who have no job, no income and no savings, in circumstances where they do not have any money at all to buy food? What will the Government do to make sure that no family goes hungry?
This morning, I have been talking to the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership about its future plans for Waterlooville in my constituency. It is already planning for recovery after this pandemic. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is an opportunity to plan for the future, and to ensure that we can rebuild a strong economy and become more community-minded than ever before?
I do believe that this country will emerge better and stronger from this experience. I can certainly tell my hon. Friend that a great deal of thought is being given now to the lessons we need to learn from this crisis and how we can turn them to the advantage of the British people in the future.
Is the Prime Minister aware that people are being evicted now—this week—as a result of losing their income? That includes all the people who are being turfed out of low-cost hotels where they were being housed, either in their own right or by the local authority. Is he aware that all his emergency legislation will do is to defer evictions for two and a half months, storing up a problem further down the line? Can he tell us now what he is going to do to fulfil, in full, his Government’s commitment that nobody will lose their home as a result of this crisis?
The hon. Lady is totally right. The Bill will come into force, I believe, later today, or as soon as their lordships have finished with it. As I said in answer to the leader of the SNP, we will keep the three-month period—it is three months, not two and a half months—under review.
Like many colleagues, I represent a constituency that has many self-employed people. Farming, food and food production is very much made up of self-employed businesses. Can we be assured that bureaucracy and the difficulty of setting up a system will not stop help getting to the self-employed? It is essential that we cut through the bureaucracy and make it work.
Some firms, such as Sports Direct and Wetherspoons, have shamed themselves by bullying their staff into work. Other businesses, such as events, sporting and conference companies in my constituency, are trying to do the right thing but are being let down by their insurance companies. Will the Government give a clear direction now that no large events involving large numbers of people should take place at any time in the near future, and that insurance companies need to get their act together?
I thank the Prime Minister and his team for everything that they have done so far, and I associate myself with the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) about the need to support rural and coastal communities. With that in mind, what further support might we be able to expect regarding fishermen, who are sitting on the line?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He and I have seen the wonderful work that is done by the fishing community in his constituency. They will receive all sorts of benefits—not least our ability, in due time, to take back control of the plenteous resources off the UK coast.
Yesterday I spoke with a constituent who suffers from a debilitating rheumatic autoimmune disease, and symptoms of her condition are similar to those of coronavirus. She is concerned that she will not be included in the group of people who are to be shielded, even though she is clearly at risk, and she is concerned that she is going to end up needing emergency medical help because she takes different medications. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the Government are working with the devolved Administrations to ensure that shielding guidance is consistent across the UK?
Nottinghamshire police is asking local employers to give paid leave to special constables to allow them to help during this crisis. Does the Prime Minister agree that every business should be playing its part and that all special constables should be able to report for duty?
Tens of thousands of our constituents are stranded abroad. At the same time, thousands of planes and pilots are sitting idle. The Ministry of Defence has unparalleled experience in chartering planes and organising flights. What it needs, Prime Minister, is your instruction to do that, so when you go back to Downing Street, will you get on to the Ministry of Defence and tell it to get the airlift started and bring our people home?
May I put on record the gratitude of my constituency for the leadership shown by the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary during this very difficult time for the whole country? Coronavirus is showing our NHS at its best, including the doctors, nurses and support staff in my North West Durham constituency, but it is also showing the strain in some parts of our NHS, including worn-out parts of the NHS estate. After the coronavirus pandemic outbreak has passed, will he and the Health Secretary work with me to look at delivering a new community hospital to replace the aged one at Shotley Bridge in my constituency?
To protect us all from coronavirus, we need to protect the most marginalised, and that includes asylum seekers, those whose asylum claims have been refused and all who are prohibited from accessing public funds by Home Office rules. Will the Prime Minister encourage the Home Office urgently to radically reform its policies so that everybody can access the support and accommodation they need to get through this crisis?
The police will play a role in policing the social distancing guidelines outlined earlier this week. That will put extra pressure on limited police resources. My concern is that certain criminal elements might look to exploit this moment of national emergency to push their own insidious agenda. Will the Prime Minister promise my constituents and me that we will come down like a ton of bricks on such individuals?
The people of Newcastle are desperately trying to do the right thing, although my inbox tells me that they are angry, confused, running out of money, isolated and in some cases stranded. However, not all businesses are doing the right thing. I am particularly thinking of Mike Ashley forcing workers into empty Sports Direct shops. The Prime Minister has said that businesses should stand with their staff. What is his message to those who do not?
