House of Commons
Tuesday 28 April 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
The House entered into hybrid scrutiny proceedings (Order, 22 April).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Attorney General was asked—
Covid-19: Domestic Violence
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I congratulate the shadow Solicitor General, the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), on her appointment, and the shadow Attorney General, Lord Falconer, on his. I look forward to constructive debate with both of them, hopefully in the same room at some point.
There is no doubt whatsoever that this Government take domestic abuse and the pain that it causes extremely seriously, and that is especially the case at this time. The Crown Prosecution Service is wholly committed to ensuring that the perpetrators of this horrendous crime face justice and that victims are supported through what is often a very traumatic process.
Calls to the national domestic abuse helpline have increased by almost 50%, and 16 deaths of women and children were linked to domestic violence in the first three weeks of lockdown. With the CPS issuing new guidance as a result of the pandemic that advises prosecutors to prioritise the most serious cases, what assurances can the Attorney General provide that domestic abuse cases will fall into that category?
I thank the hon. Lady for her considerable work on this subject and her courage in speaking out about this matter. I myself represented victims of domestic abuse during my time as a lawyer. I have seen how devastating it can be, and I share her goal in wanting to eliminate this scourge from our society. I am very concerned about the rise in domestic abuse offending during lockdown. This is a difficult time for those who may be living with their abuser. That is why the Government have invested an extra £2 million at the frontline for online services and phone lines so that there is help 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for those victims who need it.
It is vital that cases of domestic violence are properly prosecuted during this covid-19 crisis. To avoid delays in prosecution, are the Government taking the necessary steps to enable the most serious cases to be heard through virtual court hearings where necessary?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. We need to go as far as we possibly can to support vulnerable victims throughout the court process. The CPS is at the forefront of implementing section 28 pre-recorded cross-examination, which aims to allow vulnerable victims to give evidence in advance of trial so that they can have a better experience of the process. I encourage him to look closely at the Domestic Abuse Bill, which contains considerable provisions to protect vulnerable witnesses throughout the court process.
I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on her new post; I am sure that she will do an excellent job.
With 100 arrests a day for alleged domestic violence in London alone, clearly the problem is getting worse. What action can my right hon. and learned Friend take to ensure that the victims of domestic abuse feel safe to give evidence against the perpetrators? At the moment, they fear reprisals and are not in a safe position.
This is an important point. A range of protections is available for victims so that they can give evidence in such situations. Prosecutors can apply for special measures, including a screen, or for evidence to be given via video link, so that victims do not need to have contact with their abuser in the trial process.
It cannot be emphasised enough how important it is that victims of domestic abuse get the support that they need during this very difficult time. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that this often-hidden scourge, which affects children as well as adults, must be a priority for the Government at all times, as is demonstrated by the commitments in the Domestic Abuse Bill?
My hon. Friend speaks with authority about child safeguarding, based on his practice as a barrister and his time in government as a Minister. These crimes are abhorrent, and those who commit them must not be let off the hook. Today, the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill returns to the Commons for its Second Reading. I am very proud to have personally supported this landmark legislation that provides support—legal and otherwise—for victims of domestic abuse, including children, so that we as a nation take a step further towards eliminating domestic abuse.
I congratulate the Attorney General on her appointment; likewise, I look forward to a constructive working relationship with her.
Charities and police forces across the country anticipated a rise in domestic abuse during the lockdown. Indeed, the Met is currently arresting an average of 100 people a day, with charges and cautions up 24%. Devastatingly, domestic abuse killings doubled in the first three weeks of lockdown. Meanwhile, in January, a report by the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate stated that the domestic abuse case load for both the CPS and police had increased by 88%, against the backdrop of a 25% reduction in funding, therefore stretching prosecutors’ workload and forcing them to make difficult decisions about priorities. I am extremely grateful for what the AG has said, but I urge her to significantly increase funding—
I am acutely concerned by the rise in domestic abuse offences in lockdown, and I want to make two points. First, the Domestic Abuse Bill, which returns to the Commons today, will involve the allocation of £3.1 million to services supporting children who witness domestic abuse in the house during lockdown. Secondly, I want to take this opportunity to let victims out there—men and women—know that they do not have to suffer in silence. There is support for them if they seek it. Please pick up the phone and dial 999; press 55 if you cannot speak. Use the national domestic abuse helpline. Crucially, please know that if you want to flee your abuser—if you want to leave the home—you will not be breaking coronavirus regulations. You will not be breaking the law if you seek help outside.
Last year, the Crown Prosecution Service prosecuted over 10,000 defendants where the principal offence was fraud or forgery. It also has a specialist fraud division, which brings together expertise and skills to prosecute complex and serious fraud.
I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend to her role. She will do a tremendous job, and she has an immediate opportunity to right a wrong. It is 10 years since my constituent, Ian Foxley, blew the whistle on corrupt payments at GPT Special Project Management. That has not come to a resolution. Will she now bring it to a resolution and ensure that my constituent and others in the same situation are properly compensated?
I thank my hon. Friend for his extensive work on that case. He has been indefatigable in seeking a resolution for his constituent—of that there is no doubt. Unfortunately, I cannot comment on the details of the case, because the Serious Fraud Office is undertaking criminal investigations into the affairs of GPT and Saudi Arabia, which have taken some time because of the significant complexity involved. However, I would like to reassure my hon. Friend, because upon my appointment to this job, that case was one of the first matters, if not the first, to cross my desk, so it is a priority for me and I will not rest until we find an appropriate resolution.
Five thousand suspicious emails were reported to the National Cyber Security Centre just one day after the launch of its Cyber Aware campaign earlier this month, with a huge growth in malicious emails offering fake coronavirus-related services. Can the Attorney General tell me how prepared the CPS is to deal with prosecuting online fraud and scams during the coronavirus emergency?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this point, and I recognise the increased risk posed by scammers and fraudsters at this time of crisis. Sadly, there are those who will seek to exploit the vulnerable at this time. We are leading several initiatives in this area, such as working with the technology industry, to shut down any vulnerabilities that fraudsters might exploit and to ensure that the public have the knowledge so that they can spot scams and stand up to fraudsters.
I appreciate all the work my right hon. and learned Friend is doing in her new job at this difficult time. Naturally, there is real concern about crime, particularly fraud against the elderly. How is the CPS tackling cases of covid-19-related fraud?
This is an important issue. Sadly, criminals are looking to take advantage of the vulnerable during this pandemic. It is shameful and disgusting, but sadly it is a fact of life. We recognise the threat posed, and that is why the CPS and the police have published a joint charging protocol that makes it clear that covid-related fraud will be a priority for an immediate charging decision. I am glad that, as a result, we have already seen some successful prosecutions of such offences.
We all welcome the enormous packages of support that the Treasury has put together for businesses and individuals, but clearly there is the prospect of fraud by people applying to some of those schemes. Has my right hon. and learned Friend had discussions with the Treasury on those matters?
As the Chancellor of the Exchequer made clear in his announcements, the unprecedented level of support for businesses and those in financial difficulty has sadly raised the risk of fraud on the Exchequer, which is of course fraud on the taxpayer. There will be those who try to play the system, to make false claims and, frankly, to defraud and deceive. The Cabinet Office counter-fraud function is leading the work to minimise the risk, and the CPS has been fully engaged with this vital work.
I would like to put on record my thanks to the whole CPS family and, indeed, the wider justice system for their hard work during this uncertain period. CPS staff are working remotely and, where safe to do so, in person. They are playing a full part in supporting the criminal justice system’s response to the pandemic with the use of more technology, more collaboration and planning for recovery.
I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend to her post. Further to her answer, will she tell me how the Crown Prosecution Service is working with the courts to manage the impact of covid-19 on its services and particularly to support them in planning for recovery, not least for the administration of justice?
Justice is non-negotiable, and notwithstanding the crisis we are facing, it is important that justice continues to be done and continues to be seen to be done. There has been very effective work between the CPS and other partners—for example, the judiciary and the Courts Service—to ensure that practical arrangements are put in place so that, as far as possible, our justice system continues to function through the use of technology and the efficient management of resources. The CPS is also working with partners to turn its focus towards recovery, including exploring options for a phased recovery.
Over recent weeks, we have seen a shameful trend in suspected criminals spitting and coughing at police officers. There have been a number of cases in my constituency of Ipswich, and it is a particularly pernicious form of assault during a covid-19 outbreak. Those responsible must have their day in court, and that day must come quickly so that they can be duly punished and others can be deterred. What steps is my right hon. and learned Friend taking to ensure that the CPS is right behind our police in prosecuting those responsible for this horrible crime and bringing them to justice quickly?
My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. Those on the frontline—those in the trenches of this battle—who are risking their own safety in the service of others are the heroes in this crisis and they deserve nothing less than our admiration. That is why assaults on emergency workers will not be tolerated. Those who commit these sickening offences will face the full force of the law. I am glad to have seen—if “glad” is the right word to use—that the CPS has successfully prosecuted several such offences recently.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The CPS and others have been working at pace to ensure that justice continues to be served. The Coronavirus Act 2020 enables the use of video and digital technology to facilitate court hearings during this crisis. The CPS is working with the judiciary to manage the listing of cases, so that cases that can be dealt with by way of a guilty plea or by other disposal are prioritised, which will go some way towards reducing the backlog in the system.
Covid-19: Remand on Bail
[Inaudible]—capacity across the criminal justice system, and our focus is to ensure that the most dangerous offenders are dealt with as a priority. All cases with an approaching trial date, including bail cases, are under review to ensure that serious and time-sensitive cases are prioritised for trial and that any bail conditions remain suitable.
Given that there was already a backlog of more than 37,400 Crown court cases before the covid-19 outbreak—I am sure that many of those defendants were remanded in custody—what is the CPS doing to ensure that bail hearings for people who perhaps do not need to be remanded in custody can be expedited and that people can be released into the community when it is safe to do so? In that way, we can ease the pressures on the prison estate in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.
Clearly, any bail should be for the shortest possible period, because it restricts the ability of an individual to carry out their normal life while they remain innocent until proven guilty. Each case needs to be assessed on the individual facts, including the potential risks posed by a defendant of, for example, further offending or absconding. There are statutory limits underpinning the conditions that can be imposed, and the defendant has a right to apply to the court to vary or remove any conditions of bail. We need to ensure that these cases continue to be dealt with expeditiously, and the CPS is working with the judiciary to consider options for restarting some trials while maintaining social distancing.
Covid-19: Civil Liberties
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to be here and to see you—virtually or otherwise.
Her Majesty’s Government are actively considering a range of further options for managing the effect of the outbreak of covid-19. A careful assessment of any implications for civil liberties, including the impact on human rights, equality and privacy, will be an important part of these considerations.
I welcome the Government’s new focus on testing, tracing and containing the coronavirus, and I believe that the NHS contact tracing app has an important role to play. However, does the Attorney General agree that the legal basis for processing personal data by such an app should be set out in legislation and that this should include a measure that ensures the app stores data in a decentralised manner?
I am very pleased that the hon. Gentlemen is supportive of the contact tracing app. It is very important because everyone will benefit from the app. If enough people with smartphones download it, it will help stop the spread, slow the epidemic, and protect the NHS. I can assure him and others that the app will be for voluntary participation only. There will be no private identifiable information on it. The whole process will be compliant with data protection and there will be an ethical advisory board monitoring it.
We support the development of the app, which could be central to the lifting of the lockdown. However, to be effective it would require more than 60% of the population to sign up, and achieving that would require trust from the public. Will the Solicitor General confirm that the legal basis for processing data under the app will be set out in primary legislation? Will he also confirm that any measures will be compliant with the general data protection regulation, both now and after the Brexit transition period?
