House of Commons
Wednesday 29 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 Secretary of State was asked—
Covid-19: Developing Countries
I would first like to put on record my congratulations and that of all in the House on the safe arrival of the Prime Minister and Carrie Symonds’s son this morning.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House with the following announcement. The coronavirus pandemic shows the vital role that vaccines play in protecting us against disease. The UK is today committing new support to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. The UK’s pledge of the equivalent of £330 million a year for the next five years continues our leadership and commitment to global health security. The UK’s pledge will help to ensure the delivery of life-saving vaccinations in 68 countries, saving lives and strengthening health systems. It will therefore help to protect the UK and our NHS from future waves of coronavirus. I look forward to the UK-hosted Vaccine Alliance summit on 4 June, which will help to raise all the funds that Gavi needs to vaccinate 300 million children and save up to 8 million lives.
The United Nations has warned that the world is at risk of widespread famine “of biblical proportions”, with the number suffering from hunger potentially rising from 135 million to 250 million due to coronavirus. What discussions is the Secretary of State having across the international community to work to alleviate this humanitarian catastrophe?
Coronavirus is a global crisis that knows no borders and will have a profound effect on all countries, including the most vulnerable. That is why the UK is leading the international response and providing £744 million of UK aid to counter the health, humanitarian and economic impacts. I have mobilised my Department and our country offices to do whatever it takes to help tackle this pandemic and the secondary risks. We have the funding, the expertise and the British determination to stand by our friends in developing countries to prevent a second wave of infection.
During the coronavirus pandemic, it is imperative that countries and communities engage co-operatively with one another to avoid a scramble to procure goods, personal protective equipment and medical equipment and ensure that there is not a worldwide shortage that prices out the world’s most vulnerable. In the light of the announcement made by the President of the United States about ending funding to the World Health Organisation, can the Secretary of State outline what representations she and her Government have made to him regarding the need to follow collaborative principles, which will benefit us all?
The UK has confidence in the WHO and the work that it is doing globally to bring together every country to do the best they can to look after their communities and citizens. The WHO is co-ordinating PPE for all those countries, and we are supporting it by putting funding into the central pot, so that it can ensure that the countries that are most in need will have the PPE that they require.
Covid-19: Aid Programmes
There is no country better equipped to help the world out of this crisis than the UK. Over the past 10 years, this Government have made the Department for International Development a global leader in international development and reaffirmed its commitment as one of the world’s biggest development donors. It is no surprise that the UK is at the forefront of the global response and has committed up to £744 million of UK aid so far, including the highest level of funding for the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to find a vaccine. We are working with other donors and refocusing our programmes on the urgent response to coronavirus.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s Gavi announcement. Does she agree that the long-term outlook for DFID’s joint funding of vaccine research projects—with, for example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—will be more secure with a separate international aid department than if DFID were merged into the Foreign Office?
Our response to covid-19, including on vaccines, treatments and testing, is a great example of joint working between DFID and the FCO, as well as with Department of Health and Social Care and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy experts. We are able to combine our world-class diplomatic network with DFID’s global leadership on development. We are proud of the UK’s close partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, including on the Wellcome therapeutics accelerator initiative, to which we committed up to £40 million with the aim of bringing 100 million courses of covid-19 treatment to those who will need it the most in 2020.
I welcome DFID’s announcement on supporting efforts to curb the spread of covid-19, but we need to increase support for non-governmental organisations. They have been granted just £20 million, but say they need £100 million to move quickly and effectively to mitigate the effects of this humanitarian crisis. Today, I have sent a cross-party letter signed by more than 100 parliamentarians from both Houses calling for further funding to be made available. The world looks to the UK in terms of international response, so will the Secretary of State reconsider NGO funding?
So far, we have made commitments in three areas of funding for resilience of vulnerable countries through international appeals, from the World Health Organisation, UNICEF and the UNHCR, and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, to which we have pledged £55 million. We are doing a £100 million project with Unilever, for which DFID is providing £50 million, to help to reach more than 1 billion people with sanitation training and tools. That goes alongside more than £300 million which we are providing for vaccines and therapeutics. DFID continues to lead the way forward in how all countries must help to tackle this great invisible killer.
With virtually no testing capabilities, limited supplies of ventilators and scarce hospital beds, the impact of the coronavirus on the millions of refugees who are living in overcrowded camps will be catastrophic. Since my letter highlighting this state of affairs at the start of the month, what steps has the Secretary of State taken to increase spaces for screening, isolation and quarantine for the world’s most vulnerable people?
In these early stages, DFID has led the world in its commitment to supporting organisations that can reach in to the most vulnerable communities, including the Refugee Council. We have provided £75 million to the WHO, £25 million to UNICEF and £20 million to the UNHCR as initial commitments to help those who we hope are most able to reach the most vulnerable as quickly as possible.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Bond’s recent covid-19 survey reveals that 86% of UK NGO members are cutting back or considering cutting back in-country work, so how is DFID making sure that 30 years of work in alleviating poverty does not unravel as health systems come under more strain in lower-income countries?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. There is a real challenge for those of us who are committed to helping vulnerable countries to become stronger and more self-sufficient. We have had to bring some of our team home, but many are still in country. We are finding as many ways as possible to support in-country work on the economic and the healthcare sides, to make sure that those countries do not fall over and that the work that has painstakingly been built up to help them to develop in strength and self-sufficiency does not go backward.
East Africa: Food Security
The devastating locust outbreak in east Africa has paralysed communities that are already facing the daily threat of starvation. With British expertise and funding, we are supporting the international effort to track, stop and kill dangerous swarms of locusts. With rising temperatures driving the infestations, Britain is stepping up to help vulnerable communities to prepare for and adapt to the catastrophic impact of climate change.
As the Secretary of State says, millions of people in east Africa already live with food insecurity, and poor seasonal rains recently have been followed by the locust infestation. Can the Secretary of State use the DFID budget to provide urgent food aid of nutritional quality to people who, through no fault of their own, face the most basic problem?
DFID programmes are supporting enhanced regional trade and access to nutritional food in east Africa. In Ethiopia, the UK is supporting the productive safety net programme to provide food and cash to 8 million of the poorest people, and the UK’s recent £12 million contribution to UNICEF will provide malnourished children with nutritious food. We continue to work with Governments in the region to ensure that essential supplies reach those in need.
Covid-19: Education for Girls
The Government are steadfast in our commitment to ensuring that girls throughout the world receive 12 years of quality education. As well as supporting multilateral education programmes, the UK Girls’ Education Challenge, which has projects that span 17 of the world’s poorest countries and reaches over a million marginalised girls, is responding to the current pandemic. British expertise is working so that schools are able to reopen without further delay when it is safe to do so.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, whether in Dudley or Malawi, one of the key success factors impacting on children’s education is that parents understand the value of education? If so, what is the Government’s approach in relation to that specific point?
As we all know, parents are a key success factor in children’s learning around the world. UK aid programmes draw on evidence that shows that school attendance and learning can improve when parents and children know about the benefits of education to incomes and when they have local information about the choice of school quality. DFID programmes also address the cost and time barriers to education, especially for girls, to promote the vital role of teachers in children’s learning.
Ebola showed the wider impact of infectious diseases on women, because schools closed and teenage pregnancies spiked, but the impact of covid-19 will be even greater in overpopulated refugee camps. In Bangladesh, nearly 1 million Rohingya now live in cramped conditions in Cox’s Bazar, with 70,000 people per square kilometre. In that tiny area, women’s education suffers, but gender-based violence will also rise—similar to the current pattern in the United Kingdom. What specific action is the Secretary of State taking to deal with that issue?