The advice—the instruction—to the gentleman in question, and indeed every business, is to follow what the Government have said: to obey the rules or to expect the consequences. That is the best way to look after not just their employees but their businesses as well.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s approach to devolution. Wales has two Governments, and his mature approach, and that of the Welsh Government, has meant that we have delivered fast legislation and efficient help, but any divergence on policy or communication causes anxiety for my constituents. The Secretary State for Health and Social Care has made an announcement on volunteering. Sadly, Welsh volunteers cannot take part in that scheme—we are cross-border—so will the Prime Minister get on the phone to the Welsh Government and say, “Let’s work together”?
In Bristol, we are desperately trying to replace free school meals for children with home provision and other provision, but there have been real problems with the supply chain. How can we make sure that those providing those meals—including Andy Street at Feeding Bristol, to whom I pay tribute—can get hold of the food they need so that kids can get good, healthy food while they are at home?
I thank the hon. Lady, who has given me the opportunity to say once again that our schools, our teachers and everybody who works in our schools, dealing with an incredibly difficult situation and looking after pupils who are children of key workers, are helping to keep our country going at a very difficult time. The administration of free school meals, supporting kids who need them, is an absolute top priority of ours. We are working on a voucher scheme at the moment.
Trying to summarise an MP’s inbox right now is not easy, but mine includes “I’m self-employed, please help us,” and, “Online delivery slots—which ones would they be?” I trust that the Prime Minister will deliver on the first, and we have covered it a lot today, but on the latter, given the demand, what can he realistically do?
We have changed the regulations so that supermarkets have a lot more freedom in their delivery hours, and obviously one of the things we want to do is ensure that we support people to help in what is at the moment an expanding sector of the employment market. We do not want to put up any barriers to online delivery at all.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 20 April will include the following:
Monday 20 April—The House will not be sitting.
Tuesday 21 April—Second reading of the Immigration and Social Security Co-Ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill.
Wednesday 22 April—Second reading of the Finance Bill, followed by a motion relating to the membership of the Liaison Committee, followed by a motion relating to the membership of the Scottish Affairs Committee.
Thursday 23 April—Debate on a motion on errors in payments made to victims of the Equitable Life scandal, followed by a debate on a motion on human rights in Kashmir. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 24 April—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 27 April will include:
Monday 27 April—Consideration in committee of the Finance Bill (day 1).
Tuesday 28 April—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill (day 2).
Wednesday 29 April—Opposition day (8th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Scottish National party.
Thursday 30 April—Business to be determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 1 May—The House will not be sitting.
Hon. and right hon. Members will appreciate that I am announcing business as if this were business as usual. I am grateful to parliamentarians and parliamentary staff for coming together to support the completion of emergency legislation essential to fight covid-19, including the Contingencies Fund Bill that will allow expenditure of £260 billion on account. Once the Coronavirus Bill and Contingencies Fund Bill receive Royal Assent, and subject to the House’s agreement, Parliament will rise for the Easter recess later today.
It is obviously important that Parliament is able to sit after the recess. Further discussions will therefore continue in Government, with the parliamentary authorities and with Members to ensure that Parliament operates safely for all those who work here. The legislature must be able to continue its vital democratic functions of conducting scrutiny, authorising spending and making laws, including the Finance Bill. Although my business statement is made with the aim of bringing the House back as normal on 21 April, we will continue to keep the situation under review in line with medical advice, and I will make further announcements about the plans for business when we return, as necessary.
I thank the Leader of the House for his statement. Let me start by wishing Prince Charles a speedy recovery. I know that he has tested positive for coronavirus, and that our gracious sovereign is also in self-isolation. It was good that Prince Charles was able to have a test. Many of our front-line staff do not have that test. The Prime Minister said earlier that he wants to protect the NHS. The staff need protecting and they deserve our gratitude, so will the Leader of the House do all that he can to ensure that tests are available for them?
The Leader of the House will know that Labour Front Benchers and those of the other Opposition parties are working constructively together, and I hope that will continue when we go into recess. Many of the fiscal measures have come through because our constituents, some of whom are absolutely desperate, have contacted us to ensure that we put their cases forward. I am slightly concerned about the Leader of the House’s caveat on 21 April. I know he will do all that he can to ensure that Parliament returns on 21 April, and we know that we are able to operate, albeit with a skeleton staff.