I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. Stakeholder engagement in this matter has been crucial, and continues to be. We have been consulting not only the ethics advisory board for the app, which is chaired by Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery, but the Information Commissioner, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, the National Data Guardian and many others. Trust is important—it always is—but this app is from NHSX, the tech arm of the NHS, and in this country we trust our NHS with our data. The app is going to be heavily protected and I am confident that it will be very popular.
The Information Commissioner has said that the
“starting point for contact tracing should be decentralised systems that look to shift processing on to individuals’ devices where possible.”
Why have the Government apparently gone against that advice and reportedly opted for a significant centralised data-gathering system, with all the challenges and risks that that brings?
The app is being developed with expert assistance from a plethora of different sources. Data on the app will not be held any longer than is absolutely necessary, and civil liberties and the privacy of information are absolutely crucial to the development of the app. We want people to trust it and to use it—it is going to be important to protect the NHS and to save lives—so every single mechanism we have will be utilised to protect the privacy of data.
Pro Bono Work
As one of the Government’s pro bono champions, I am proud to support the valuable work provided by the legal and pro bono sectors. I regularly engage with pro bono stakeholders to engage directly with their work. Covid-19 has affected all frontline services, and the pro bono sector is not unaffected. I applaud the efforts of law clinics and pro bono services to continue to provide advice, where possible, over the phone, by email and digitally.
The pro bono offer in this country is incredible, and I pay tribute to all those in the legal services market who provide free legal services. Does the Solicitor General agree that we need to do more to promote greater awareness among the public about the legal services that are on offer in this country?
Yes, absolutely. It is of the utmost importance that members of the public are aware of their rights and responsibilities, as well as the rights of other citizens; this builds confidence and the skills needed to deal with disputes, and ensures that everyone has access to justice. For example, last year 500 schools, 7,500 students and 1,400 legal practitioners supported mock trials in schools. Such work builds on confidence and will support those in the pro bono sphere.
Many smaller legal firms want to offer free legal support to those who cannot afford it. Agencies, such as the citizens advice bureau in Wrexham, facilitate pro bono opportunities, and solicitors are covered by those agencies’ professional indemnity insurance. Demand exceeds supply and waiting lists are long. Does my right hon. and learned Friend feel we should incentivise smaller legal firms to undertake pro bono work?
Yes, increasing numbers of lawyers at all levels are already undertaking pro bono work, as my hon. Friend knows, because they recognise the truth—that it makes a real difference to people, communities and those who would otherwise be denied access to justice. I do encourage all firms of any size to take part; it is a commendable gesture. After all, we know that the legal community rallies admirably to support victims in their hour of need. The covid-19 pandemic is no exception, and I want to encourage lawyers to do as much as they can in that regard.
The Bar Council survey of 145 chambers revealed that 81% cannot survive the next 12 months without additional support. Similarly, many law firms are also struggling to make ends meet. Even before the pandemic, the publicly funded legal sector was already on its knees due to cuts to legal aid under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, hindering not only pro bono work but access to advice and representation across the piece. Will the Law Officers work together with us, at this time of national crisis, and commit to reversing LASPO?
The Government continue to prioritise legal aid for the matters that need it most—where people’s life or liberty is at stake, where they are at risk of serious physical harm or where children may be taken into care. Pro bono work is an adjunct to, not a substitute for, legal aid funding. We recognise that as Law Officers. It is correct that coronavirus has had a profound impact on us all and will inevitably have an impact on legal advice, provision and services, as it has on all other services, but guidance has been published by the Legal Aid Agency and the Courts and Tribunals Service, and I recommend people check online for the latest information.
Housing, Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Covid-19: Waste Collection Staff
May I begin by sending my thanks to all those working in local government? Their efforts in every village, town and city across the country is making the difference in this national endeavour. Thank you.
Our binmen and women have done a fantastic job, maintaining the vast majority of collections. The Government published advice to councils on how to ensure the safety of refuse collections on 7 April. Today I am announcing that I am asking councils to plan the organised reopening of household waste collection sites. I expect this to happen over the coming weeks, and I will be publishing amended guidance shortly.
Earlier today we paid tribute to key workers who have lost their lives during the pandemic, and those who take away our rubbish and thereby protect the health of our communities are certainly key workers. The Secretary of State will know that their unions—Unison, the GMB and Unite—have been working with councils and contractors to agree safe working practices and the provision of personal protective equipment. The advice and guidance from his Department is welcome, but what steps is he taking to ensure that this is actually spread out right the way across the country and that best practice is being followed to protect these key workers?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Our binmen and women have done a great job. We owe them a debt of gratitude, and they deserve to have both the advice that they need and the protective equipment where that is required. Public Health England has published guidance for those working in the sector, recommending that where the 2 metre distance rule cannot be adhered to, staff should make sure that the windows of their vehicles are open for ventilation, and they should wash their hands for 20 seconds or longer before getting in and out of the vehicle, or use hand sanitiser where handwashing is not possible. We will ensure that councils follow up and adhere to that advice so that those key workers are properly protected as they go about their work.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The new online portal for councils to order PPE has still not gone live. Despite being promised that it would be open three weeks ago, we are now told it is likely to be another three weeks. The first duty of any employer is to keep their staff safe while working. Councils are desperately trying to buy, and are asking for donations of, PPE because their stocks are dangerously low. Can the Secretary of State tell me when the portal will be open, and will he give councils a cast-iron guarantee that they will be given all the PPE they need to keep them safe?
It is absolutely right that everybody working on the frontline of this crisis has the protective equipment that they deserve. Of course, those working in local government, and particularly those working in care homes, deserve the best possible care. We have been working to ensure that PPE reaches them through our local resilience forums, which my Department is responsible for. That has delivered over 50 million items of PPE in the past three weeks, the vast majority of which—36 million items—have gone to care homes. Of course there is more that we need to do. The online Clipper service is now being piloted in care homes and in general practice, and it will be rolled out, as the Health Secretary has said, in the coming weeks.
At Budget we announced that £1 billion will be provided to fund the removal and the replacement of unsafe non-ACM cladding from high-rise blocks to drive action at pace and protect leaseholders from unfair remediation costs. This is in addition to the £600 million already provided to remove Grenfell-style ACM cladding. As a result of covid-19, remediation work has currently paused on as many as 60% of sites, but I have been working to persuade companies to get back to work, and we are seeing some success. I have brought together Mayors and council leaders to issue a strong co-ordinated message that this important work can and should continue.
As we get close to the third anniversary of Grenfell, when 72 people tragically lost their lives, hundreds of thousands of tenants and leaseholders are still living in unsafe buildings. This is, as the Secretary of State will know, a double whammy for people in the lockdown, trapped in buildings cladded with flammable materials, with some out of work or out of business and having to pay expensive waking watch fees. I understand that the Secretary of State said in a call with the M9 Mayors that he would look into financial support from the Government for the cost of waking watch and other interim fire safety measures. Has that been done, and what was the outcome?
I am pleased to report that as a result of the call that I convened with Mayors from across the country, we were able to issue a co-ordinated message sending a very clear message to the sector that building safety is of critical importance, that works now need to continue, and that the sites that were closed should now reopen. I hope that colleagues from across the House will join me in that message, because it is important that we deliver it in a co-ordinated, cross-party fashion.
With regard to waking watch, I have asked the noble Lord Greenhalgh, the new Minister with responsibility for building safety, to look into this to see what we can do to reduce the cost of waking watch for members of the public in this position, and to ensure that waking watches, where they are required, can continue despite the lockdown.
Covid-19: Local Authority Funding
At the start of this emergency, I said that we would give councils the resources they need to do the job, and I meant it. We have announced over £3.2 billion of new funding to councils. This is in addition to £20 billion in business rate support and cashflow grant funding; £12 billion in grants for businesses delivered through councils, which have got £6 billion of that out of the door as of last week; £2.6 billion in deferred business rate payments; and £500 million in council tax funds. We will back councils with the financial resources they need as we work together in this national endeavour against coronavirus.
Apologies to the hon. Gentleman for the fact that we did not hear all his question, but I think I understand the point that he was making, which was twofold. First, whether the Government will stand behind local councils for all the covid-related expenditure, to which the answer is absolutely yes. Those things that we asked of local councils in our national response, we will ensure that they get the resources that they need to do.
Secondly, will we ensure that smaller councils, such as district councils, get a fair share of that money to reflect the important work that they are also doing, for example, on rough sleeping? Yes, absolutely; and am I aware that those councils are concerned about loss of income and need to be given assurances that they can be on a stable and sustainable financial footing? Yes, of course I understand that, and we will take action accordingly.
May I first echo the Secretary of State’s thanks to everybody working in local government? They are all heroes helping to keep our communities safe. As he is aware, councils are not allowed to go into debt, so if the Government do not keep their promise to fund the full cost of the crisis, councils will be forced to make cuts potentially totalling billions of pounds, which will mean job losses.
Councils say that the additional funding announced so far covers barely a quarter of what is needed; it is not enough. Will he reconfirm the Government’s original promise to fund whatever is necessary in full? If he does not, the frontline heroes we are cheering today will lose their jobs tomorrow.
I have been working closely with local councils across the country on a cross-party basis and speaking to them almost every day. The message that I have consistently delivered is that we will fund the brilliant work that they are doing to support the country through the crisis. We have seen that already with the £3.2 billion of additional funding that I announced, plus the other support mechanisms. We will keep under review whether further funding is required, and if it is, we will bring it forward, because we want to back this brilliant sector in all that it is doing.
Covid-19: Support for Extremely Vulnerable People
At the outset of the crisis, we identified more than 1 million people who were classified as extremely vulnerable for specific clinical reasons. As of last week, more than 1.8 million had been contacted by the NHS and the Department for Work and Pensions and asked to shield themselves, with GPs continuing to refer others. For those who do not have family, friends or neighbours to support them, we have delivered more than 600,000 food boxes.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer. In my constituency, we have been fortunate to benefit from the excellent work of the voluntary sector and groups such as Bassetlaw Community and Voluntary Service and Bassetlaw Action Centre. Will he join me in recognising the valuable contribution of such groups in supporting local authorities in the fight against covid-19?
In addition to my hon. Friend, it is my privilege to represent part of the Bassetlaw district, so I am more than happy to join him in thanking those wonderful organisations, which I also know well and which are doing a great job in supporting local communities. In addition to the individuals who are being shielded and who benefit from the national scheme, millions of other people, such as the elderly and vulnerable in communities across the country, are benefiting from the work of charities, faith groups and local councils. I encourage anyone who wants to work with them to go on to the Government’s GoodSAM app and see the opportunities that are available in their local area.
The supermarkets have clearly got a big job on their hands, but my constituents who are shielding in Wantage and Didcot are finding their approach inconsistent. Some are very responsive, with dedicated telephone lines and email addresses that get people’s issues resolved quickly. Others have fobbed people off with lines that are never answered, and frequently asked questions instead of a tailored response that helps solve people’s problems. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that in his work with DEFRA, he will push the supermarkets to be consistent in their approach and get the shielded the online delivery slots they really need?
Individuals who are being shielded and who have registered with the Government through our website on gov.uk or through the call centre have their details passed on to national supermarkets, so they should in time be on the supermarkets’ priority access lists. There is a challenge for the supermarkets in having sufficient capacity on those privileged delivery lists, and they are working very hard to increase that. I understand that at the beginning of the crisis, there were typically 2.1 million delivery slots in the entire supermarket sector. That has already increased to 2.6 million, and within a couple of weeks we are told by the supermarkets that it will be close to 3 million. The more they can increase capacity, the easier it will be to broaden out those privileged slots to more members of the public who deserve them.