The covid crisis has removed 1.5 billion children from school, putting the most disadvantaged girls at risk of dropping out of school permanently. School closures will significantly reduce learning hours, particularly for the most disadvantaged children, and we risk many dropping out permanently. Prior to the crisis, 258 million children and young people globally were already out of school—over half of them girls. The Ebola crisis showed us that female pupils bear the brunt of school closures during disease outbreaks, leading to higher levels of sexual exploitation, abuse, teenage pregnancy and early marriage, so we will continue to prioritise education for all as part of the international response.
Science can help us to deal with this crisis. To date, the UK has committed more than £330 million to innovative research and development of vaccines, rapid diagnostics and promising therapeutics for the coronavirus. The UK is the world’s top donor to CEPI, which is helping to produce a vaccine, including at Oxford and Imperial. We are also funding innovative research on virus tests and antibody tests right here in the UK, which could be suitable for use in developing countries. On Friday, the UK proudly stood with the WHO, the UN and 20 countries to work for global access to vaccines to end the pandemic, save lives and start the global economic recovery.
Carshalton and Wallington residents know that the development of a coronavirus vaccine is the greatest opportunity to save lives across the world. Will the Minister confirm that the UK is one of the largest global donors to the international Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which is at the fore- front of this global research?
I can confirm that the UK Government have committed £250 million to the international Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, to rapidly develop coronavirus vaccines. This is the largest contribution of any country to CEPI’s covid-19 efforts to date, and it is a major contribution to global efforts to accelerate vaccine discovery. In ensuring that a vaccine is available to all, including the world’s poorest countries, we are asking all Governments to contribute to this important international goal as a down payment against the wider funding needs of the covid-19 response.
We have all witnessed the battle for access to the drug Orkambi for children in this country. What consideration have the Government given to requests for a patent-free vaccine, thus ensuring that the millions of pounds ploughed in by British taxpayers recognise the truly global nature of the crisis and secure a vaccine for all, rather than a fight over excessive pricing and huge profits for four or five pharmaceutical corporations?
This is a very important point because of course a globally accessible vaccine, alongside effective tests and treatments, is needed to end this global pandemic and to start global economic recovery. This will need unprecedented global collaboration and resourcing to drive the speed and scale that are needed, and the UK is at the forefront of global efforts to meet this challenge. Now is the time for us to come together to develop and deliver vaccines, tests and treatments that are safe, effective, affordable and accessible to all.
The UK is the World Health Organisation’s second largest funder, yet that agency has been found wanting and subject to political interference by the Chinese Communist party. After this pandemic, will the Government look at a new world health order, as suggested by the recent Foreign Affairs Committee report?
My hon. Friend is right to recognise that international co-operation is absolutely vital to tackle covid-19. That is why we are working with the WHO and other international organisations to develop and deliver a globally accessible vaccine, alongside effective tests and treatments, and because of this we want to ensure they are safe, effective, affordable and accessible for all, including the world’s poorest.
This week is World Immunisation Week. Every year millions of lives are saved thanks to immunisations, and it is recognised widely as one of the most successful and cost-effective health interventions. With DFID funding going into the global effort to tackle this health crisis, can the Secretary of State explain what safeguards she has implemented to ensure that UK public contributions to the research into and development of covid-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines will be guaranteed to every person, and to assure the British public that public money is not just going into lining the pockets of big pharmaceutical companies?
Of course, while we are focusing on covid-19, there is the broader issue of vaccines. The UK is already one of the biggest global donors. To date, we have pledged £744 million to support the international response to covid-19. We have also funded £40 million for the Wellcome and Mastercard therapeutics accelerator initiative, up to £23 million for the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, and up to £5 million through the joint initiative on research for epidemic preparedness. Because we are faced with a global pandemic, we absolutely need an international response, and it is about making sure that vaccines reach all those who need them.
Covid-19: Overseas Territories
We will always stand by the overseas territories. A range of Government Departments, led by DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, are supporting the overseas territories to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. Support includes essential medical supplies, public health advice, security and access support, and financial aid to mitigate the economic impact in the most vulnerable territories.
The Royal Navy is providing a pivotal role in providing medical assistance to British overseas territories. Will the Minister join me in recognising the dedication and skill of the servicemen and women of RFA Argus, which is providing that medical assistance to the Caribbean?
I know that my hon. Friend takes a keen interest in defence matters, and I absolutely do agree that the Royal Navy continues to provide great service to the territories, particularly in the Caribbean. I, too, commend the servicemen and women of RFA Argus, who are providing vital support to the overseas territories. RFA Argus is boosting the resilience of the territories as they prepare for hurricane season. The FCO and DFID are providing further support to the territories to help deal with the impact of covid-19. In addition, an MOD security assistance team will be supporting local authorities in some of the territories as they respond to the coronavirus.
Developing Countries: Sanitation and Hygiene
Hand washing with soap and water, as we are all recognising, is the first line of defence against coronavirus transmission. The UK has world-leading commercial and scientific expertise on water, sanitation and hygiene. DFID has launched a £100 million scheme with British soap company Unilever to promote hygiene in developing countries, and has given a further £20 million to UNICEF to strengthen its coronavirus response in these areas. We are helping people around the world to defeat this virus.
The International Rescue Committee has highlighted that hand-washing facilities are absolutely crucial in preventing the spread of diseases in the developing world. Our experience of Ebola shows that NGOs currently working on the ground are best placed to scale up an emergency response, so I welcome the funding given to the Red Cross and others, but what plans does the Secretary of State have to increase funding to other local NGOs working within communities?
Good hygiene is the single most effective action an individual can take to prevent covid-19 transmission; that is absolutely an important point. Water sanitation and hygiene are a key part of DFID’s work and vital in humanitarian crises. DFID funds the provision of safe water and sanitation in disaster areas across the globe. Since 2015, DFID has helped over 51 million poor people in Africa and Asia get access to a drinking water supply or toilet for the first time. But we recognise there is still more to do.
Covid-19: Nutrition Programmes
The UK has long been a world leader when it comes to nutrition, which is why I am looking forward to supporting the Nutrition for Growth summit later this year. We are working hard to stop poor diets making people in developing countries more vulnerable to coronavirus, and we will not allow malnutrition to exacerbate the crisis. For example, we are working through UNICEF to get life-saving supplies to treat acute malnutrition in children across the Sahel, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen.
As the Minister said, malnourished people are clearly at a greater risk of serious health problems due to coronavirus than healthy people. How is DFID specifically supporting its partners to adapt their nutritional programmes in the light of covid-19 and working to minimise disruption to supply chains so that we do not see a surge in malnutrition cases?
This is an important point. We know that for every percentage point contraction in global GDP from covid-19 we would expect to see as a result, sadly, up to an additional 4 million stunted children, and acute malnutrition is likely to increase. Between 2015 and March 2019, DFID reached 50.6 million women, adolescent girls and young children with nutrition services in 25 countries, and this includes life-saving treatment for acute malnutrition.
Global Supply Chains
Keeping supply chains open is essential for British consumers to access what they need. It will also help British business to bounce back quickly. We must protect the lives and livelihoods of people in developing countries who work in those supply chains, so we are working across Government within the G20, the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank on development-focused trade support, including flows of medical supplies. We are also working with British business to support vulnerable communities overseas that provide goods to the UK.
Domestic and international supply lines will clearly be crucial to the economic recovery of both ourselves and the world as we bounce back from coronavirus. Is the Minister working with colleagues from the Department for Transport and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to also support logistics firms such as those in my constituency and the vital role that they perform in keeping our country running and open for international business?
I thank the logistics firms across the country, particularly those in Runnymede and Weybridge, for the work that they do. This ministerial team will continue to work with the Department for International Trade to keep supply chains open so that firms can restart exporting as soon as the operating context allows. We will also work with the Department for Transport and BEIS to understand the impacts on UK logistics firms and the critical role that they play in facilitating trade.
The pandemic is affecting supply chains across the world at the moment, including those that provide vital goods to the UK and businesses in Gloucestershire. What is my hon. Friend doing to make sure that the work in the affected industries in developing countries is supported during the crisis?
