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Covid-19: Support for Extremely Vulnerable People

Volume 675: debated on Tuesday 28 April 2020

What steps his Department is taking to enable local authorities to provide (a) food and (b) other support to people who have been identified as clinically extremely vulnerable during the covid-19 outbreak. (901978)

What steps his Department is taking to enable local authorities to provide (a) food and (b) other support to people who have been identified as clinically extremely vulnerable during the covid-19 outbreak. (901979)

What steps his Department is taking to enable local authorities to provide (a) food and (b) other support to people who have been identified as clinically extremely vulnerable during the covid-19 outbreak. (901985)

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 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.

I must explain that Minister Clarke has not been able to get connected and I must thank Minister Chris Pincher for stepping in—I now call him to answer the substantive question tabled by Yvonne Fovargue.