Parish councils in South Cambridgeshire have been heavily involved in co-ordinating the volunteer effort and bringing support to vulnerable people, and I commend them for stepping up to the plate and for that vital work, but at the same time many parish councils, including Cottenham and Cambourne, are suffering a loss of income—for example, they can no longer hire out halls—and some are suffering financial distress. My right hon. Friend has talked about the welcome support he is giving to county councils and district councils. Will he tell me what his Department is doing to support parish councils in their time of need?
I am very grateful to parish councils, their members and their clerks for the vital work they are also doing to support communities. They harness the networks of familiarity and loyalty upon which society is built and have the relationships to support the vulnerable. I can announce today that as we bring forward the allocations for the £1.6 billion of funding, there will be a significant increase in the amount of money paid to district councils. More than 70% of district councils will receive an additional £1 million and in many cases significantly more, and I ask those district councils to work with their parish councils where appropriate to ensure that a fair share of that funding flows through to parish councils, if they are in financial distress.[Official Report, 29 April 2020, Vol. 675, c. 4MC.]
To even more scenic Yorkshire.
The Secretary of State is right to commend councils for the excellent work they are doing, particularly to help the most vulnerable in our communities and to commit the resources necessary to ensure councils have the finances to do that. Yesterday at the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, both the Local Government Association and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy said that in the current circumstances it would be wise to postpone the fair funding review and the business rate retention scheme changes, and in 12 months’ time have a much more fundamental review to put local government finances on a sustainable footing for the long term. Will the Secretary of State give serious consideration to those proposals?
I am grateful for the comments of the Chair of the Select Committee, and I think it is true that capacity in local councils is extremely stretched at this moment in time, so a fundamental reform such as fair funding, which we need to get right in everybody’s interests, would be difficult to take forward in the way that we would all wish it to be at the current time. I will give further thought to that and work with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor before coming back to the House or the sector with a decision.
We know that coronavirus does not restrict borders or immigration status. Many asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers find themselves not only socially isolating, but in financial destitution. Last month, the Prime Minister said that those people would get the support from the Home Office that they need and deserve. Can I ask the Secretary of State why people are still being told that they have no recourse to public funds? They are being left in complete isolation at the height of a global pandemic.
We are really proud of the work that local councils have done in England, and there is a similar workstream in Scotland to bring people off the streets and offer them safer accommodation. Today more than 90% of rough sleepers within England are in safer accommodation, such as hotels. A huge amount of work has now to be done, having brought those people in, to care for them and then to work through what the next steps are, so that they can move on to better accommodation and greater support in the future. With respect to no recourse to public funds, the Government’s position and the law have not changed, but councils are able to use their discretion within the law to support those individuals, as they would in the normal way.
Covid-19: Local Authority Revenue
I apologise for the absence of the Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke)—I am a small but no less perfectly formed substitute, I hope.
We are working closely with the sector to develop a good understanding of the pressures that local authorities are currently facing. We have announced £3.2 billion of additional funding and measures to support immediate cash-flow concerns. This is a very significant package of support, which responds to the range of pressures that councils have told us they are facing.
Wigan Council estimates that it will lose £40 million in income this year, while spending on frontline services has absolutely rocketed because of the coronavirus crisis. In addition, the loss of the dividend from Manchester airport will exacerbate that pressure—[Inaudible.]
I think I got the gist of the hon. Lady’s question. Wigan Council has received £10.5 million of the original £1.6 billion that has been allocated to local authorities, and that funding is unringfenced so they can use it as they see fit. As the House will know, local authorities will be fully compensated for the business rates loss that they have incurred, and we will work with councils over the coming weeks to understand what their particular needs are.
Yesterday the Local Government Association and CIPFA told the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee that the Government must support councils who have lost commercial revenue streams because of the coronavirus crisis. Luton Council relies on commercial income gained through its ownership of London Luton airport. This income has dried up overnight. The Government promised to do whatever is necessary to financially support councils, so when will they be introducing funding for councils that have lost considerable commercial income to avoid those councils being forced to cut vital frontline services?
I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her question. In addition to the announcements I have just made, I can tell her that Luton Council has received £5.4 million of funding from that very significant package that we have put together. We have also deferred £2.6 billion in payments to central Government and we will work with local authorities to understand their particular needs. I point out that the County Councils Network, the Local Government Association and the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board have all welcomed the Government’s interventions.
I suspect that the Minister is going to tell me how much Manchester has been given, which is about 12% of what is actually needed. In Manchester, the council is forecasting £125 million in lost income this financial year as a result of coronavirus. That is the money that has kept services going in the face of some of the harshest cuts in the public sector and is allowing the council to lead the response to covid-19. Will the Minister pledge to fully reimburse councils for lost income, so that they can have the certainty they need to carry on their vital work on the frontline?
I congratulate all local authorities on the hard work that they are undertaking at this critical time. The hon. Gentleman is right: I am going to tell him that his authority has received £18.6 million in the first tranche of funds made available to local authorities, and more will come. In addition to what I have already said, let me reiterate that we are going to work with local authorities to ensure that they get the help they need to see them through this crisis. We have made that commitment—the Chancellor has made that commitment and I reiterate it here at the Dispatch Box.
Covid-19: Local Authority Shortfalls
The Department is working closely with the sector to ensure that we have a well-rounded understanding of the impacts of covid-19 on its finances and capacity. We have already announced a significant package of additional funding worth over £3.2 billion, alongside introducing several other measures to support immediate cash flow concerns.
I warmly welcome the steps that the Government have taken to support local government at this time and I put on record my thanks to council workers in Buckinghamshire Council for their professional and dynamic response to covid-19. To reflect a local concern, Buckinghamshire Council came together as a new unitary only on 1 April, and it estimates, from lost income streams and an inability to deliver the savings planned as it put those five councils into one, potential pressure of £22.5 million over three months and £67 million if the crisis extends to a year. Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that the Department is working with all councils to ensure that costs are fully met?
I echo my hon. Friend’s tribute to Buckinghamshire Council. To date, it has received £10.6 million of additional funding to support its response to covid-19 and it will receive further support from a second tranche of funding, as will other local authorities, for which allocations will be announced imminently. This month, Buckinghamshire will also receive an up-front payment of three months of social care grants, totalling £3.4 million. We are also deferring three months of the council’s payments to Government under the business rate retention scheme between April and June, which is worth £25 million. I hope that is of some help to the council and to my hon. Friend.
Covid-19: Local Authority Support
I express once again my gratitude and admiration and that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the vital work that councils are doing. We have been in constant contact with councils up and down the country from Cornwall to Cumbria to listen to their concerns. As I have said, more than £3.2 billion demonstrates our very real support for that sector.
District councils face an acute cash flow problem in the next few months as normal revenue streams have dried up. Although, as the Minister has outlined, there is plenty of financial support available from the Government, has the Department considered, as North East Derbyshire District Council and the District Councils’ Network have suggested, providing more flexibility and innovative approaches to short and medium-term borrowing?
As with unitary authorities or county councils, I assure my hon. Friend that we are committed to ensuring that councils, including district councils, are supported. My hon. Friend the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government holds regular talks with the District Councils’ Network. Indeed, he had a call with them just yesterday. As I have said, councils will be able to defer £2.6 billion of payments they are due to make to central Government over the next three months. With that support, district councils are ensuring that vulnerable people receive the care that they need and deserve. I am impressed by the work of North East Derbyshire District Council, among others, to pay grants to small businesses.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in again praising the excellent work of Buckinghamshire Council during the covid-19 crisis? As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) said, we now have a unitary authority. What financial assurances can my right hon. Friend give Buckinghamshire Council, given the reduction in our income and the increase in our statutory duties associated with covid-19?
In addition to the points I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith), I emphasise that authorities up and down the country, including Buckinghamshire Council, are performing admirably by supporting businesses, charities and the most vulnerable in society. As I set out in my earlier answer, I am happy to say that Buckinghamshire Council received more than £10 million from the first tranche of funding, which was paid on 27 March, and it will receive further support from the second tranche, for which allocations will be announced imminently. I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to work with councils such as hers over the coming weeks to ensure that they are managing as the pandemic progresses.
Covid-19: Housing Market
As Mike Yarwood used to say, “This is me”.
The Government have engaged closely with the housing industry and stand ready to support its recovery. I have spoken to the Home Builders Federation, large developers, small and medium-sized enterprises, niche developers, metal matrix composite manufacturers, housing associations, the private rented sector and the National Residential Landlords Association to identify their challenges. Building on the immediate support that the Chancellor has already provided, we will bring forward measures to support renters and buyers, as well as continuing to drive forward a package of housing reforms to get Britain building again.
It is vital for delivering our national housebuilding mission and for the wider economy that we get the construction sector back to work as quickly as is safely possible. While it is extremely welcome that some of the UK’s largest construction firms have announced that they will resume work, smaller firms are nervous about returning without a full green light from Government, so what measures is the Minister putting in place to ensure that the construction industry gets all the support it needs to make sound decisions about getting sites reopened?
I am obliged to my right hon. Friend for that question. He is absolutely right: getting building going again is vital to our economy. Something like 100,000 extra homes adds 1% to our GDP, so work in construction can and should continue where it is safe to do so. We are working with a range of developers and organisations to make sure that they feel it is safe to go back to work, including the big developers that he described but also a range of SMEs that are keen to get that green light. I hope that further developers will follow the work that Taylor Wimpey, Vistry and others have done to get back to work, and we will certainly help them to do so.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the work the Government have undertaken over recent weeks to support and steer our critical public services through the coronavirus pandemic. First, I thank all those on the frontline of our public services for the spirit of selflessness and commitment to others that they have demonstrated in dealing with this pandemic—nurses, doctors, porters, cleaners, paramedics, pharmacists, care home staff, prison and police officers, teachers, social workers and those preparing and delivering food, collecting our refuse and administering the welfare system. They deserve our gratitude; they need our support. They are in all our minds. They are the very best of us. I am sure that everyone in the House observed that one-minute silence at 11 o’clock today, as we reflected on the sacrifices being made by so many on our behalf.
This pandemic has claimed more than 20,000 lives and has left every community across the country grieving. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those who have suffered loss, in the humble knowledge that every life is precious. As the Prime Minister said on his welcome return to work yesterday, we are dealing with
“the biggest single challenge this country has faced since the war”.
Like him, I thank the British people for their forbearance and solidarity as we have all had to abide by the guidance on social distancing, which restricts cherished liberties but protects precious lives.
The challenges that the pandemic confronts us with require an unprecedented response from Government. For that reason, as the House will know, on 17 March, we established four ministerial implementation groups to lead the Government’s response to this pandemic. The Health Secretary chairs one group, co-ordinating work on the NHS and social care; the Chancellor chairs the group considering how to support business and the economy; and the Foreign Secretary chairs the group co-ordinating our international response. I chair the general public sector group, which looks at how we support the delivery of public services beyond the NHS and social care, working with colleagues from across the UK Government and Ministers from the Scottish Government, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Executive. I am very grateful to colleagues from the devolved Administrations for their participation and their constructive contributions to all our discussions. Those discussions have helped us to understand how the virus has affected every part of our United Kingdom, enabling us to take action that meets the needs of people across all our nations.
The ministerial implementation group has now met 30 times, and we have considered the impact of the pandemic on: schools and children’s services; the police; the Prison and Probation Service; the courts; the food supply chain; the welfare system; charities; and support for the most vulnerable. With my colleague the Environment Secretary, we have been working to address the shortfall in the agricultural workforce, in order to protect our domestic food supply, working closely with the industry to launch the “Pick for Britain” campaign. Working with the Education Secretary, we have established the free school meal voucher scheme, to make sure that children who need it can continue to access food, despite school closures. That scheme has seen 15,500 schools place orders for vouchers, of which £29 million has been redeemed. We were able to ensure that more than 60% of schools were open every day over the Easter holidays to provide places for the children of critical workers and vulnerable children. In addition, we have launched the Oak National Academy, providing 180 video lessons each week. We have committed £100 million to ensure that remote education is accessible for all, including by providing laptops, tablets and routers to disadvantaged children. Since the end of March, 90% of rough sleepers known to councils have been made an offer of accommodation, ensuring that some of the most vulnerable people in our society can stay safe during this pandemic.