We are engaging with businesses in the UK and in developing countries to understand the challenges that they face to protect incomes and livelihoods. For example, in Bangladesh, through the better jobs in Bangladesh programme, DFID will be supporting 1,000 factories and their workers to return to work safely when they are able to do so. We are also urgently examining what funding is needed and how we can have the biggest impact working in partnership with businesses and addressing these issues in the most vulnerable countries.
The Prime Minister was asked—
We now come to questions to the Prime Minister. On behalf of everyone in the House of Commons, may I say congratulations to the Prime Minister and Carrie Symonds on the birth of their son? It is such happy news amid such uncertainty—2020 is certainly a year that they will never forget. I will call the First Secretary of State to answer the engagements question. I call James Cartlidge virtually.
I have been asked to reply on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. As Members will have seen and as Mr Speaker has explained, the Prime Minister and his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, have announced the birth of a healthy baby boy this morning. Both mother and baby are doing well, and I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending congratulations and our very best wishes to them.
The whole House will also want to join me in paying tribute to the 85 NHS workers and the 23 social care workers who have sadly died from coronavirus. My deepest sympathies are with their families and their friends at what is an incredibly difficult time, and we will continue to do whatever it takes to support them.
I am sure the whole House will also want to join me in wishing Captain Tom Moore, who has done so much in raising £29 million for NHS charities, a very happy 100th birthday tomorrow. His life of service for his country and his dedication to helping others is an inspiration to us all.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) notes, it is because we have taken the right measures at the right time that we have flattened the peak of this virus and prevented the NHS from becoming overwhelmed—the two single most important elements of this strategy that we have delivered. That has meant that the NHS has had capacity to deal not just with covid-19 patients but other urgent treatments. My hon. Friend is also right to say that as we move forwards towards a second phase, we must plan to ensure that the NHS is able to deliver elective surgery and to treat patients with other conditions, which is exactly what we are planning to do.
May I add my congratulations, the congratulations of the Labour party and, I am sure, of everybody in this House to the Prime Minister and Carrie Symonds on the birth of their baby boy? Whatever differences we have in this House, as human beings I think we all recognise the anxiety that the Prime Minister and Carrie must have gone through in these past few weeks—unimaginable anxiety—so I really hope that this brings them incredible relief and joy. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
I join with the words of the First Secretary on those who died on the frontline, and on what he said about Captain Tom Moore—an inspiration to all of us.
Yesterday, an important set of figures was published about the deaths from coronavirus. First were the deaths in hospital, which currently stand at 21,678—that is the number that is published every day. On top of that, yesterday we saw the Care Quality Commission figures for deaths in care homes for the two weeks ending last Friday. That was a figure of 4,343. At the same time, the Office for National Statistics published the figures for deaths outside of hospitals and outside of care homes, which, up to 17 April, was a total of 1,220. There is a bit of complication because of the different dates, but that makes a total to date of 27,241 recorded deaths from coronavirus, and that is probably an underestimate because of the time lag. Behind each number is, of course, a family shaken to its foundations.
Six weeks ago, on 17 March, the Government’s chief scientific adviser indicated that the Government hoped to keep the overall number of deaths from coronavirus to below 20,000. He said that that would be “good”, by which, in fairness to him, he meant successful in the circumstances. We are clearly already way above that number—and we are only part way through this crisis. We are possibly on track to have one of the worst death rates in Europe. On Monday, the Prime Minister said in his short speech that “many people” were
“looking now at our apparent success”
in the United Kingdom, but does the First Secretary agree with me that, far from success, the latest figures are truly dreadful?
First, I welcome the various points of solidarity between our Front-Bench teams in relation not only to the new baby boy for the Prime Minister and Carrie Symonds but to the care workers and NHS workers who have lost their lives.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right that there is a challenge in deciphering the difference between the different figures because of the time lags in relation to the care home deaths. Equally, I know that on all sides we have wanted to deliver a clearer breakdown of and distinction between care home deaths and deaths in the NHS. I think that is progress.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the target of 20,000. Of course, this is an unprecedented pandemic—a global pandemic—and in fairness we should not criticise either the chief medical officer or the deputy chief medical officer for trying to give some forecast in response to the questions that many in this Chamber and in the media are calling for. The reality is that we know a lot more about the virus, both domestically and internationally, than we did before.
I absolutely share with the right hon. and learned Gentleman our joint horror at the number of deaths—tragedies each and every one. Equally, I disagree with him: it is far too early to make international comparisons. If they are to be done, they should be done on a per capita basis. We are already seeing that deaths are measured in different ways, not just in the different settings in the UK but across Europe and around the world. This is of course, as I have said, a very delicate and dangerous moment in this pandemic, which is why, with the greatest respect, we need to wait until we have further evidence from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies before moving towards a transitional phase or a second phase. It would be irresponsible right now to start setting out in detail what proposals we might come up with in advance of having that advice from SAGE.
To be clear, I was not criticising the experts; I was pointing out the difference between what had been hoped for and where we had got to.
I welcome the clearer breakdown of figures that I think we will get from this afternoon onwards. I also welcome the fact that it appears—I hope this is right—that the numbers of hospital admissions and of coronavirus deaths in hospitals are going down. We have all been looking at those graphs, and I hope that they are continuing in the right direction. From yesterday’s data, however, it appears that that is not the case in care homes. They show that numbers of deaths in care homes appear to have been rising even while the numbers of hospital deaths have been falling.
As the First Secretary knows, that is on the back of concern for some weeks from the frontline about testing in care homes, including the speed of testing, and about protective equipment, and arguments that it has been too slow. We have all heard from the frontline of the care sector expressions of real anxiety about the situation they find themselves in. Why does he think that coronavirus continues to spread so fast in the care sector?
Briefly, I would like to return to something from last week, although I think the First Secretary has already touched on it. Can he give us the up-to-date figures for the number of healthcare staff and social care workers who have died on the frontline? I raised that last week, and I think he has given the figure, but could he just confirm it?
I have already given the right hon. and learned Gentleman those figures. They are of course produced in the normal way, and he will be apprised of them, just as he is of the other figures. It is absolutely right to say that there is a challenge in care homes. In fact, when SAGE produced its advice, and when the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer gave their three-weekly review, several weeks ago now, it was made clear that we had made good progress overall in reducing the level of community transmission but that there remained challenges in hospital settings and specifically in care homes.
There are real challenges in care homes. Unlike in the NHS setting, where we have made such good progress, the principal challenge in the care home sector is one of decentralisation and exercising control over the ebb and flow of people into care homes. That includes residents, care home workers, who will sometimes work in different care homes, NHS workers, and of course friends and families. That is the single-biggest challenge in reducing transmission.
That said, I hope that I can reassure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we have a comprehensive plan to ramp up testing in care homes—the Health Secretary changed the eligibility criteria yesterday—and to overhaul the way personal protective equipment is delivered to the frontline. We are also expanding the workforce by 20,000 through a new recruitment campaign. There is, however, no doubt—I will not shy away from saying this in front of him—that this is a challenge, but it is a challenge that we must and can grip in order to get the numbers down in care homes, as has happened in hospitals and the country at large.
On “The Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday, I think the First Secretary said that the numbers of deaths in care homes were falling in line with those in hospitals. That does not appear to be borne out by the figures, unless there are some we have not seen. I wonder if he could take a moment to clarify that.
Yesterday was memorial day for all those who have lost their lives at work, and it is important that we honour and remember all those who have died, whether from coronavirus or anything else, but it is also important that we redouble our commitment to protecting all those at work, which is why protective equipment for the frontline is so crucial. I recognise the challenge the Government face on this—I recognise that getting the right piece of equipment to the right place every time is very difficult—but lives depend on it. It is 10 weeks since the Health Secretary declared that there was a serious and imminent threat to life, and one would hope that by now things would be getting better, not worse, yet a survey of the Royal College of Physicians published on Monday reported that one in four doctors were still not getting the protective equipment they needed, and the RCP president was quoted on Monday as saying:
“it is truly terrible that supply has worsened over the past three weeks rather than improved”.