May I ask him about voting, because that is another area that hon. Members have concerns about? I am sure that he would be the first to agree that we need to hold the Government to account. We found new ways of voting during the Brexit debate, and therefore I wonder whether negotiations could continue through the usual channels, because clearly voting arrangements must reflect the wishes of the House. I have raised with him the possibility of questions. We know that questions are not answered during recess—and in the light of your statement, Mr Speaker, there is no way that the civil service can cope with 60 questions at a time, and we do not ask for that—but given the unusual times, will the Leader of the House look at ways in which urgent questions can be answered, whether that is through questions or more MPs’ hotlines?
May I ask the Leader of the House about the Boundary Commission report, which was published as a written statement yesterday and is to be decided by Order in Council? We both know that it is not for the gracious sovereign to be involved in a political decision, so will he ensure that any oral statement comes back to the House so that the House can decide on that?
I am tempted to say that I have received an email from the Leader of the Opposition, but I want to pay tribute to him and thank him for all his work, and particularly his family and his staff. They have worked very hard. My right hon. Friend must have done something right, because he has seen off two Prime Ministers.
Finally, I want to thank everyone here—the reduced staff who have enabled us to carry on working here and to carry on business—and I want to wish every single hon. and right hon. Member and their families well. I hope that they will be healthy and safe.
The right hon Lady rightly sends the House’s good wishes to the Prince of Wales—God bless the Prince of Wales—and, indeed, to the Queen. We will come back on 21 April, which is, of course, Her Majesty’s actual rather than official birthday, so let us hope that affairs are in a better state by then.
The right hon. Lady referred to tests, and I reiterate what my right hon Friend the Prime Minister said earlier: there is an absolute determination to increase testing as fast as possible. That is of great importance, and it is being worked on.
The Government are extremely grateful for the co-operation from Opposition parties. When Opposition parties co-operate with the Government, it is not always seen because what they achieve is done behind the scenes, but the Opposition parties have contributed considerably to the Coronavirus Bill and to ensuring its passage through the House. I thank them for a model way of working in very difficult times.
On the voting issue, Mr Speaker, you came up with proposals for how we would vote had we voted this week, which I think were sensible, but, yes, there is more work to be done and we will have to discuss working practices when we get back, depending on how affairs look on 21 April or shortly before. The right hon Lady referred to the written statement on the Boundary Commission. When we get back, there will be opportunities for normal scrutiny once we are back fully operational.
I am delighted to see that the Leader of the Opposition is back in his place, so I, too, may pay tribute to him. I perhaps have a particular admiration for him, which may surprise him—
Indeed. When I was first elected to Parliament, there was a distinguished figure who sat at the far end of the Opposition Benches. He was in Parliament the whole time, he spoke regularly, and he was a very committed parliamentarian. Then he became leader of his party. As a new MP, I sat on the far side of my Benches, observing affairs, and although I do not have the right hon. Gentleman’s level of ambition, I too ended up on the Front Bench. It seems that those corners are good ones to sit in.
But there is a principled point behind this. Those of us who sit in the far reaches of the House are often very independent minded. We have a great commitment to public service, which the right hon. Gentleman unquestionably has, and strong principles about how we think this country might be better governed. It is no surprise to anybody that the principles held by the right hon. Gentleman and by me are different, but we are both committed to ensuring the good government of this country. The model that he has shown of how a Back-Bench Member may make an enormous contribution over many years, and then lead his party with distinction, is one that should be remembered. Principles in politics are fundamental to how we do what we do, and how we achieve it. I pay a most sincere tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, and I note what he said to the Prime Minister earlier: this is not retirement; he is merely moving to a different part of the Front Bench in a few weeks. [Interruption.] I understand that that is what has been asked for— “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find.”
The right hon. Lady is right to pay tribute to all the people who have kept the House operating. They have done a terrific job. The security teams, the Doorkeepers, the cleaners—as the Leader of the Opposition said—and, of course, the Clerks, have worked marvellously well to ensure that we are operating, and flexibility is being shown to ensure that scrutiny may continue via Select Committees. Finally, the right hon. Lady wished everybody good health. We always ask people how they are, as a normal courtesy wandering about our daily lives. At the moment, when we make that inquiry we really mean it, and I, too, wish everybody good health.
I completely understand the need to send Parliament off for recess early, but huge questions are yet to be resolved, such as ensuring that all NHS and social care workers have access to the highest quality PPE that is consistent with international standards, or the massive increase in testing that we need, and have been promised. Like many other hon. Members, I have constituents who are stranded around the world in places such as Peru. I urge the Leader of the House to ensure that the Government live up to their promises on all those matters, keep our NHS and social care workers safe, and bring home those who are stranded abroad at this difficult time.