Of course, we recognise that this is not just a national crisis; it is also a local one, in communities across the country. We have deployed dedicated military planning support to every local resilience forum. There are 156 military planners embedded across the country, helping the LRFs to co-ordinate and protect local services and supplies, with additional support from senior Whitehall officials and named resilience advisers in regional knowledge hubs. Of course, this crisis has put existing services under huge strain. To bolster them, we have worked with the Ministry of Defence to mobilise a covid support force of 19,060 strong, of whom 2,948 personnel are now committed, supporting a total of 79 military assistants to the civil authority tasks nationwide.
Our police have been working hard to keep people safe, while enforcing the new measures the Prime Minister put in place just over a month ago. They have issued 3,203 fines between 27 March and 13 April to those who have flouted social distancing rules, and this number will have increased considerably since then—this is all dedicated to helping to save lives and protect the NHS. We have tested more than 150,000 key workers and their families for coronavirus, allowing those who do not have it to go back to work and protecting those who do have it. We have also made sure that the civil service and the wider public sector are resourced to operate under the considerable new pressures imposed by this virus. We have worked to fill about 1,300 covid-19 roles through civil service redeployments, with more than 400 civil servants now moving to the Department of Health and Social Care.
We also recognise that there are people who have developed new needs as a result of coronavirus, as well as individuals whose pre-existing needs are now more acute or more complex. The Government are undertaking a programme of work to support those who have not been identified as shielded but who are still vulnerable. We know that many local community organisations have stepped forward to help their friends and neighbours at this time. The Government want to support that activity, and we welcome the important role that volunteers, charities and local authorities are playing throughout this crisis. More than 750,000 people have signed up to the NHS volunteer responders programme, and more than 600,000 have had their ID verified, to start helping with tasks such as collecting shopping, providing telephone support, transporting patients and helping with supplies for the NHS. To support this effort, and to make sure that people know where to turn, we have been working to signpost people to existing and available support, whether local, national or voluntary, through the website address www.gov.uk/find-coronavirus-support. This service has supported more than 35,000 people since its launch on 10 April. In addition, we are working with supermarkets to ensure that a greater number of online delivery slots are made available explicitly to those most in need. We have also been working to understand and identify where there are gaps in provision, and what government, working with local and voluntary partners, can do to address that. A notable example of that is the Home Office’s announcement of an initial £2 million of funding to immediately bolster domestic abuse helplines and online support for those at risk.
There will, of course, be further challenges ahead, and I do not shirk from acknowledging that we as a Government will not have got every judgment right. Indeed, many people, including the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) have asked fair questions about the Government’s response in a constructive spirit. I and my colleagues will do our best at all times to respond to those questions and challenges, because we owe it to our public sector workers to work collaboratively, and to harness all available resources in the fight against this virus. In that light, it is important to recognise just how much we all owe to the stoicism and steadfastness, hard work and heroism, compassion and commitment of those working on the front line of public service. We owe them so much, and we in Government will do everything we can to support them. It is in that spirit that I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for his good words about the constructive approach taken by the Opposition, which is very much our approach, and for an advance copy of his statement.
This year is the 72nd anniversary of our national health service, and perhaps never in its history have we appreciated it as much as we do today. To all our public sector workers, in all our public services, let me say this: we are all hugely grateful for everything you do. You are the foundation stone of our communities and our society.
Let me start by asking the Minister about social care. Unlike our national health service, social care is hugely fragmented but no less vital. At the weekend, Ministers said that deaths in care homes were declining in the same way as they are in hospitals. However, the most up-to-date statistics tell a different story. Weekly figures published today by the Office for National Statistics show that 4,316 deaths outside hospitals that involved covid-19 were registered in England and Wales up to 19 April. Of those, 3,096 took place in care homes—almost treble the number of deaths recorded the previous week. The number of overall deaths in care homes has trebled in three weeks. Will the Minister now correct the Government’s claims that deaths in care homes are falling? Without accurate and up-to-date information, it is difficult to know how this awful virus is progressing. Will the Minister commit to working with the Care Quality Commission and the Office for National Statistics to publish data on a daily basis, just as we do for our hospitals?
It is over a month since the Government introduced the lockdown measures, which the Opposition support. We all recognise that there will be no rapid return to the world we knew before, but what might the journey out of lockdown look like? Lockdown comes with its own risks. Refuge has reported a 25% spike in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, and the number of deaths associated with domestic violence have more than doubled. Will the Minister support our calls for £75 million to be made available to domestic violence charities to support those who are struggling? What assessment have the Government made of current PPE provisions, and other protections that the police will need going forward?
One of the most concerning aspects of the lockdown has been the impact on vulnerable children who risk falling behind their peers, despite the best efforts of our teachers and social workers. The Government must give advice to schools that is based on scientific advice, but will the Minister confirm that they are working on plans to reopen schools with school leaders, education unions and parents? One million children lack access to electronic devices on the internet, which are essential for home learning. Will the Government consider expanding their scheme to provide free devices to children who are in need of them? Will the Minister update the House on efforts to ensure that our most vulnerable children are safe during lockdown?
Let me turn to personal protective equipment and face masks, because the Cabinet Office is responsible for Government procurement. An increasing number of countries are advising the wearing of face masks when out in public. Face masks are now mandatory in shops or on public transport in many German states, and the Japanese Government have sent free face masks to 50 million households. To prepare for that possibility and to learn from the mistakes that the Government made in not stockpiling or sourcing sufficient levels of PPE for NHS and care staff, will the Minister say how many face masks the Government have stockpiled? How many would we need on a monthly basis if they became mandatory out in public? Where has the stockpile been sourced from, and where are additional face masks being produced? What preparations have been made to ensure their effective and fair distribution?
Members across the House will be aware of shortages in PPE in hospitals, care homes, and for other frontline workers in their constituencies. A survey by the Royal College of Physicians has shown that 27% of doctors are still being forced to reuse single-use protective equipment, more than 30% do not have access to protective gowns, and just 50% have access to protective goggles. Does the Minister accept that those statistics from the Royal College of Physicians show the reality for too many doctors?
Following last night’s “Panorama”, how can the Government claim to have delivered 1 billion items of PPE, when that number included counting individual gloves and paper towels? Will the Minister provide the House with a breakdown of those 1 billion PPE items by type, and place a copy in the House of Commons Library today? With huge PPE shortages in care homes, will the Minister say when the so-called “clipper” service will be up and running for local councils to access PPE, with reports that it will not be available for another three weeks?
Is he confident about the standards of PPE in care homes, given that our advice falls below that of the World Health Organisation standard?
We came to the lockdown too late, with inadequate PPE and testing too late, so we want the Government to get the decisions right this time to help people to plan, to ensure that the Government take the right action to prevent infection rates rising again, and to build and maintain the confidence of the public. Will the Government commit to holding talks with teachers, trade unions, businesses and local authorities about how a strategy can be developed in the best interests of public health and the economy? Will the Minister commit to publishing the Government’s next steps?
We stand ready to support the Government. It is in our national interest that we defeat this virus, and the questions posed today are to help the Government and all of us get the answers to these difficult questions right. I hope that, as we come through this, we will build a national recovery plan to help our NHS, public services, businesses, workers, families and communities to recover, to be more resilient, to end austerity and to value, cherish and reward what really matters to all of us, now and in the future.
May I join you, Mr Speaker, in welcoming the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) back to the Front Bench? She demonstrated, in the detailed and thoughtful questions she asked, what an asset she will be to the Opposition in the months to come. I congratulate her on her elevation to the shadow Cabinet—it is richly deserved.
The hon. Lady rightly points out that this is the 72nd year in which the national health service has existed, and she rightly reminds us all that if ever there was an occasion, a moment or a crisis that reminds us how much we need and cherish our national health service, this is it. I underline my thanks to all those who work in the NHS, just as she did.
The hon. Lady asked specifically about social care, and she cited the figures from the Office for National Statistics that have just been produced. Those figures relate to deaths in the week up to 17 April, and they are indeed deeply concerning. The coronavirus pandemic has affected our communities. We have had outbreaks in hospitals and particularly distressing outbreaks in care homes.
The way in which we record deaths in the NHS depends on each NHS trust reporting daily on deaths. Care home deaths are recorded differently through a model that the Office for National Statistics has used that provides us with a weekly update on deaths overall. We will, of course, look at all ways in which we can ensure that we have the most accurate information, but the method that we have used is the one that the national statistician has underpinned as robust and reliable. While we all want information as rapidly as possible, we also need reliable information to ensure that our response is appropriate and adequate. The hon. Lady suggested that we work with the Care Quality Commission and the Office for National Statistics to see if we can improve the collection of data, and we will of course at all times look to ensure that we have data that is both timely and accurate to make sure that we have the right response.
The hon. Lady also mentioned domestic violence, and it is sadly the case that the number of reported incidents, or the number of calls to domestic violence helplines, have shown that there is an increased risk and danger for many under our lockdown stipulations. She rightly drew attention to the fact that as well as the £2 million that we have devoted to charities, the Government have made available an additional £750 million to them. I know that the Minister for safeguarding, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), is talking to the Treasury now about how we can ensure that a proportion of that £750 million can go to those who are at risk of domestic violence.
The hon. Member for Leeds West also asked about vulnerable children. It is absolutely the case that we ensured that schools would remain open so that not just the children of key workers but vulnerable children could attend. However, the proportion of vulnerable children who have been attending school is lower than many of us would want. Detailed work is going on with schools and local authorities to make sure that we can encourage and support more families to ensure that vulnerable children are in school, where they can receive the education and support they need. The Education Secretary will be saying more about that in due course.
It is also the case, as the hon. Lady rightly pointed out, that because of the lockdown measures, there is a risk of increasing educational inequality. Children in homes with access to technology and with parents capable of providing support will find it easier to keep up their learning than those without, which is why we have instituted the virtual academy that I referred to in my statement. It is also why we need to work even harder to ensure that children have the resources they need, and that poorer children and vulnerable children are in school as quickly as possible.
The hon. Lady asked if we would talk to teaching unions and others in education. We will do just that, because part of our effort to ensure that we can have a safe exit from some of the restrictions that we face at the moment will be dialogue with employers, trade unions and others, and her question gives me the opportunity to say how much I appreciated the chance to talk to trade unions in forums organised by Frances O’Grady. In particular, I appreciated the conversation I had with my friend and colleague Len McCluskey, in which he made a number of valuable suggestions about how we as a country could respond more effectively.
The hon. Lady mentioned face masks as part of a broader effort to ensure that we have the right personal protective equipment. As she knows, there is a difference between the high-spec surgical face masks that will be required in NHS and other healthcare settings, and the sorts of face coverings that can ensure that we limit the droplets that each of us might be responsible for producing in particular settings. I can confirm that Lord Agnew, the joint Cabinet Office and Treasury Minister, has launched a domestic effort to ensure that we produce just such masks, and that is part of the broader effort that Lord Deighton is leading on to ensure that we can bolster the production of personal protective equipment.
The hon. Lady asked about the detailed figures on personal protective equipment. The figures that the Government have produced refer to the fact that we have distributed, in the course of this crisis, 143 million masks, 163 million aprons, 1.8 million gowns and 547 million gloves. Depending on the surgical setting, gloves are sometimes delivered in pairs, groups of four, or different consignments. On 26 April, we had delivered over 90 million items of PPE across the health and social care system, and the figure specifically on that day included 1.6 million masks, 5.8 million aprons, 46,000 gowns and 10.5 million gloves.