I know that is not where the First Secretary or the Government want to be—with indications from the frontline that things are worse, not better—but he must recognise that this is a plea from the frontline. What is going on and how soon can it be fixed?
On the care home data, obviously we have seen the latest data come out, and there are some positive signs, but they are within the margin of error and we need to be very focused. There is a challenge in care homes and we have a plan in place to grip it. There is no sugar coating that.
I take exception to the suggestion that things are getting worse, not better. That is not true overall. We have seen, through social distancing measures, with overwhelming commitment to them by the public, and with our efforts to ramp up capacity, particularly ventilator beds and critical care capacity in the NHS, that the two central limbs of our strategy, to flatten the peak that we are going through—if we had not done that, the death toll would have been even worse—and to make sure that the NHS had the ability to cope, are working. Those two critical elements of the strategy have worked to date, and it is absolutely important that we keep up the effort on all of that.
In relation to PPE, again, when the right hon. and learned Gentleman addresses that, he must recognise that we face an international—global—supply shortage. Every country—I pick up the phone as Foreign Secretary and speak to leaders, Foreign Ministers and counterparts around the world—faces this. We are now the international buyer of choice. We have had 22 flights carrying PPE and ventilators from China this month; in the last week, over 1.5 million masks from China; three flights from Turkey with gowns and face protection; 140,000 gowns from Myanmar; and we have brought in Lord Deighton from the other place to ramp up our domestic production, supply and distribution. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right—there are challenges on the frontline—and there is no minimising or sugar-coating any of the cris de coeur that he mentioned. I feel animated and inspired to do even better, but he needs to recognise on PPE that there is a global supply shortage, and we are doing absolutely everything that we can to make sure that those on the frontline get the equipment that they need.
I recognise the efforts that are going on. The First Secretary says that he takes exception to what I said about things worsening. I tried not, in this, to base anything on my own personal opinion, because I do not think that that is helpful. What I was quoting was the Royal College of Physicians—those on the front line. It was not my view—it is their view. I try to be careful to stick to the data and the evidence, rather than just coming up with an opinion.
May I ask the First Secretary about testing? It is clear that there has been an increase in testing in the week since we were last at the Dispatch Box, and I welcome that. Yesterday, the Government announced a further extension and expansion of testing, and I welcome that as well, but there are obviously still significant problems. The Government-reported figures for Monday show a capacity to test of 73,000, which has gone up—it is the highest that it has ever been—but only 43,000 actual tests were carried out. When we drill down into the figures, we see that the number of people tested was only 29,000. Last week, the First Secretary said that the problem was not capacity but lack of demand. I was not convinced, to be honest. Now we know that demand has gone through the roof, and sites were unable to cope with the number of people trying to book tests, so obviously demand is not the problem, yet on Monday, 30,000 tests that were available were not used.
I have to recognise that 100,000 a day by Thursday was only ever a staging post—perhaps the exact date does not matter as much as some would think. On 12 March, some weeks ago, the Prime Minister made clear his plan to ramp up daily testing to 250,000 tests a day. I agree with him on that—I think that that is the scale that we should be at. Can the First Secretary clarify whether 250,000 tests a day are still a Government target and, if so, roughly when he thinks the Government will hit that target?
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman. On this issue of things getting worse, I understand the point that he wants to make about PPE—it is an absolutely valid point—but I do not think that it should be elided into the broader critique that overall things are getting worse. As we come through the peak of this virus, we start to get deaths down—we have to focus on driving them down even further, in particular making sure that we do not risk a second spike by increasing the transmission rate. The right hon. and learned Gentleman could take time to recognise our success on social distancing and critical care capacity, which has allowed that to happen.
On testing, we now have a 73,400 test capacity every day. That is almost double the point we were at when I was at the Dispatch Box last week. On daily tests carried out, the figure is now 43,563, which is well over double the 18,000 we were at last week. In relation to capacity and demand, when we and the NHS talk about demand, we are talking about the number of tests actually carried out; it is not just about people being willing to come forward, but about their actually being able to come forward. What we have done to ensure that we ramp up the testing as swiftly as possible is not just the extension and the widening of eligibility last week; we have gone further, and we now say that we will widen the eligibility to anyone who needs to go to work, says that they cannot work remotely and has symptoms. Anyone over 65 with symptoms will also be able to action those tests. To come back to the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s earlier point, tests will be available to all care home residents as well as staff, whether they are symptomatic or not.
This is incredibly important. We are on track to make huge progress. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right that the 250,000 target is still an aspiration, and I am not going to put a date on it, but the key point is that the 100,000 milestone—very important to me, and we are making good progress—is only the first stepping stone towards testing, which is essential to the wider testing, tracking and tracing regime that we will need as we transition to the second phase.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The First Secretary invites me to recognise the good work on social distancing and on critical care capacity. I do that unreservedly. It has been an amazing piece of work, particularly the ramping up of capacity, and I send my thanks to all those who have been involved. I absolutely recognise it.
I have raised these issues because they are vital to controlling the virus and protecting lives so that we can get to an effective exit strategy. The public need to know what will happen in the next phase. On the exit strategy, I want to be absolutely clear with the First Secretary of State: I am not asking for lockdown to be lifted. We support the Government on lockdown and will continue to do so, so I am not asking for that. I am not asking for a timeframe. The Government say they cannot give a timeframe. I accept that and we support the Government on that. I said that I would not ask the impossible, and I will not.
What I am asking is for the Government to be open with the British people about what comes next. That is crucial for three reasons. First, we need their trust. Secondly, the Government themselves, the public, schools, businesses and trade unions need to plan ahead, and they are saying that loudly and clearly. Thirdly, and frankly, we would like to try to support the Government’s strategy when we know what it is. It is important for us to do so if we can, but we cannot do that if the Government will not share their thinking. The Prime Minister said on Monday that he wanted maximum transparency. Will the First Secretary of State give us some now, and tell us when the Government will publish an exit strategy?
I will just remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, as I set out on 16 April, SAGE advised against any changes to social distancing measures at that point. The reason is that that would risk a substantial increase in the infection rate. SAGE is reviewing the evidence again in early March. He has asked for a timeframe and a date. We cannot give it until we have the SAGE evidence. If he thinks there are things we could be announcing—whether it is about the workplace, to which he referred, schools or otherwise—he should feel free to propose those things, but I would gently say that, based on the advice and evidence from SAGE, which he says he wants to closely follow, it would be very difficult for us to responsibly set out those proposals before we have had that subsequent advice from SAGE, both on the rate of infection and the death rate and on the measures that it would be responsible to take. That is why—with the greatest respect; I understand he is trying to be constructive—we cannot be pulled into making proposals in advance without SAGE opining.
The problem with the First Secretary’s response is that it risks the UK falling behind. France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, New Zealand, Australia, Scotland and Wales have all published exit plans of one sort or another. The First Secretary asked for my proposals and what they should cover. When we look at those plans, as he and I have done, it is clear that there are common issues such as schools and business sectors reopening. Those are the issues, and if he wants me to put them on the table, I absolutely will, because they are clearly the issues that need to be addressed.
There will be other issues, of course, but delay risks not only falling behind other countries but also the successful four-nation approach so far. We want to support the Government on an exit strategy. We want to support the four-nation approach so that we can all exit across the UK at the same time and hopefully in the same way, so I ask the First Secretary if the Government will work constructively and openly with the Opposition on the question of what happens at the next stage.