Those matters have, of course, also been raised with the Prime Minister, and in answer to a question from the shadow Leader of the House, we are liaising with other Departments to ensure hotlines for Members to call, which may speed up the process of holding the Government to account.
Scottish National party Members send their best wishes to the Duke of Rothesay, as he recovers from coronavirus.
I warmly welcome the decision that the House will adjourn for recess today. It is important that we set an example. We have been doing that in the way we sit in the Chamber, and it is now important that we return to our constituencies and, like everyone else, engage in social distancing, stay at home, and save lives. On behalf of SNP Members, especially the small number of us who have been here this week, I wish to extend our immense gratitude to all the House staff, including the Clerks, the security staff, the cleaners, and the catering staff. It has been a trying time for them all, and none of us would have been able to do our job without their support.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that any business listed for the week of 21 April must be extremely provisional. If Parliament is to be brought back when the crisis is continuing, that must be done in a way that respects whatever guidance is still in force regarding social distancing. As I said earlier in the week, it might be the case that anyone who comes to London from constituencies outside the metropolitan area will have to self-isolate when they go back to those constituencies, if the epicentre continues here, and we must bear those logistics in mind. I would be happy to share with him an absolutely first-class research briefing that the Library compiled about practices in other Parliaments elsewhere in the world and how they are dealing with this. We should thank the Library service for its work in these times.
I welcome the indication that there will be an opportunity to convene the Scottish Affairs and Liaison Committees and of an SNP Opposition day as soon as time realistically allows. Finally, I echo the call of the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) about parliamentary questions. In particular, I wonder whether Members who tabled a named day question that would have been answered when the House was sitting—tomorrow, Friday, Monday or Tuesday—might still have those questions answered, and whether some provision will be thought about if we are into an extended period of closure beyond that.
The Duke of Rothesay and the Lord of the Isles will, I am sure, appreciate the good wishes from the SNP. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point on the guidance from the Library. That is very useful, and the Library is a wonderful resource that we have. As regards questions, it is important that the Government are held to account, and I can assure the House that we are looking at ways in which questions may be continued. My only caveat is that Ministers are exceptionally busy at the moment, and it is important that people are reasonable in what they ask for.
In these tough economic times for people, a number of our constituents will be tempted to take a payment holiday on their mortgage. Unfortunately, those holidays will not be paid holidays, but unpaid ones. The reality is that the interest on the mortgages will continue to accrue and will need to be paid when things return to normal.
The one area that does not seem to be offering any payment holidays whatsoever is our credit card companies, which are already charging exorbitant interest charges anyway, even though the Bank of England has slashed interest rates. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for the Treasury to do something about that to prevent many of our constituents falling into terrible debt from which they may take years, literally, to recover?
My hon. Friend is right that the usurious rates charged on credit cards can trap people into high levels of debt, as may the high overdraft fees and interest rates that have recently been introduced. It is a serious matter. I am sure that the banks are aware that the rest of the country is doing its best to help, and they will note that they received a lot of help in 2008. I am reminded of a parable about that, but time does not allow.
I appreciate, as we all do, that we should not be meeting physically in this place. It is not the right thing to do, and I accept the decision has been made that we should rise early for recess, but I am uncomfortable that, as a Member of Parliament receiving hundreds of emails all the time from constituents who are worried, as the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) said, about a whole raft of different things that are as yet unanswered by the Government, I will not have the opportunity to ask a question and receive an answer over the recess. In this modern age, when all of us are Zooming, left, right and centre, with our constituents—many people all at the same time is perfectly possible—surely it must be possible for us to fulfil our democratic function at this time of great crisis and to put questions to the Government and get answers.
I will make the hotline numbers available for each Department as soon as we have them—we have most of them already. The other thing to remind right hon. and hon. Members of is that not every question to a Ministry needs to go through the parliamentary question process. Ministries will answer written and emailed inquiries as well. If right hon. and hon. Members have any difficulties getting replies, they should please contact my office, even during the recess, and I will do everything I can to facilitate speedy answers.
The Leader of the House has suggested that we will have Second Reading of the immigration Bill on the first day back. With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, there of course may be urgent questions or statements on that day about the coronavirus and subsequent updates. Those, however, are often time-limited. Will the Leader of the House consider us having a day, or two days, to discuss the many issues raised on both sides of the House in a general debate, or something similar, on coronavirus, with the Bill perhaps being dealt with later?