Of course, it is incumbent on all of us to make sure that we do everything we can to support those on the frontline, and it is in that spirit that I thank the hon. Lady for her questions and look forward to working with her and other colleagues to put our frontline public sector workers first.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the wonderful volunteers and staff at McNair Shirts in Slaithwaite for the PPE gowns that they have produced for local hospitals in Huddersfield and Halifax? Will he also tell me what the Government are doing to improve the local procurement of protective equipment so that local companies and volunteers who are making their own PPE can get it to our frontline staff and carers—the ones who actually need it?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and commend the work of those in his constituency. We have seen a great national effort to support those on the frontline. There has been the establishment of scrub hubs, as individuals have deliberately set out to use their own time, energy and resources to provide additional material for those on the frontline of our NHS. The Government have received over 10,000 offers of support and help with respect to the provision, supply and distribution of personal protective equipment, and we are responding to them all.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Speaker.
May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for prior sight of his statement, albeit at the last possible moment, and gently encourage him to do more to engage with all Opposition parties throughout this pandemic? We have had no communication with him for weeks.
May I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to all those who work in our public services? They go way above and beyond in their duty of care for all nations. I also, of course, welcome the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) to her new place on the Labour Front Bench. I, too, look forward very much to working with her.
Those in our public services should expect our full support and to be given the very best equipment to carry out their heroic and difficult tasks. Last night the nation watched with horror the BBC’s “Panorama” report on a timetable of inaction and unpreparedness. It reported that those working in public services were being sent out to the frontline without the necessary protection, and that the Government were told years ago to stockpile certain PPE to cope with a pandemic but failed to do so.
May I therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman some gentle questions? First, why were we so unprepared? Why were gowns, visors, swabs and body bags left out of the stockpile when it was set up in 2009? Surely cleaning products are not counted as PPE, and there should be no question at all that individual gloves are counted as single PPE items. I also want the right hon. Gentleman to convince me that paper towels are not counted as PPE. The Royal College of Physicians has found that 27% of doctors are reusing, or have used, their PPE. Why are they having to reuse PPE?
The Health Secretary said that 11 million PPE items had been sent to Scotland, which is our responsibility, from the UK pandemic stockpile, but that has now been downgraded to only “committed”. How many items from that 11 million have actually been delivered?
We all want to get behind this Government and to cheer them on when they are doing their best, but we also want them to admit when mistakes are made and to acknowledge shortcomings. Is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster now prepared to acknowledge his shortcomings and admit to some of those mistakes?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions. On the subject of communication between the Government and parties, in nearly all of the 30 meetings that my ministerial implementation group has held, there have been representatives of the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. I have had the opportunity to discuss how we can co-ordinate our response with Scottish Government Ministers including Mike Russell, Aileen Campbell and John Swinney, and it has been a pleasure to do so. They have operated in a collaborative fashion, as have the Labour members of the Welsh Government, and the Democratic Unionist party, Sinn Féin, Ulster Unionist party, Alliance, and Social Democratic and Labour party Ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive.
Indeed, I noted that on Radio 4’s “Westminster Hour” just the other night, the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), the deputy leader of the SNP group in Westminster, paid tribute to the extent of collaborative work. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) does not agree with the deputy leader of his parliamentary delegation and has such little faith in Scottish Government Ministers making sure that priorities are addressed in the daily meetings we have.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the stockpile of personal protective equipment. The stockpile that we had before this pandemic was explicitly designed in accordance with advice from the Government’s scientific advisers on the new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group, and of course it was explicitly for a flu pandemic. The nature of coronavirus is different from that of a flu pandemic, as we all know, and we, like every Government across the world, have had to respond to this new virus by ensuring, not just with personal protective equipment but in every respect, that we are in a position to retool, refit and upgrade our response.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the support that the UK Government are giving to Scotland. I am pleased to confirm that the UK pandemic stockpile has been responsible for transferring millions of items to the NHS in Scotland. It is also the case that the new testing centres in Scotland have been set up with the assistance of the British Army, and that our RAF has been responsible for supporting the Scottish national health service in making sure that individuals in remote island communities can receive the care they need. And, of course, it is the strength of the UK Exchequer that has allowed business support to be provided to Scottish businesses.
One of the truly impressive things about the response across these islands has been the way in which people have put aside their ideological and political differences to work in the interests of one United Kingdom. Even at a time of test and trial for our nations, we should take pride in the efforts of the Northern Ireland, Scottish, Welsh and English people.
May I wholeheartedly join my right hon. Friend in the tribute he paid to NHS staff and all the key workers throughout the four nations of our kingdom? As we draw close to the summer, the agricultural sector’s need for labour is increasing. With reduced access to foreign labour, what steps are the Government taking to support the agricultural sector?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the steps that the Environment Secretary has taken, which I referred to briefly in my statement, is to work with the farming industry in order to ensure that more UK workers can support our farmers to produce the food we need. Whether it is picking asparagus or soft fruit or helping in other ways, thousands of people have stepped up to help our farming sector. It is vital work, and I commend all those who are doing it.
We have seen Wales move ahead of the UK Government in many areas throughout this crisis, but in an effort to ensure greater collaboration, with decisions coming out of the lockdown made equally, the First Minister of Wales has called for a new weekly framework of decision making between the four nations. Will the right hon. Gentleman agree to that proposal, under which officials meet during the first part of the week and Ministers then meet before a final meeting at Cobra?
It is not necessarily appropriate to have a full Cobra meeting every week. When those meetings do occur, we will of course ensure that all representatives—First Ministers or Deputy First Ministers—of the devolved Administrations are invited. I enjoy regular conversations with Mark Drakeford and his colleagues, and I am always happy to discuss with him in any forum the steps that we should take together.
The additional capacity for testing careworkers and their families if they have symptoms of covid-19 is welcome news, but what plans are there to extend that to all careworkers who have been in contact with residents or staff who have covid-19 and to those who work outside the NHS in other care sectors?
The number of tests capable of being administered and being administered has increased significantly in recent days, as we move towards our 100,000 target. My hon. Friend is right: careworkers are at the front of the queue. We now have across the United Kingdom 48 testing centres, each of which will have two military units assigned to them, in order to be able to do mobile testing, and care homes are our first priority.
I want to press the Minister further on what he said to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) about deaths in care homes. He said that “every life is precious”. We know from the CQC that 4,343 people died in care homes between 10 April and 24 April, and that is just up to four days ago. We now know that one in three people are dying from covid in care homes. Why are the Government not doing a better job of valuing every tragic loss and informing policy better by making it a real priority to have up-to-date figures on all deaths from covid-19?
We do value every life. Every life is precious, and the deaths of those in care homes, in our hospitals and in the community are a source of grief, sadness and loss to us all. The figures that we produce are the figures that the Office for National Statistics validates. It is vital that Government figures are supported by the ONS, so that they are robust and detailed, but we will work with everyone constructively to ensure that we have the appropriate data and our response is tailored in accordance with those facts and with the science.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the “Pick for Britain” initiative, but why are the employers being so picky, with many people being told that their services are not required? What assessment has been made of the potential impact of mandatory quarantine on air travellers, which will certainly devastate business travel?
I would hope that all employers will make use of the willing hands available. I am not the most dextrous of Members of this House, but even I was able to help with the tattie howking when I was younger, so all willing hands can help in our fields at this time. On the question of quarantine and how we deal with international travel, it is important that we ensure that we depress the infection curve here, but of course we are keeping under review our approach towards international travellers.
Hundreds of thousands of people working legally in the UK have no recourse to public funds, so stopping work means many have been left with no income at all. Will the Government lift the no recourse to public funds restriction for the duration of this crisis, to give those hard-working families a chance?
I thank my right hon. Friend for the excellent work that he and his colleagues are doing, and particularly the team behind the gov.uk website, which is world-leading in how rapidly updated and comprehensive it is. That is a significant achievement. May I press him, though, and ask that when the time is right—I hope that will be soon—outdoor economy and garden centres, including those in West Sussex, will be in the first wave of modifications? They are important to the emerging mental health crisis, but they are also—if I can put it this way—economically wilting with every day of the peak growing season that they remain closed.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words about the Government Digital Service and gov.uk. The civil servant who leads the work on gov.uk, Jen Allum, been doing a wonderful job in making sure that we can provide people with accurate, timely and comprehensive information. My hon. Friend also makes a valid point about garden centres. One of the things we know about this disease is that it spreads more easily inside than outside and, as the Government reflect on how to lift the current restrictions, that will be an important factor.
On 11 March, I asked the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care whether he would be providing protective equipment for care workers. I was told that the Government were taking that into account. Given the right hon. Gentleman’s Department’s responsibility for procurement, will he please confirm when a full assessment was made of the protective equipment needs of social care providers, when that equipment started to be distributed, and when Clipper, the long-promised central distribution service for local resilience forums, will finally be operational?
New guidance was issued and approved on the appropriate use of personal protective equipment in health and also in social care settings some fortnight ago, and the Clipper service will be there to ensure that all local resilience forums and local service providers can have access to additional personal protective equipment.
Will my right hon. Friend explain how he is working with the devolved Administrations to ensure that all four nations of the UK have the best possible advice in a timely manner to ensure that they are able to deal with this pandemic?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress that working together across the United Kingdom is the right way to deal with this pandemic. The chief medical officers of all four parts of the United Kingdom meet regularly and scientific advice is shared across the United Kingdom. We want to ensure, as we ease any restrictions, that we do so in as united a way as possible, because consistency of messaging is critical to ensuring that all of us see some of our cherished liberties restored while at the same time protecting precious lives.
Today, on International Workers’ Memorial Day, our key workers and public sector workers are even more at the forefront of our minds. A decade of Tory-led austerity has hugely cut apart our public services, which play a crucial part in protecting us from covid-19. Scottish public services have lost out on over £13.9 billion in real terms. Does the Secretary of State agree that the current crisis shows that we need more support for public services, not less?
The hon. Lady is right that we are all reminded of how much we rely on public services, but it is the case that the Scottish Government operate a deficit. The UK Government support the Scottish Government in making sure that public services can be protected. Per capita spending on public services—health and education—is higher in Scotland as a result of the resources that the UK Exchequer provides. This crisis reminds us all that when we work together, while recognising the distinctive nature of each of the four parts of the United Kingdom, we are stronger.
The tourism, leisure and hospitality sector is very important in the Waveney area, and business owners and their staff face serious challenges both while the lockdown is ongoing and once it has been lifted. Notwithstanding the Government’s welcome support packages, some businesses do not qualify, and seasonal workers, who could not be furloughed, face a worrying immediate future. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that he is working in a co-ordinated way with other Departments, the devolved Administrations, local government and industry on a sustained recovery strategy?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; in Lowestoft, Beccles and so many other coastal and near-coastal communities, hospitality and other seasonal sectors will be particularly badly affected by the pandemic. That is very much in the minds of the Chancellor and the Business Secretary, and we will be saying more in due course.
Does the Minister accept that one of the lessons of this crisis is that the Government should collect much more data on a routine basis so that they have a much more informed picture of the reality of life in our care homes?
I think we should collect more data of every kind, make that data open and transparent, and allow people to use that data in a smart way, in order to ensure that we tailor the delivery of public services to those who need them most. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to our amazing frontline public sector workers. Does he agree that anyone who is convicted of spitting or coughing at those key workers, or of threatening them with covid, should receive an immediate custodial sentence?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. My view is that it is up to the police and the criminal justice system to decide the appropriate response in such situations. It is often the case that non-custodial sentences are as effective as custodial sentences for certain offences, and we also need to ensure that our prison estate is kept as free of infection as possible. An appropriate balance needs to be struck, but my hon. Friend presents a fair challenge, and I will share it with the Justice Secretary.