We certainly will engage. I have enjoyed the telephone calls with Opposition leaders, including the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I just gently say that if he is suggesting that we can set out concrete proposals now, despite clear evidence and advice from SAGE that we should wait for their review of evidence in the next week or so, that is the wrong thing to do. If he thinks he knows better than SAGE and the scientists, he needs to explain that. He talked about the Scottish Government. They have not set out an exit strategy. I read their 25-page document carefully. It was eminently sensible and grounded in the five tests that I set out on 16 April. He talked about some of the other European countries, but he will know, because he is an assiduous follower of the international evidence, that Germany is now having to think twice about easing up the measures because of the risk of a second spike. That is exactly the risk that the Governor of the Bank of England referred to last week, that I referred to on 16 April and that SAGE and the scientists have referred to.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is trying and succeeding in engaging in a very constructive way. He has a strong professional reputation from when he was Director of Public Prosecutions of being guided by the evidence. That is much to his credit. I gently say that he should not abandon that rigour now.
I thank my right hon. Friend for cutting straight to the chase. I totally appreciate the value of garden centres and nurseries. As I have indicated, the current advice from SAGE is that relaxing any measures, including the ones to which he refers, would risk damage to public health, our economy and the progress that we have made—the sacrifices that so many have made; the lives that have been lost. However, I reassure him that SAGE looked specifically at garden centres and we will continue to keep the evidence on each measure under very close review.
May I send my congratulations to the Prime Minister and to Carrie Symonds on the birth of their son? Long life and happiness to the new born.
We are two months away from the deadline for approving an extension to the Brexit negotiations. Michel Barnier has been clear: the UK is refusing to engage seriously on a number of fundamental issues. The Government are shamefully gambling our economic future with a no-deal Brexit in the middle of a health emergency. Why are the Government threatening to isolate our economy at the end of the year during the biggest economic crisis of our time?
I join the right hon. Gentleman in sending those messages of goodwill to Carrie Symonds and the Prime Minister and, of course, their new baby boy.
I am not sure I would take Michel Barnier’s word on the state of progress in negotiations quite as readily and as uncritically as the right hon. Gentleman. Let us be very clear: our position is unchanged. The transition period ends on 31 December—that is enshrined in law and there is no intention of changing that. Given the uncertainty and the problems and challenges that coronavirus has highlighted for us and our European friends—and I have worked extremely closely with our German, French and all our other European partners—we should focus on removing any additional uncertainty, do a deal by the end of the year and allow the UK and the European Union and all its member states to bounce back as we come through coronavirus.
What we should do is remove uncertainty and put a stop to those talks. We should make sure that we protect our businesses. The First Secretary’s failure to rule out a no-deal Brexit should alarm us all. The World Trade Organisation predicts that world trade may fall by 32% this year, the International Monetary Fund says that the global economy will suffer its worst financial crisis since the 1930s and the Office for Budget Responsibility warns that the UK economy could shrink by 35%. That means that 2 million people are at risk of losing their jobs. Refusing to admit the inevitability of an extension is not a tough or clever negotiating tactic, but a reckless and foolish gamble. Will the First Secretary embrace common sense and recognise the need for a Brexit extension? He should show some leadership, face down the hard-liners in the Tory party, extend the Brexit transition and let us all get on with the job of tackling this health crisis together.
If the right hon. Gentleman’s desire is to avoid more uncertainty, the right thing for us to do is to double down and get a deal by the end of this year. If his desire is for us to dig ourselves out of the economic challenges that we, the European Union and the world face, the answer is not to engage in protectionism but to do this deal and give a shot in the arm to businesses on both sides of the channel. That is what we are whole- heartedly focused on doing, and we are doing it as one United Kingdom.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that excellent programme. He is absolutely right; a strong understanding of numeracy—for example, calculating percentages or doing divisions—underpins a young child’s ability to manage money. This Government’s reforms have made a step change in progress on numeracy and literacy for those young children, but that needs to be backed up by practical applications. Many organisations that support schools with financial education are adapting their programmes, and Young Money is an excellent example of that.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As the Health Secretary announced, we have had trials announced very recently and we are taking a lead on research and development. However, as my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary announced earlier at questions, we are also contributing to Gavi and CEPI to ensure that we can ramp up the international effort to find a vaccine and vaccinate all the people not only here in the UK but in the most vulnerable and poorest countries around the world. I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all he is doing to champion small businesses. We want to help all businesses—small, medium and large—in Witney and across the country get through this incredibly difficult period and bounce back with confidence as we defeat the coronavirus. Through the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme and the bounce-back loan scheme, we are lending to businesses of all shapes and sizes. The Government have stepped up to the plate, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right that we expect the banks to do the same.
I have to say that if the hon. Lady looks at the package of measures that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has put in place in the round, she will see that we are not only dealing with small businesses but helping larger businesses. They are important too; they are large employers. We are doing everything we can to support innovative firms, which will now benefit from the offer of £1.25 billion for high-growth firms. Frankly, I think we should take some of the partisan baggage out of this, focus on targeting the businesses that will create the growth that will drive us through this crisis, and support the workers up and down this country who rely on those crucial businesses.
I thank my hon. Friend for the tenacious and doughty way in which he is championing the NHS. I am delighted that Stockport NHS Foundation Trust has been allocated close to £31 million for the provision of a new emergency care campus at Stepping Hill, one of our 20 hospital upgrades, and Tameside and Glossop Integrated Care NHS Foundation Trust has been allocated over £16 million to provide emergency and urgent care facilities at Tameside general hospital. The Conservatives are the party of the NHS—more money, more hospitals, more doctors and nurses—and that is one of the reasons why we have managed, through our critical care capacity, to help protect the NHS from becoming overwhelmed by coronavirus.
May I thank the hon. Gentleman and say how appalled I am at the tragic case in his constituency? I pay tribute to the frontline emergency responders, and I, absolutely in total solidarity with the hon. Gentleman, pass on my condolences to the family in that terrible case; it sounds absolutely appalling.
The police have been very clear that they will pursue perpetrators and anyone in immediate danger should call 999. We are going through the coronavirus challenge, which has put pressure on the police, but they are there to do that incredible job that they do day in, day out. We have the national domestic abuse helpline, which is staffed 24 hours a day, and we are supporting charities and others supporting victims of domestic abuse with £750 million. The hon. Gentleman makes interesting points about what more we could do; we are constantly looking to reinforce and strengthen the response to domestic abuse, and he is right that there is a specific issue in relation to this crisis. The Domestic Abuse Bill had its Second Reading yesterday; that will help to take our response to the next level and offers an opportunity for him to make further proposals in due course.
First, may I pass on my very deepest condolences to the widow in my hon Friend’s constituency? I, along with other Ministers, have the grim task of reading out the total death toll at the press conferences, and I always walk away ashen-faced at what this must mean for individual families up and down the country. He is right to pay tribute to those in the NHS, who are doing an amazing job, and I think all of us across the House paid tribute to them and the care workers, particularly with our minute’s silence yesterday. My hon. Friend is absolutely right also to say that they are not just there to treat the physical condition, whether coronavirus or otherwise; they do an amazing job as providers of emotional support for patients and their families, and that is too easily overlooked as we come through this crisis.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he will know, because it has been made clear by the Government and clarified when it was not clear, the original issue was a failure of communication—we did not get the original invitation to tender. It is clear to us that the schemes in relation to the first batch of EU-wide procurement would not have made any significant extra difference or added any value to what we are doing here. I can tell him that we will look at any future EU-wide procurement initiatives, for example, on therapeutics. I can also reassure him that one thing we are doing is working very closely with our European partners on returns and repatriations. That is somewhere we have taken advantage of EU-wide schemes if they can help us to share costs. That is the collaborative, internationalist approach that the UK Government take.