I think the message from the statement that I have made is that there is important and urgent business for Parliament to carry out, and that we need to be back to do that. That will of course include discussing the consequences and the continuation of action needed because of the coronavirus.
Dozens of constituents have contacted me because they have been stranded abroad. They feel abandoned and let down by the slow pace of Government action in bringing them home. Many are now fast running out of medicine. They are feeling stigmatised because as “foreigners” in a lockdown in those countries they are being accused of having imported the virus there. They are also being forced to go into civil hospitals where the conditions are so dire that if they did not have the virus beforehand, there is a high likelihood that they will contract it. Will the Leader of the House assure me that there will be a ministerial statement, or perhaps a debate, after the recess, so we can go into the detail of the actions taken by the Foreign Secretary and hold him to account, as constituency MPs?
When this crisis has ended, there will be many processes to look at what has happened, but I reiterate what the Prime Minister said not that long ago: the Government are making every possible effort to help people to get home. I took up with the Foreign Secretary the points made during my previous business statement. The Government are doing what they can in these difficult circumstances to help not only the hon. Gentleman’s constituents but the country at large.
Mr Speaker, I hope that you will allow me to ask the Leader of the House the question that I would have asked the Prime Minister. In these times of an expanding NHS and rapidly emptying car parks, there is a great opportunity for our car park operators to do the country a national service by offering some of their places free for NHS staff. That includes station car parks, which are close to A&E hospitals. Although many of us are making good progress on that locally, it would be much easier if the Government could co-ordinate it, so that every car park operator in the country reached the same agreement during this temporary crisis.
I understand the difficulties that we are in, but I have to disrupt the consensus: I do not think it is right for Parliament to go into recess early, and I am worried about how long it will be until we return. I hope that the Leader of the House will guarantee that we will return on the date in April when we are due to do so, because concerns remain about the lack of testing for NHS staff, the fact that we still do not have details on support for the self-employed, and the fact that the Health Secretary does not believe that he could live on statutory sick pay of £94 a week, even though that is what we expect people across the country to do. There are so many issues that we need to discuss, notwithstanding the fact that we have just given the Government unprecedented, concentrated power, unchecked until the House returns. Will the Leader of the House assure us that we will return, and that when we do Members who are not present will be able to participate electronically?
It is of the greatest importance that Parliament sits to hold the Government to account. We are rising two and a half days early, in effect, and the business for next week was not urgent, but the hon. Gentleman’s point is extremely well made and one with which I have a great deal of sympathy.
The Leader of the House has spoken about hotlines that are available for MPs to use, but is he aware that more than 700,000 people are waiting in a queue for the Department for Work and Pensions to assess them for universal credit because they are being laid off due to the insecure nature of their work? Will he tell us the current waiting time for Members contacting the DWP on behalf of the huge number of constituents who are in desperate financial need?
I understand that there is about half an hour’s waiting time for contacting the hotlines at the moment, but the DWP has faced the most enormous increase in volume of inquiries; every day, it is receiving many more than it normally receives in a week. The work that it is doing to help people is really remarkable and deserves praise rather than criticism.
I note what the Leader of the House says about accessing hotlines for Members of Parliament, but, with the greatest respect, it is not civil servants who should answer our questions, but Ministers. Given that it was possible last night for journalists to question the Health Secretary by video link, why is it not possible for us?
I share the concerns of others in the House about the inability to table questions over the recess, and more generally the reservations expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting). I will give one example to illustrate those concerns. The excellent trade union Community has many members working in online retail. The Government have made the decision that they should continue to work, because they are a critical sector, yet it is not clear what protections and guidance on social distancing and its enforcement are available to employers and trade unions working in that sector. The ability to ask a question about that would hopefully get a clear answer from the Minister and enable the sector to move forward in a positive way.
I have to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting): closing this place down early without putting in sufficient measures for online debate and questions is foolhardy at best. We have a system of named day questions, which already limits the number of questions we can ask, so that 60-question scenario cannot happen. Will the Leader of the House liaise with the parliamentary authorities so that named day questions can continue throughout the recess, so that at least we can have questions in public? Then the question is only asked once, rather than having numerous pieces of ministerial correspondence.
The Leader of the Opposition was right to praise cleaners. My 90-year-old mother, Beryl, is a former cleaner, and when I took her to Cardiff city hall when I was first elected and showed her the grand marble hall, her reaction was to say, “Imagine having to clean this.” We should all remember that in politics in every time. However, unlike in her day, many cleaners these days are self-employed. That is not by choice, and they are not very wealthy, unlike the kind of self-employed people the Chancellor was talking about yesterday. The Prime Minister said that within a couple of days we would have an answer. Does that mean that we will have an answer from the Government for self-employed people on Friday?