Across Bolsover we have seen many individuals and groups step up and really go above and beyond their duty at this time of national crisis. Will my right hon. Friend’s committee look into the possibility of creating a special honours list for individuals and organisations that have made such a valuable contribution? May I go further and pass on the suggestion of Brian Kirkland, a constituent of mine in Morton, that we should have an annual day to celebrate the work of our NHS staff?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Brian Kirkland’s suggestion is a noble one and I will pass it on to the Prime Minister. Of course, honours are a matter for the Crown, but I am sure that the sentiment my hon. Friend expresses will be well understood across the country.
Recent reports have stated that the contract for the NHS tracking app, which will handle huge amounts of personal and confidential data, is going to be given to the brother of a No.10 data scientist and former vote leave employee and a friend of Dominic Cummings. If this app is to be effective, we need the buy-in from the overwhelming majority of the public. What measures are the Government taking to ensure that trust in this app can be established and maintained?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. It seems to me that whether someone voted leave or remain is irrelevant to the question of their participation in helping us to resolve this crisis. It is my understanding that the app is being developed by NHSX, which is the arm of the NHS responsible for technological innovation under the leadership of the inspirational public servant, Matthew Gould.
I join others in thanking all our key workers, especially those across Chatham and Aylesford, including the many teachers and nursery workers who have worked non-stop, including through the Easter holidays, to keep vulnerable children and children of key workers in schools during this crisis. Will my right hon. Friend join me in also thanking our postmen and women up and down the country, many of whom are trying to work safely in unusual conditions while continuing to provide a service that my own postie describes as similar to the levels at Christmas?
My hon. Friend makes a very, very important point. Postal workers and those who work in the Royal Mail are doing so much to ensure that individuals can keep in touch and that we can all get the goods that we need at this critical time. I am happy to join her in praising postal workers, workers in the Royal Mail, and members of the Communication Workers Union for everything they are doing at this time.
PPE is essential for frontline NHS workers and care staff. May I ask how the Government responded to the offer of the British Chambers of Commerce in March to help co-ordinate spare PPE for businesses and get it to the frontline?
As I mentioned earlier, we have had 10,256 offers overall for support with supply, manufacture and distribution of PPE. We have had 192 specific offers of support for the manufacture of PPE, 30 of which are now being taken forward in order to ensure that the equipment that people want to manufacture will be suitably safe for distribution.
I also want to join the chorus of thanks to our public sector workers for their extraordinary response. In conversation with many of them, I have heard concerns about the changes to the lockdown—[inaudible]. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that conversations with unions will continue and that those unions will be involved in any changes to the lockdown that take place?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an absolutely spot-on point. We will engage with the unions that serve so many public sector workers so well and, as well as engaging with Frances O’Grady and Len McCluskey, we are also grateful for the work of so many other trade union leaders. We will make sure that we work with them in order to ensure that there are safe workplaces for all.
Global experience indicates that widespread community testing is vital in tackling coronavirus. The Welsh Government had secured a deal with Roche to do 5,000 tests a day, which would have put Wales on a similar level of testing per head of some of the best-performing countries in the world only for Wales to be seemingly gazumped by the British Government. The UK Government are building mega labs in England and Scotland. Will they also commit to building a mega lab in Wales?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point. Testing is something that needs to be done in a co-ordinated way across the United Kingdom. It is the case that the incidence of test take-up in some parts of the United Kingdom, particularly in Scotland, has been less than existing capacity. None the less, I am sure that Welsh scientists and Welsh medics will play a role in ensuring that we can test many more in the future.
Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster join me in thanking the Devon and Cornwall police for their proactive approach in preventing people travelling to Cornwall for non-essential purposes, including to visit their second homes and for a holiday? One of the biggest concerns for people in Cornwall is that, as we start to ease the lockdown, we will see an influx of people coming to Cornwall and risk another wave. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that as the Government consider lifting the restrictions, they will come with clear and enforceable travel restrictions to prevent that from happening?
I would like to ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster a question about child sexual abuse and exploitation, and online platform management. Over the weekend, the Internet Watch Foundation reported that there had been an 89% reduction in the number of URLs that were taken down in the past month compared to the previous month, the comparison being 496 in the past month and 14,947 the month before. One of the concerns of the IWF and the industry more widely is the pressure on police in being able to take down indecent images and videos. In his deliberations in the Cabinet Office, will he ensure that the police have enough resources to ensure that children are protected from this form of paedophilia?
The hon. Gentleman raises an incredibly important point. The Home Secretary has updated my ministerial implementation group on some of the increased risks of child abuse during the pandemic. I will report back to our group and to her the very important point he makes.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. As he mentioned, one of the real positives to come out of the past few weeks has been the collaboration and close working between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations, which has avoided confusion and delivered clear, uniform messages and allowed those fighting the virus on the frontline, such as our amazing staff at NHS Grampian, to know that all levels of government are working for them. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that collaborative approach will continue and that it is imperative that all our Governments continue to work closely together, demonstrating that the Union is still working?
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. Of course, we recognise the competence of the devolved Administrations in their respective areas, but in dealing with the pandemic I have been impressed, cheered and reassured by the way in which Ministers in the Scottish and Welsh Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive have recognised that we are all in this together. As we seek to ease the restrictions there at the moment, the closer we can work together the better.
Local authorities like Salford City Council are on the frontline of fighting covid-19, from supporting our social care services to providing food for vulnerable people and supporting local businesses. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said the Government will do whatever it takes to defeat covid-19, but councils are now facing the prospect of not having all their additional costs covered. It is imperative that the Government fully fund the cost of this vital local response. Will the Minister assure me that the Government will do that for Salford City Council?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has been in touch regularly with local authority leaders and chief executives to make sure they have the resources they need and that some of the administrative burdens that are not necessary at this time are lifted. I will pass on to him the particular concerns the hon. Lady expresses on behalf of the citizens of Salford.
My right hon. Friend referred to the work of the Army in his statement and the support that has been provided to local resilience forums. It is fantastic to see them playing their part, as they always do when our country finds itself in need. Will he outline what strategic role they will play moving forward, in particular whether, given their expertise at running operations in the field, they will be utilised to support mobile testing and getting tests to the places we need them?
Absolutely. I join my hon. Friend in thanking our military for all the support they are giving at the moment. It is the case that we have 48 regional test centres up and running. Each has two teams of military capable of dispensing and administering tests at a distance. One thing we are keeping under review is how we can expand that capacity even further in the future. The role of the military has been absolutely vital. I commend, in particular, Alex Cooper, one of the ex-servicemen who has been absolutely critical to making sure that the Department of Health and Social Care can do everything possible to deliver testing.
The Health Secretary promised me nearly two weeks ago that the Government would publish the scientific evidence behind the decision not to self-isolate people arriving at ports and airports, but he has not yet done so. If we look on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies website, there has been no update, it appears, in the publication of the scientific advice and evidence to the Government since 16 March, which is six weeks ago. It is inconceivable that the Government have not received more scientific advice and evidence since then. Given that transparency and trust should be at the heart of what the Government do and that getting these decisions right is crucial, why are the Government still not publishing the scientific evidence and advice?
The first thing to say about flights into this country is that many of them are carrying people who are being repatriated and many of them are carrying the personal protective equipment and other goods that we need here, but, as I mentioned earlier, the prospect of changing our approach is something that we are reviewing at the moment. She makes a broader point about the publication of scientific advice, and it is not for me to dictate what SAGE, NERVTAG—the new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group—or any of our independent scientific committees should or should not do, but I know that our chief scientific adviser has spoken about the importance of building confidence, and more will I am sure be said in due course.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will know how important it will be, as we move into the next phase of dealing with coronavirus, to maintain the high levels of public trust that the Government currently have. To avoid any unnecessary confusion, can he set out for the House, for the purposes of the 100,000 testing target, how the Government define a completed test?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point, and there has been some confusion over capacity and tests administered. The target is tests administered, and the figure for the number of tests administered on Thursday, which is the day we have set for the target, will be published on Saturday.
Our public health departments were once the envy of the world, so will the Minister give the country hope that the Government will reinstate them to their former glory by resourcing them properly and giving them and local authorities immediate access to the SAGE and Cobra planning assumptions, as well as to the NHSX covid-19 data warehouse? No one answer fits all: all local areas are reacting and are at different stages. Can the Minister give assurances?
Can my hon. Friend confirm that, as well as treating patients for covid-19, our NHS is very much there for people needing urgent access to healthcare, and will my right hon. Friend confirm that the NHS is open for business for everybody who needs it? Anybody who is suffering a stroke, a heart attack or other life-threatening conditions should not be deterred from seeking that important medical help.
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. We must do everything we can to encourage people, particularly those with serious conditions such as cancer, to seek support from the NHS. The effective response that the NHS has mounted to the pandemic so far enables us to treat them as well.
Before Parliament rose before the lockdown, I told the Government that the Soapworks company in my constituency was quite happy to provide soap, which we know is hugely important in this pandemic, but Soapworks has not been contacted by the Government. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster please ensure that urgent contact is established with this company in my constituency that wants to play a part in this national effort?
What contingency plans does my right hon. Friend have in place to ensure that our prisons, such as the Mount in my own patch, remain functional, given the increase in staff absences?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Lord Chancellor has ensured that we have a system in prisons where we effectively segment and isolate those who may have the virus. It is also the case that we have ensured that additional capacity has been sourced. There has also been a very targeted early release programme in order to ensure that we manage the estate appropriately.
Community testing and contact tracing will be crucial to keep infection as low as possible in the months ahead. We need an effective system with local understanding of capacity. I am therefore very concerned that the Government’s plans for contact tracing seem to rely on a phone-based system with 18,000 staff who will all be recruited nationally. I learned last week that local authority staff in Ealing and elsewhere have not yet been asked to play a part. So will the Minister confirm today whether they will be asked to play a part in contact tracing, and if so, what role and by when?
Contact tracing is vitally important. It should be done both through the new NHS app that is being developed and through those who are working at Public Health England, and others. But I will consider with the Health Secretary what additional steps may be required.
Across our country we are seeing some incredible displays of community spirit and selflessness. So will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the incredible work of Bishop Auckland’s first unsung hero, Kim Clark, in cooking and delivering over 6,000 meals to the elderly and vulnerable from her very own kitchen?
My constituents have of late been spending more of their time than usual on gardening, with nowhere to dispose of significant waste because of the closure of household waste recycling centres. Will my right hon. Friend consider reopening such centres fairly soon, because they would appear to offer a low risk of infection but considerable amenity to our constituents?
It has been reported that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies—SAGE—includes not one molecular virologist, not one intensive care expert, not one nursing lead or immunologist, and only one member from an ethnic minority. So will the Government publish the criteria and selection process used to identify and appoint members of the SAGE group dealing with covid-19?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning that. I read precisely that statement in The Guardian earlier today, and it is useful for the House to be reminded of it. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies is composed of some of the finest minds in our scientific community, and the criterion for membership is a commitment to doing everything possible to save others’ lives. It seems to me that it does not matter what colour someone’s skin is if they are committed to saving the lives of others.
More than two hours having elapsed since the commencement of hybrid scrutiny proceedings, the Speaker brought them to a conclusion (Order, 21 April).
Point of Order
Order. I have received notice from Mr Steve Baker that he wished to raise a point of order. His point of order is as follows:
“I omitted to declare my registered interest in Glint Pay Ltd before speaking on monetary policy in the second reading debate on the Finance Bill 2020 on 27 April 2020. I wish to declare the interest and to apologise to the House for late declaration.”
I thank the hon. Member for using this means to draw the House’s attention to the matter. Nothing more needs to be said.