I thank my hon. Friend for that second plea for garden centres and nurseries. This is absolutely right, and I understand entirely why it is so important, both economically and socially, particularly for certain members of our community, for whom it will be an important means of getting outdoors and getting out of the lockdown. SAGE has already considered this once, and I know it will consider garden centres and nurseries again. I know that he will expect us to continue to be guided by the evidence, but he has made his point in a powerful way and it is firmly registered that this is an important area to look at for the future.
This is a hugely challenging time for nurseries, as it is for schools and other small businesses. The Chancellor has set out the range of support available. It is widespread, covering all sorts of different areas, but of course in relation to nurseries or any other sector that is finding the challenges too much to bear as we go through this crisis, we will make sure we look at them afresh to see what further can be done.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. It is a tragic but timely warning that some of the persistent social challenges we face on knife crime, or any other kind of crime, will persist and will not just stay at home because of coronavirus, although overall the level of crime has come down. I send my deepest sympathies to the families of the victims in his constituency. May I reassure him that we have committed to recruiting 20,000 more police officers over the next three years? We are making it easier for the police to exercise stop-and-search powers. We are ensuring that more perpetrators go to prison, and for longer. He will know that it is for PCCs to decide how and where to spend their resources, but I pay tribute to him for being a tenacious and doughty champion on crime issues and the policing that needs to take place in his constituency.
I do not think it is the right thing to do to stand behind all the claims, but we certainly continue to liaise with the insurance industry to make sure, as far as is legally and practically possible, that it is showing the flexibility as people, and particularly the consumers of those insurance policies, come through this very difficult time.
I am absolutely delighted, Mr Speaker, to be able to connect with you this week. I have finally escaped from the Zoom waiting room and, in so doing, I can pass on my congratulations to Carrie Symonds and the Prime Minister on the birth of their son.
I have a large number of haulage companies in my constituency, and I am sure that the First Secretary will recognise that lorry drivers are key workers during this crisis, transporting goods across our United Kingdom. However, many have struggled to access hot food outwith their cabs, and even to access toilet and shower facilities, so can he ensure that we are doing all that we can to support lorry drivers as they carry out their important duties during this crisis?
It is always good to see my right hon. Friend, even—or especially—via Zoom. I thank all the heavy goods vehicle and delivery drivers for all that they are doing in the country to keep us going. Across the House I think that we probably agree that our view and definition of key workers have changed as we have come through this crisis; there is an appreciation of people doing those gritty jobs day in, day out and of quite the extent to which we rely on them.
All motorway service stations in England currently remain open to road users. That is why the Transport Secretary is continuing, based on the concerns that my right hon. Friend has rightly raised, to work with motorway service operators to ensure that as many facilities within those individual service stations as possible remain open to make sure that HGV drivers can take a break and use whatever facilities they need before they go back to work. He raises an excellent point.
We do not support a universal basic income mainly because, it would not target our precious resources at such a challenging time at those who need them most. In total, Scotland will receive a cash boost of over £3 billion to tackle coronavirus, so the financial support from the UK Government is going there. That is on top of the UK military support, with things such as mobile testing and the airlifting of patients from some of the island communities in Scotland. We are also expanding testing capacity right across the UK; centres have recently opened in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. We will get through this crisis and we will do so as one United Kingdom.
I associate myself with the remarks of the First Secretary in saying congratulations to the Prime Minister and Carrie.
Research from the all-party group on autism found that before the coronavirus crisis more than two in three autistic adults were not getting the support they needed. Sadly, in some areas, emergency powers to ease duties under the Care Act 2014 have had to be triggered. Can my right hon. Friend guarantee that autistic people will not be disproportionately affected by these changes, and will he publish which councils have to resort to emergency powers?
My right hon. Friend raises a really important point. We of course want to ensure that all autistic children or any other children with special needs going through this terrible crisis are as protected as they possibly can be. When it comes to looking at the future arrangements for schools, on top of the key workers, we have got to make sure that we do as much as we can to protect vulnerable children, particularly those with particular needs. She talked about the funding going through to local authorities. I will speak to the Education Secretary and the Communities Secretary and make sure that we can come back with a specific answer on the point that she raises.
May I, on behalf of the Democratic Unionist party, echo and pass on congratulations to the Prime Minister and Carrie Symonds on the birth of their son?
The headline in this morning’s Belfast Telegraph speaks about deaths of those not infected by the virus—people who had not been attending hospital and desperately needed treatment. Will the First Secretary advise us of the measures that the Government intend to take to address the issue and to ensure that more people are able to attend for treatment, including cancer patients?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman and pay tribute to all the work he and the Northern Ireland Executive are doing at this difficult time. He is absolutely right to raise the challenge within the NHS more generally of dealing not just with covid-19, but with the wider conditions that people have. The chief medical officer has made it very clear: we have the capacity. The plans that we put in place and delivered through the Nightingale hospitals, the ventilators and the critical care capacity are there to deal not only with coronavirus, but with other non-covid priorities, whether they are urgent or whether they are other forms of treatment in relation to cancer or otherwise.
I am certainly willing to work with the Health Secretary and the Northern Ireland Secretary to make sure that we can deal with and address any particular challenges faced in Northern Ireland. It is absolutely crucial as we go through this crisis that that NHS capacity is protected, and that is one of the reasons we introduced the social distancing measures and why it is important that they have been so effective.
Covid-19: Repatriation of UK Nationals
With permission, I would like to make a statement on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s response to the covid-19 pandemic. Our team of experienced diplomats here at home and in our embassies and consulates around the world continue to work around the clock, using our unparalleled international connections to help overcome this unprecedented challenge.
Since the outbreak in Wuhan, our overriding priority has been to help British travellers get home safely to their loved ones. We estimate that more than 1.3 million people have returned to the UK via commercial routes since the outbreak began, from countries across the globe. We have seen 200,000 British nationals from Spain and 50,000 from Australia return in the past month alone.
Keeping commercial options running has required an enormous international effort. We have worked alongside airlines and foreign Governments to keep vital routes open and to ensure that domestic restrictions do not create a barrier to getting people home. As the House will appreciate, as countries have increased travel restrictions, often without notice, commercial routes have ceased to be an option for some travellers. Thanks to a £75 million partnership between this Government and airlines, we have now brought back more than 19,000 people on 93 charter flights organised by the Foreign Office from 20 different countries and territories. In some instances, that means bringing home a few hundred passengers from small countries such as the Gambia, and from remote locations such as the outer islands of the Philippines. In other cases, it has meant returning thousands of British travellers, such as the 10,000 people returned home from India and the 2,000 thus far from Pakistan. In the next week alone, we will bring back thousands more travellers on further charter flights, including from Bangladesh, Nigeria and New Zealand.
I would also like to touch on cruise ship travel. More than 19,000 British passengers were aboard 60 cruise ships when the FCO changed its travel advice on 17 March. Working with the local authorities, Governments and cruise operators, the FCO has helped to ensure that those passengers were able to return home. We have provided consular assistance to many of them, and in some cases we have organised direct or supported charter flights for more than 1,500 people.
For those people who have chosen to remain in place or are still trying to get home, our consular teams are providing support 24 hours a day. To ensure timely responses, we have tripled the capacity in our consular contact centres. Our broader consular effort has been centred around supporting British travellers right across the piece. We have worked with foreign Governments to ensure that British travellers can continue to meet visa, immigration or documentation requirements while they are abroad, and we are offering financial protection, including through the same measures available to British workers and residents here at home, such as the coronavirus job retention scheme and access to mortgage holidays.
We are ensuring that British travellers have access to essential care, including food, accommodation and medical care. That includes psychosocial support, and we have been working with third sector and external partners to deliver that. Most UK insurers will now extend their travel insurance cover, so British travellers actively trying to get home will be covered for emergency medical treatment if they are still stuck abroad for at least 60 days. Our efforts and our aims show that we are committed to helping every British traveller, no matter where they are in the world.