First, may I wish the hon. Gentleman’s mother good health at the age of 90? I hope that she is staying at home and following all the advice, although sometimes persuading mothers to do what they are advised to do is not easy. Cleaners are very important. The Prime Minister said that an announcement would come out soon, and I think he implied 48 hours, which would get us to Friday, so, reading into what the Prime Minister said, I think the hon. Gentleman’s question answers itself.
Following up on the point made about answers to named day questions, I tabled a question last week on behalf of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, asking what special provisions would be put in place to ensure that people would have priority access to hospital and to testing. I was told on Monday that the Government would not be able to answer in the time available. Does that mean that I am not now going to get an answer until the end of April, or is there any way we can at least ensure that those questions are carried over?
I must confess I would have a certain sympathy with the Department of Health and Social Care at the moment for not answering questions with its normal efficiency. We as Members have to be reasonable in the matters of scrutiny that we are asking for. I suggest that the hon. Lady write to the Department on that question.
If construction workers cannot afford to stay at home they will go to work, and if the Prime Minister does not close construction sites they will stay open. Will the Leader of the House pass on to the Prime Minister that he must ensure that every construction worker, whether employed or self-employed, can afford to stay at home? Will he also pass on the message that construction sites absolutely must close?
This matter was raised during Prime Minister’s questions. The advice from the Government is very clear. If people cannot work from home, but can work observing social distancing, which is being about six feet away each other—something that we are doing pretty well—it is safe to go to work. That is an important part of the Government’s message: “Stay at home, but if you can’t stay at home and you have to work away from home, then observe social distancing.”
I am extremely concerned at the implications of closing Parliament early. The irony will be lost on no one: builders across the river in Battersea are going about their business as normal, with the sanction of the Government, yet the Government are closing down Parliament and stopping us scrutinising in the normal way. Normally in times of crisis, Parliament is recalled, not closed down. Considering that the Leader of the House is doing something so extraordinary, should he not also be announcing extraordinary new measures so that we can hold the Government to account remotely?
Parliament is not being closed down. The date for returning has been set for the same date as was always planned. The business that we had in front of us was not pressing: on Monday next week, we were to be discussing the relief of rates on public toilets. It was therefore reasonable to suspend those days, because they were not for essential business. However, we will come back on 21 April and we will deal with essential business. Members may continue to hold the Government to account by correspondence, and Select Committees will be able to carry out inquiries.
The rise of the House tonight means that we will not have questions to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport tomorrow, yet of all the questions that remain, there are two key digital ones. First, in terms of the provision of some kind of digital Parliament in case we cannot come together again, I urge the Leader of the House to work with the House authorities on that in an open-source way so that we can see the attempts being made and where they are going.
Secondly, and most importantly, social distancing must be accompanied by a digital coming together, yet our telecoms networks will be facing unprecedented demand. So far, all we have had is vague assurances from operators, which do not match my experience of designing and dimensioning networks, or my constituents’ experience. I urge the Leader of the House to give some kind of digital access guarantee to everyone who is socially isolating and to work with the sector to make sure that happens.
I assure the hon. Lady that the Government and others will consider how Parliament can work differently, if we need to in April, and work out how that can be done. Whether the Chamber can be run on a digital basis is something that I would question, though with regard to her second point, she is absolutely right: there will be pressure on people who are supplying goods and services now suffering from excess demand. That is in the nature of what is currently happening, and there will be pressure on those businesses.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am deeply saddened to share the news that my predecessor as MP for Watford, Lord Tristan Garel-Jones, passed away yesterday. His legacy in Watford is deeply cherished, as it is in this House. He was hugely respected across the constituency and, I am sure, by all Members and those in the Lords. His reputation is truly one that any MP should aspire to; I do on a daily basis. He will be deeply missed. My thoughts, and I am sure those of the whole House, are with his family at this difficult time. Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to pay tribute.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Liaison Committee has still not been set up because there were objections to the Leader of the House’s proposal to create a new piece of prime ministerial patronage, putting someone in place as Chair rather than having them elected by the House. I wonder, Mr Speaker, whether there has been any indication that that motion could be brought back by the Leader of the House at any stage without the position of Chair being included.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. It is clear that in business put down for 22 April, there will be a debate on the formation of the Liaison Committee and the Scottish Affairs Committee, two very important Committees.