I will now suspend the House for 30 minutes to allow Members to safely leave the Chamber and for broadcasting colleagues to make the necessary technical changes prior to the start of the substantive proceedings.
On resuming, the House entered into hybrid substantive proceedings (Order, 22 April).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member contributing virtually.]
Business of the House (28 April)
The following arrangements shall apply to today’s business:
Business Timings Remote Division designation Domestic Abuse Bill: Second Reading Up to two hours; suspension; up to two hours None Domestic Abuse Bill: Programme No debate (Standing Order No. 83A(7)) None Domestic Abuse Bill: Money No debate (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)) None
Remote Division designation
Domestic Abuse Bill: Second Reading
Up to two hours; suspension; up to two hours
Domestic Abuse Bill: Programme
No debate (Standing Order No. 83A(7))
Domestic Abuse Bill: Money
No debate (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a))
(2) At the conclusion of the debate on the Domestic Abuse Bill the Speaker shall put the Question, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Maggie Throup.)
The Deputy Speaker declared the Question to be agreed to (Order B(4), 22 April).
Domestic Abuse Bill
[Relevant documents: Second Report of the Home Affairs Committee, Home Office preparedness for Covid-19: domestic abuse and risks of harm within the home, HC321; First Report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill of Session 2017-19, Draft Domestic Abuse Bill, HC 2075, and the Government responses, CP137 and CP214; Written evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill, reported to the House on 3 April, 10 April and 21 May 2019, HC 570; Letter from Victoria Atkins MP and Edward Argar MP to Harriet Harman MP, dated 20 May 2019; Letter from Harriet Harman MP to Victoria Atkins MP and Edward Argar MP, dated 10 April 2019; Letter from Victoria Atkins MP and Edward Argar MP to Harriet Harman MP, dated 21 January 2019.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is a great pleasure to open this Second Reading debate, albeit with a sense of déjà vu. Those of us who had the privilege of being in the House on 2 October last year will not have failed to be moved by the many powerful contributions we heard, including from the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), who recounted her own very personal and heart-wrenching experience of domestic abuse. She was not alone in showing great courage by bringing home to this House the devastating impact of domestic abuse on the lives of survivors, as this Bill has also brought forth very personal accounts from, among others, the hon. Members for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). On that occasion, I was able to share my own personal experiences, as a young barrister, of domestic abuse. I will not repeat them today, because I have no doubt that we will hear some memorable speeches in this debate—more testimony, adding power to what has already been said.
After the last debate, some Members approached me privately to share with me their own domestic abuse experiences—stories that are still raw and still cannot be told. For many of us, the sounds and sights witnessed in our homes, often as children, still haunt us many years on. The experiences we have heard recounted by Members are, sadly, all too frequently repeated across the country. I have heard no more harrowing account recently than that of Claire Throssell, whom I had the privilege to meet last October. Claire’s young sons, Jack and Paul, were killed at the hands of her abusive partner. No one can imagine the pain and suffering that she has had to endure, but we owe her a debt of gratitude for giving such a powerful voice to the survivors of domestic abuse.
Gratitude is also due to Tracy Graham, a victim of controlling and violent domestic abuse who this year chose to speak out, go public and share her experiences with my local community in Swindon via the new Swindon domestic abuse support service, which I helped to launch just before lockdown, seven weeks ago. Tracy is not only a domestic abuse ambassador for the service, but is volunteering with the local police as well, to help to support domestic abuse victims who are going through what she went through. She truly is an inspirational young woman—one of many who are standing up, stepping forward and sharing their harrowing experiences, to the benefit of current and future survivors and victims.
It is right, in this time of covid-19, to dwell a little on the impact that this pandemic is having on victims of domestic abuse and their families. We are seeing evidence of it in the increased calls to domestic abuse helplines. My local refuge had an increase in referrals of 80% in one week, and the helpline in my local area had an increase in the number of calls of nearly 30%. People are speaking up and speaking out about domestic abuse, but it is happening even at this time of great crisis.
The phrase “Stay at home”, which we so associate with the directions to deal with covid-19, should be words of reassurance and comfort. The home should be a place of safety, both physical and mental. The concept of the home as a refuge is such a strong one, yet for too many people it is not a refuge. At this time of lockdown, that fear, distress and suffering is multiplied. I assure all victims that help is available. The police continue to respond to incidents of domestic abuse, and anyone in immediate danger should not hesitate to call 999 and the emergency services. Where necessary, the existing civil order framework can be used to remove a perpetrator from the family home in order to protect victims of abuse.
We are working with and listening carefully to domestic abuse and victims organisations to make sure that we understand what their most pressing needs and priorities are, and we are committed to ensuring that victims have a comprehensive package of support available. We have launched a new campaign to signpost victims to the support services available and provided an additional £2.6 million to ensure that the national helplines have the capacity to respond to increased demand.
In addition, we are working with the domestic abuse commissioner to ensure that refuges and other organisations that provide frontline support to victims will be able to access the £750 million fund set aside by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to bolster charities that are responding directly to the pandemic. I am happy to say to the House that allocations under the charities package will be made very shortly indeed. The Home Secretary and I have together been very much engaged in tailoring the requests to ensure that help is targeted where it will make the most difference. Having spoken to police and crime commissioners, I know that many are making available extra resources for safe accommodation.
I am grateful to the Home Affairs Committee for the report that it published yesterday on the pandemic’s impact on victims of domestic abuse. I welcome the Committee’s support for our public information campaign and the additional funding. We will of course respond promptly to the Committee’s recommendations.
In short, this is a concerted period of direct action being taken by the Government. Measures are being taken to address directly the concerns that I know the shadow Home Secretary, the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), whom I welcome to his post, will raise in due course.
Let me turn to the Bill, which is necessarily about strengthening protection and support for victims in the longer term. I share the frustration of Members from all parties that we are having to repeat a number of stages of this Bill, which was initially championed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). All parties want to see this Bill on the statute book, but we have to put to good use the time available to us since the election to make it an even stronger Bill than the one that came before the House last October.
The aims of the Bill are fourfold: first, to raise awareness of this insidious crime; secondly, to better protect and support victims and their children; thirdly, to transform the response to the criminal, civil and family justice systems; and, fourthly, to improve performance across all national and local agencies. I shall take those objectives in turn.
If we are to tackle domestic abuse effectively, it is vital that the nature of that abuse is properly understood and recognised. Part 1 of the Bill sets out a statutory definition of domestic abuse. It will apply for the purposes of the whole Bill, but we also expect it to be adopted across all agencies that have a shared responsibility for combating this crime and for helping survivors to rebuild their lives. The definition makes it clear that domestic abuse is not confined to violent or sexual abuse, but includes controlling or coercive behaviour, psychological abuse and economic abuse, too. Identifying and calling out domestic abuse in all its manifestations is just a first step. We then need to protect and support victims. In terms of protection, a number of civil orders are already available to help to safeguard survivors, but the existing landscape of occupation orders, non-molestation orders and domestic violence protection orders is complex, and none are, arguably, wholly adequate to the task.
The new domestic abuse protection order—DAPO—will bring together the best elements of the existing civil order regimes. It will be available in the civil, criminal and family courts. It will be flexible, in that the court will determine the length of an order and decide what prohibitions, and positive requirements too, are appropriate to attach to it, including conditions that may compel the respondent to attend perpetrator programmes or require them to wear an electronic tag. The new DAPO will also have teeth, with a breach of conditions being a criminal offence punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both.
We want to get these new orders right so that they work for victims and their children, the police, the courts and others who will have to operate them. We will therefore be piloting these new orders in a small number of areas before rolling them out nationally.
But protecting victims from abuse is never enough on its own. We also need to ensure that they are effectively supported as they reset their lives. The Bill, as reintroduced, includes a significant new measure to that end. When a victim of abuse has to flee their home and seek sanctuary in a refuge or other safe accommodation, it is not enough simply to provide that person with a safe place to sleep. In such circumstances, victims and their children need access to counselling and mental health support, advice about follow-on housing, help in enrolling children in a new school, or specialist support, such as translation services or access to immigration advice. We know that refuges and other providers of safe accommodation struggle to provide such support so, to plug that gap, the Bill will place new duties on tier 1 local authorities in England. Under part 4 of the Bill, such local authorities will be required to assess the need for accommodation-based support for all victims of domestic abuse and their children in the area. Having identified that need, the relevant local authorities will then be required to develop, publish and give effect to a strategy for the provision of such support in their locality.
Of course, these new duties will come at a cost—some £90 million a year, we estimate. I assure the House that my right hon. Friend the Housing Secretary is committed to ensuring that local authorities are appropriately resourced as part of the spending review.
I know from my own experience of the legal system that appearing as a witness in criminal, civil or family proceedings can be—shall we say—a daunting experience, so we need to make sure that the victims of domestic abuse can give their best evidence in court. In the criminal courts, that often means being able to give evidence hidden from view of the alleged perpetrator or via a video link. The Bill provides that these and other so-called special measures will be automatically available to victims. In the family courts, for a long time, there have been calls for a bar on the practice of perpetrators being able to cross-examine in person the victims of domestic abuse. Such an experience is bound to be traumatising for victims—it must stop. We have listened to the views of the Joint Committee that examined the draft Bill. Indeed, the Bill as reintroduced now extends the circumstances in which the automatic prohibition on cross-examination in person applies, which is a welcome further step to safeguard and prevent the perpetuation of abuse through the courts.
I know that there are wider concerns about the experiences of victims of domestic abuse in the family courts, which was why we established last year a specialist panel to examine how effectively the family courts respond to allegations of domestic abuse and other harms in private law proceedings, including around the provision of special measures. I aim to publish very shortly the panel’s recommendations, together with the Government’s response. One way we can improve the experiences of victims is by better integrating domestic abuse-related proceedings right across the various jurisdictions in our courts.
With that in mind, we committed in our manifesto to pilot integrated family and crime domestic abuse courts. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor set aside £5 million in his March Budget to allow that important pilot to progress. Again, I expect to be able to inform the House soon as to how the trial of these new integrated domestic abuse courts will be taken forward. I will take a close personal interest, to make sure that there is a genuine bringing together of the jurisdictions around the victim, around the family—around those people who need the support and benefit of any orders and sanctions that the court might impose.
It is not only the courts where there is room for improvement. The new independent domestic abuse commissioner will help drive consistency and better performance in the response to domestic abuse right across the relevant local and national agencies. The relevant agencies will be under a statutory duty to co-operate with the commissioner, and will be required to respond within 56 days to any recommendations that the commissioner makes. We are lucky to have Nicole Jacobs, who brings a wealth of experience to the role, and I fully expect her to perform her functions without fear or favour.
I know that, on the previous Second Reading, a number of hon. Members argued for the post to be full time. We reviewed—with Nicole Jacobs—the appropriate time commitment for this role and have now extended it from three to four days per week. The Minister for safeguarding, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), will keep this matter under review as we transition to the statutory arrangements provided for in part 2 of the Bill.
We did not want to wait until the Bill became law to make that appointment, and I am very glad we did not, because Nicole Jacobs is already making a huge difference. One area where we want to draw on her experience is in the provision of community-based support. As I described, the provisions in part 4 of the Bill will make sure that victims of domestic abuse in safe accommodation receive the support they need, but of course most victims of abuse remain in their own home, and they need to be able to access appropriate support while doing so.
Victim support services are provided in the community by police and crime commissioners, local authorities and other agencies, but the landscape is, frankly, complex, and there are undoubtedly gaps in the current provision. In order to determine what action needs to be taken, we must better understand the existing routes by which these services are commissioned and funded. To that end, the domestic abuse commissioner has agreed to undertake an in-depth exploration of the current community-based landscape of support. Once we have her findings and recommendations, we will work with her to understand the needs identified and to develop the right options for how best to address them.