Turning to the FCO’s role in procurement, specifically of personal protective equipment, with so many other countries in similar circumstances, we are grappling with a global shortage in PPE. Yet, thanks to the efforts of our domestic manufacturers and our work with international partners around the world, we have procured and distributed more than a billion items to those on the frontline. Lord Deighton, who helped to organise the London Olympics, has been brought in to oversee efforts to boost our domestic supply even further. In the Foreign Office, we are working tirelessly through our overseas posts to get medical supplies into the UK. More than 350 million items of PPE have been procured through our China network alone, and we are working flat out to get orders delivered from, for example, Turkey and Egypt.
We have also distributed more than 1,500 ventilators, with thousands more ordered and on the way. In the past week, we have received shipments of more than 4 million type IIR masks and 1 million other masks. By the end of today, flights will have touched down with more than half a million masks, more than 350,000 gowns, and more than three quarters of a million face shields. Meanwhile, the Foreign Secretary and my fellow Ministers at the FCO are on calls with counterparts around the world every day, working to secure new deliveries from abroad, with the support of our excellent and tireless diplomatic service.
From the start of this crisis, the UK has played a leading role in tackling the spread of disease and the world’s response to it. We are uniquely placed to do so, as a member of the G7, the G20, NATO, the Commonwealth and the United Nations, and as a major donor to the global health system. As the Foreign Secretary laid out in his previous statement, our international strategy is focused on four key areas: securing a strong and co-ordinated global health response, particularly for the most vulnerable countries; accelerating the search for a vaccine, more effective treatments and testing; supporting the global economy, keeping trade open and securing critical supply chains; and keeping transit hubs and transport routes open to support the flow of freight and medical supplies and, crucially, to bring our people home.
I have outlined our support for bringing British nationals home, and wish to touch on our good progress in other areas. We are helping vulnerable countries with their response to coronavirus by announcing up to £744 million in aid, including for research and development, and support for the World Health Organisation, UN agencies, non-governmental organisations and the Red Cross. Today, my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary announced a funding pledge equivalent to £330 million a year over the next five years to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. That will fund the immunisation of 75 million children against other deadly diseases, supporting the world’s poorest countries so that they can cope with rising numbers of coronavirus cases.
For a covid-19 vaccine, the Government have already committed £360 million as part of our domestic and international effort. That investment includes a quarter of a billion pounds to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to support co-ordinated global research. That is the single largest contribution by any country. We are also helping to keep vital trade routes and supply chains open by co-ordinating closely with allies and partners in the commercial sector.
Finally, the UK has a responsibility to protect the safety and security of the people of the overseas territories, most of whom are British nationals. We have been providing tailored support to our overseas territories, ensuring that the appropriate resources are provided to them during the coronavirus response.
The scale and impact of this pandemic has been unimaginable but, working alongside our international partners, the UK has been able to demonstrate the kind of leadership, co-operation and collaboration that will get us through this crisis. I commend this statement to the House.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I confirm that it is as sunny as always in our neck of the woods.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement and for the weekly briefings that have allowed us to work together over recent weeks to bring some very vulnerable people home. In that spirit, I turn to a number of issues that his statement did not address, so that we can begin to resolve those, too.
I am deeply concerned that, weeks after Britons were advised to return home by the Government, there is still no accurate assessment of who is stranded and where. On Monday, the Foreign Office came up with a figure of 57,500, yet I have been told repeatedly that there can be no accurate assessment because, although some embassies record those who approach them for help, others do not. We do need to know who is stranded and where, so will the Minister now ensure that his Department now counts and publishes those statistics, so that we can bring those numbers down rapidly?
I was glad to hear that the numbers returned on charter flights are up to 19,000, on 93 flights, and I again place on the record my thanks to our diplomats, embassies and consular staff, but this is still frustratingly slow by comparison with countries such as Germany, which by early April had repatriated 60,000 citizens on 240 charter flights. By chartering 20 times the number of flights, Germany was able to bring its citizens home weeks ago—I place on the record my thanks to Germany and other countries that offered spare places on their flights to stranded Britons—and I am sure the Minister understands why people are upset and frustrated that their Government have not done the same.
I know that the Government were keen to reduce costs, but this reliance on commercial flights has left far too many British people at the mercy of cancelled flights, airline strikes, extortionate prices, domestic lockdowns and chaotic booking systems, so can the Minister commit today to rapidly scaling up the number of charter flights? It is not clear to me what the barrier still is. Ninety per cent. of the country’s commercial fleet is grounded. The RAF stands ready to help. Other countries have the same problems as we do, and in recent weeks I have spoken to many global leaders who say that there is a willingness to work together internationally to open airspace and to keep the transit hubs operating. He is doing his best, but this is unlike the problems that the Government have had with testing or PPE; we have the capacity to do more, and we must.
Many people on those charter flights told me that they are being charged up to £1,000 a ticket, so it would be helpful to understand where the £75 million that the Foreign Secretary announced has gone. Has it been spent and, if so, what on? After the Foreign Office website this week suggested that Britons in New Zealand might be better off staying put until the crisis is over, can the Minister commit that all British people who need it will be not just helped, as he suggested, but repatriated, and that the cost will be no barrier to bringing our citizens home?
I also suggested to the Minister last week that it be made easier to apply for emergency loans and that people be allowed to claim universal credit from overseas. He gave me a very enthusiastic response. Can he update the House on progress with that?
Can the Minister tell us what support is being provided to non-UK nationals, many of whom have lived and worked in Britain for decades? Many with whom I am in touch are extremely vulnerable, and others are NHS workers who are desperate to get back to the frontline, but some of them have been told that they are at the back of the queue, while others have been told to contact other countries’ embassies for help. We were recently shamed by the treatment of those who made Britain their home and have lived and worked here for decades, and we must not allow it to happen again. I hope he will take this opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to those non-UK nationals and guarantee them the same rights to return home.
Finally, I would like to ask the Minister about the mixed messages that those returning home are getting. At the weekend, a Government source told The Telegraph that a 14-day quarantine period would be introduced. When the Foreign Secretary was asked, he simply said, “I don’t know.” Yesterday, the Transport Secretary wrote to MPs to tell us that targeted screening measures had been carried out at UK airports but that those have now been stopped. That is really worrying. There are people entering the UK from countries where infection rates are rising, access to healthcare is limited and preventive measures are non-existent. They are travelling back to their families on public transport. This is surely not sensible.
We have discussed that several times. It is frustratingly one of the areas where we have been unable to make progress, and the UK is now a major outlier on this. South Korea, the Netherlands, Greece, Lithuania and Singapore all have self-isolation requirements in place. We must have clear advice for those returning to the UK, with a quarantine period and testing on return to limit the spread of the virus. Can the Minister commit to that today, and if he cannot, will he take it away and ensure that it is acted on? As always, I am ready, happy and willing to offer assistance and support where I can.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment and on the spirit in which she has co-operated. We speak regularly, with our weekly phone calls—I think we are due to have one tomorrow—where officials and I are able to update her. I have been nothing but impressed with her constructive approach to this very difficult matter. I will try to answer some of the points that she raised. I am sure she will remind me tomorrow, when we have our phone call, if I do not get round to answering all of them.
The hon. Lady talked about the data, and posts having information on the number of people who want to return home. Our best estimate at the moment is around 50,000 people, and hopefully, by the end of today, we will have passed the return of 20,000 British nationals on charter flights. We will update her with the numbers tomorrow. It is tricky collecting all the data—I will not pretend that it is not—but I can assure her that, when we do have that information, we will keep her updated.
In the best spirit possible, I would like to politely remind the hon. Lady of something. She referred to the number of people who have been repatriated by other countries. Of course, other countries have taken a slightly different route to get people home, but I remind her and the House that more than 1.3 million people have come back to the UK since the start of the outbreak. That is a phenomenal number of people. We have worked with the commercial sector to ensure that routes are open and that flights are available. We are now focusing on those countries where there are large numbers of British nationals and where there are not commercial flight options. I hope she will recognise that our strategy of working with the commercial sector initially has paid dividends. We are now focusing on our charter efforts.