Finally, I will say a few words about the amendments put forward in the last Session by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) and the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). It is absolutely right that we reinforce current case law that a person cannot consent to violence that leads to serious injury or death. To be clear, there is no such thing as the rough sex defence. I had a productive meeting with both Members to discuss the issue, and, as I made clear to them, we are looking at how best to address it. It is a complex area of criminal law, and we need to ensure that any statutory provisions have the desired effect and do not have any unintended consequences; we do not want to inadvertently create loopholes or uncertainties in the law that can then be exploited by those who perpetrate crimes. I am confident that we will be able to set out our approach in time for Report, and I am grateful for the continuing constructive engagement on this important and sensitive issue.
Domestic abuse is one of the most prevalent crimes in our society—let us be honest and frank about that. It is staggering that some 2.4 million people experience domestic abuse each year, and unforgivable that, on average, more than two individuals, the majority of whom are women, are killed each and every week in a domestic homicide.
Tackling domestic abuse needs to be everyone’s business, from prevention to protection to prosecution to support. Legislation alone can never have all the answers, but I believe that this landmark Bill will make a significant contribution and I commend it to the House.
I would like to put on record my thanks to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, the Speaker, the House authorities and all staff for facilitating the sitting of the House in these most unusual circumstances.
I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor for his welcome. He and I have debated many times at the Dispatch Box in various roles, and I look forward to continuing to do so in future. I also look forward to debating with the Home Secretary when she is next in Parliament.
The Lord Chancellor was absolutely right to pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) and for Bradford West (Naz Shah) for their very moving speeches in October, when the Bill was last before the House.
I welcome the Bill’s return to us today, in these extraordinary circumstances. The Opposition support it, and it is entirely right that, even in the midst of this crisis, we send the strongest possible message that tackling the appalling crime of domestic abuse remains a priority and that some of the urgently needed provisions in the Bill can progress.
However, it is not without bitter irony that we face the prospect of pushing forward with the Bill in such a constrained timeframe. After all, it was as far back as March 2018 when the Lord Chancellor’s predecessor but one, who no longer sits in this House, announced the initial consultation for the Bill, and it was promised long before that. The wait has been too long for those desperately needed provisions, and many others besides, that should be included in the Bill. I will come back to that.
The lockdown has changed patterns of crime. Over the weekend, the National Crime Agency announced that it had alerted the police to 1,300 potential child sexual abuse cases and that it had also recently arrested a British man possessing indecent images of children who was attempting to re-enter the UK from the Philippines. That paints a worrying picture and we must do all in our power to stop such abuses and prevent them from ever taking place. I pay tribute to the NCA, particularly its director general, Lynne Owens, who is leading the fight to tackle those heinous crimes.
Isolating victims from the support of others is what the perpetrators of domestic abuse often seek to do, so it is sadly no surprise that the coronavirus crisis and the lockdown required to deal with it have produced the conditions in which domestic abuse has sharply increased. At the end of last week, the Metropolitan police reported that in the six weeks up to 19 April, officers across London had made 14,093 arrests for domestic abuse offences—nearly 100 a day on average—and domestic abuse calls had risen by around a third. At the same time, the national domestic abuse helpline has experienced a 25% increase in calls and online requests for help.
Clearly, the warning signals of abuse are flashing red. We have been seeing and hearing those warnings from the domestic abuse sector since the start of the crisis. Asking people to stay at home when home might not be a safe place is clearly a huge challenge. Add to that the massive operational challenge that the need for social distancing creates for refuges and related services and the drop-off in charity funding, and it is clear that services for some of the most at-risk people face extraordinary difficulty. That is why I have been clear since becoming the shadow Home Secretary that the Government must take action on tackling domestic abuse and supporting the wider sector that deals with violence against women and girls.
Government action, such as the £2 million of funding for a helpline, is welcome, as is the You Are Not Alone public campaign, but it is not enough to provide the emergency support necessary. For a start, that £2 million needs to reach the frontline. We will work constructively and responsibly, and we have repeated the offer to discuss what can be done to fast-track that support.
One of my first priorities was to meet representatives from the sector with the shadow Domestic Violence and Safeguarding Minister. Many of those women have put themselves in harm’s way throughout their working lives to stand up for people who are facing abuse, and that is even more true in the middle of the current crisis. The message they gave me was absolutely clear: not only does the coronavirus crisis seem to be pushing up the rate of domestic abuse, but it is putting extraordinary pressure on the services that people turn to for help. Refuges face a massive challenge in keeping their doors open while sticking to the social distancing rules. We are asking people to do the right thing and stay at home, so it is only right that the country is there to support the people put at direct risk by those measures.
The Government have yet to engage fully, and the action does remain too slow. It is our intention to try to set out in Committee amendments that would guarantee rapid support for the domestic abuse charities from the £750 million fund that the Chancellor announced to support charity work. I would like to say from the outset that that in itself is an inadequate amount, and I urge the Chancellor to think again. The Lord Chancellor mentioned making allocations, but let me make this suggestion to him. First, a dedicated proportion of the £750 million should be ring-fenced for domestic abuse and the wider violence against women and girls sector. We say 10%, which is not unreasonable and would keep services going. Secondly, a system should be in place to fast-track that investment to the frontline before charities have to close their doors for being oversubscribed or unable to pay their staff. Thirdly, an element of support should be earmarked for specialist services such as BAME services run with and for migrant women, men who are at risk of or suffering domestic abuse, and specialist LGBTQ services.
I do not want to stand here and criticise the Government. I want the Minister to show the grip and urgency that the challenge requires and needs urgently. It cannot be right that vital services for the most at-risk people are in the position of turning people away because of a lack of funding. As I set out in my recent letter to the Home Secretary, there are a range of ways that the Government can help the sector, such as co-ordinating access to under-used existing accommodation; ensuring that support workers have access to PPE; providing technological support; and ensuring that women are not trapped in abusive situations because they have no recourse to public funds. That requires grip and a more joined-up cross-Government approach. We have seen that happening in the devolved Administrations, such as the £1.2 million fund created by the Welsh Government to purchase community accommodation for victims, to enable move-on accommodation and prevent lack of bed spaces in refuges or, indeed, to provide other accommodation when a refuge is not the right answer. In London, the Mayor has dedicated £4 million to the London community response fund, taking the total to £16 million to help the capital’s community and voluntary organisations. The lesson is that, with political will, these changes can be made. The need is now and the Government must respond to that challenge.
I turn to the Bill itself. It clearly is, as the Lord Chancellor set out, a step forward to have a statutory definition in the first clause of the Bill that also includes, in addition to violent and sexually threatening behaviour, controlling and coercive behaviour and other forms of abuse, including economic, psychological and emotional. I welcome the appointment of a domestic abuse commissioner and pay tribute to the work that Nicole Jacobs is doing as designate commissioner, alongside the work of the Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, and indeed the children’s commissioners across the UK. I welcome the domestic abuse protection orders and the notices, although I hope that they will be accompanied by support, training and resources our officers need. On the family courts, I agree with the Lord Chancellor that the prohibition of cross-examination of victims by perpetrators in person is welcome and long overdue, and I remember speaking on it myself in the Prisons and Courts Bill, which fell before the 2017 general election. I am glad the wait will not be even more protracted.
We will look to improve the Bill in Committee, and the sector must have its full say in giving evidence to the Committee. That process of scrutiny would be far more effective if we had more information before us. The Home Office has undertaken a review of how migrant women, especially those with no recourse to public funds, interact with domestic abuse provision. Having that review available to members of the Committee is very important.
The second issue on which there is a currently unpublished review is the family courts. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, it was thought that the family justice review panel would report this spring on how the family courts protect children and parents in cases of domestic abuse and other serious offences. Again, having that available would greatly enhance the Committee stage.
A victim is a victim. We will press the Government on protections for disabled victims. We cannot tolerate a situation where victims with insecure migrant status are not only prevented by that from coming forward, but actually have it used against them by someone abusing them. That is why, as I have argued, the Government should suspend the system of no recourse to public funds during the coronavirus crisis, so that victims can get the support they need, not only in their interests but in all our interests in this public health emergency.
In Committee, we will also press the Government on a clear statutory duty on public authorities in England and Wales to commission specialist domestic abuse support and services for all people affected by domestic abuse, regardless of status. That should include a duty on the Secretary of State to provide sufficient funding. The duty should be to all who are affected by domestic abuse, including those with insecure immigration status, children and young people. Let us make sure, too, that there are perpetrator programmes with proper quality assurance as to their standard.
We will also push the Government on measures on post-separation abuse. In fact, it is often the case that when perpetrators lose control of the situation, their behaviour becomes even more extreme and the victims require greater protection. I say to the Lord Chancellor that although there are existing laws, such as the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, more is required to be done to tackle the threat to people even after the particular relationship has ended. We will press that in Committee.
The Bill contains a series of measures that will clearly have wide support across the House. I pay tribute to all those people who worked on it, particularly in the last Parliament, including, on these Benches, my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who pushed it forward with her characteristic passion and determination. She is not sat in the House today, but I am sure she will be watching at home. She should have our thanks for the way that she conducted herself.
I implore the Government to keep an open mind in Committee as to how the Bill can be improved. If they decide that they want to ignore all the suggestions for improvement, that will be an extraordinarily grave mistake. The Bill is a real opportunity to consensually make vital changes in the interests of victims and potential victims up and down the country.
We should remember, too, that many services that we rely on to respond to the crisis, and to support women and girls at risk of violence, have faced a toxic cocktail of cuts to policing and preventive services for a decade. We did not go into the crisis with the resilience that we would all have hoped for.
I conclude by giving my deepest thanks to the frontline workers who are doing so much to keep our communities safe and who are working especially hard to protect those most at risk. They deserve all our gratitude and respect for all that they do, putting themselves at risk to keep us all safe.
Desperate as these circumstances are, I say to anyone who is at home and afraid: they are not alone. Since taking up this role, I have made it my priority to speak to senior and frontline officers, who all assured me that tackling domestic abuse remains exactly where it should be—right at the top of their priority list—and that anyone who feels that they need their support should reach out. The message that should go out from this House today is that they are not alone.
As you can imagine, a lot of people have put in to speak in this debate, so we are introducing a five-minute limit, apart from for the SNP Front-Bench spokesperson. Those contributing from outside the Chamber will not be able to see the clock, so I hope they have their own timers visible to them, because we have to be strict in order to get as many people in as we possibly can. I call Theresa May.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
May I add my thanks to all those who have made this hybrid debate possible, because this Bill is hugely important? Domestic abuse damages lives. It can cost lives and it can scar adults and children for the rest of their lives. Of course, it also costs our society and economy dear. We all owe a debt of gratitude to those who have had courage to speak out about their experiences. I would also like particularly to commend the hon. Members for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) and for Bradford West (Naz Shah) for their contributions to the debate on 2 October.
This Bill is an incredibly important opportunity for us to ensure that we improve the legislative environment for dealing with domestic abuse and that, by doing so, we improve the response of Government and other agencies. If we get it right, it will not only improve people’s lives; it will save lives.
It is important, as those on the Front Benches have said, that we are debating this Bill during the covid-19 crisis, because as covid-19 has required people to stay at home, to be locked down in their homes, it has set an environment where perpetrators have greater freedom to act, where victims find it harder to leave an abusive situation. The figures are clear: domestic abuse increases during lockdown.
We know, as the Justice Secretary told us, that the services are still there. The police are still there to respond to reports of domestic violence. We must reiterate today that the lockdown legislation specifically allows people to leave home to escape the risk of harm, so those who are in a domestic abuse situation can leave and seek the support they need. What we must also recognise, however, is that it is much harder for them to leave and t