We are indeed prioritising British nationals on these repatriation flights. Our first priority is those who are vulnerable and who face the greatest risks; that might be because a country does not have a health service that is comparable to the NHS. But we always do our best to consider making space available for others—not least those who are key workers, in particular in the NHS—where we can.
The hon. Lady mentioned the advice that those returning to the country have been getting. Nobody who is symptomatic can take a chartered repatriation flight back to the UK organised by the UK Government. It is absolutely clear that they will not be allowed on the plane. People are given advice on the plane on what they should do. Anybody arriving on a flight from another country should follow the current Public Health England advice, specifically on social distancing and self-isolation.
We continually test strategies with scientists, such as quarantining those coming from abroad to make sure we are able to take any necessary measures. As we consider transition to the second phase, we will be looking at those issues. We have already had discussions with other Departments across Government to make sure that we take all necessary measures to preserve our way of life and to protect people.
Thank you for calling me to speak today, Mr Speaker. First, may I say “Congratulations” to the Prime Minister, and “Ramadan kareem” to the many in our community who are celebrating the holy month?
What improvements is the Minister going to make to the communications system he has been using to communicate with British people around the world? In the Foreign Affairs Committee, we have been conducting a survey, which is online on the Parliament website now, asking people about their experiences, both good and bad, of being repatriated to the UK. The main issue we have found is the difficulty some people encountered with communications when they were abroad, or the inability to receive communications. There are good examples, such as the high commission in Kenya, and difficult examples, such as the high commission in India. Seeing improvements to that would be important for the whole community.
The Chair of the Select Committee raises an incredibly important point. A UK national who is stuck abroad, who is concerned and whose flight has been cancelled by their operator wants some assurance that the Government are on their side and will assist, and communication is crucial. I totally accept that at the start of this crisis, our comms in some parts of the network were not as good as they should have been. There are some brilliant examples, which my hon. Friend mentioned; I point also to the great communications work that our high commission in New Zealand has been doing. We have put an awful lot more effort into ensuring that our embassies and our consulates up their communication game, because it is so important. As I say, people who are stuck want to know that, even if there is no news, they are getting some information. I totally accept my hon. Friend’s point.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is good to see you virtually.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. On a consensual note, I very warmly welcome the announcement of funding for the vaccines network—the GAVI programme—which the SNP called for some time back. I am glad to see we are in agreement on that. The programme will do a lot of good in the world.
Without getting into the specifics, I echo a number of concerns raised already about repatriation. I have praised FCO officials, who are working really hard in tough circumstances, but I have to say the statement seems rather Panglossian and does not reflect the experience of a number of my constituents and, I am sure, those of Members across the House. Will the Minister commit to holding in due course an inquiry into the FCO handling of this issue, so that we can learn lessons for the future, focusing not least on the defunding of the FCO network, which has left it at such a loss that it did not have the capacity to cope with this crisis?
On the procurement aspects, I am struck that the statement makes no mention of the EU procurement issue. In a quite remarkable sitting of the Foreign Affairs Committee recently, Sir Simon McDonald had to clarify his clarification. Reading from the letter, he said, quite explicitly, that “Ministers were not briefed” by UK mission on the EU’s joint procurement agreement, but he went on to say:
“Owing to an initial communication problem the UK did not receive an invitation in time to join”
the EU’s covid procurement response. Forgive me, but it seems quite inconceivable to me that UK mission did not make London—call it that—aware of the existence of the schemes. Will the Minister therefore perhaps clarify whether officials in London were briefed by UK mission on the existence of the schemes? Will he confirm whether the “initial communication problem”, which meant that we missed out on procurement schemes that could have been of value to our constituents, was between UK mission and London or was it within London? Will he also assure us that the problems have been dealt with and that we will contribute to and participate in future EU procurement schemes?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive dialogue with Government and also his SNP colleagues in the Scottish Government. I have weekly update conversations with all the devolved Administrations, and they are just as constructive. In reference to one of his earlier points, I reiterate that working with the commercial sector on scheduled flights has enabled over 1.3 million people to get home, so there is something to champion. Of course, the network has been put under extreme pressure. We have never faced anything like this and have never had to repatriate people from all over the globe, but we have done a pretty good job so far, and we will pass the 20,000 charter flight mark today.
With regard to the hon. Gentleman’s latter point, the permanent secretary of the FCO has issued a correction to the Foreign Affairs Committee, setting out that position and making it clear that a political decision was not taken on whether to participate. As the Health Secretary said, we will participate in the joint EU procurement scheme on therapeutics that is soon to launch, and we have been clear that we will consider participating in other future schemes on the basis of public health requirements, including on PPE.
Finally, I remind the hon. Gentleman that around 10,700 mechanical ventilators are currently available to the NHS across the UK, with thousands more in the pipeline.
May I take the Minister back to the two positions stated last week by Sir Simon McDonald? These are not differences of nuance; they are two fundamentally different positions. Will the Minister share with the House the explanation that Sir Simon gave him for two such different positions being put out in the course of one day? More importantly, will he give us some assurance that if EU procurement processes are to offer a route to much-needed PPE being available in care homes and hospitals across the country, we will not lose out on that opportunity?
At the risk of repeating myself, it is actually the case that the permanent secretary issued his reaction to the Foreign Affairs Committee and made it clear that a political decision was not taken on whether we should participate in the scheme. Again, to reiterate the answer I gave to the SNP, the Health Secretary has confirmed that we will participate in a joint procurement scheme on therapeutics that is soon to launch. We have also made it clear that we will consider our participation in other future schemes on the basis of public health requirements, and that includes PPE.
Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), will the Minister further elaborate on the work done by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to source PPE supplies for our frontline health and social care workers? Are pre-existing supply lines working? That will be crucial in the Government assessing their key pillar— to have an adequate supply of PPE—for any decisions on loosening the lockdown.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As I said in the statement, the Foreign Office is an addition to the domestic work we are doing on PPE. I have had conversations with our posts in China and from China alone we have had over a third of a billion pieces of equipment. That work is continuous. All our posts are on the hunt for equipment—that is one of their tasks—and they are doing a pretty fine job.
Like a number of Members, several of my constituents are still trapped in different parts of the world. One couple from Norwich have been trapped in New Zealand for well over a month. They are running out of money and have been refused a refund from their travel company. They face exorbitant flight prices that they cannot afford and are becoming increasingly desperate. Can I ask the Minister what pressure the Foreign Office is putting on travel companies to refund British nationals trapped abroad, and, to reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), why it has taken so long to put on sufficient charter flights compared to countries such as Germany, which has already managed to get most of their trapped nationals home?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. On New Zealand, I am pleased to say that over 600 UK nationals have returned. One of the problems is that most of the commercial flights back to the UK have been suspended, so flight availability is extremely difficult. We are now chartering flights to help to bring back the most vulnerable British nationals stranded in New Zealand. There are five initial Government charter flights, which started on 24 April. They will bring home over 1,500 people. On cost, I do accept his point about how some airlines have dealt with their customers and not given cash refunds. I do not agree with that. I think it is incredibly bad form for the airlines not to provide timely refunds to their customers. The cost of the repatriation flights is at a reasonable level, with a maximum of £800 if a flight is over 10 hours.
Through the Minister, may I thank the FCO team for all its fantastic work in bringing back my constituents from Fiji, New Zealand, India and Pakistan? I also know that 10 chartered flights have taken place from South Africa. However, I have an 80-year-old constituent just outside Johannesburg, who was supposed to have come back to Rainham on 4 April. She has been told by her tour operator that she is unlikely to come back before July. Will the Minister look urgently at this case? I have already raised it with the Minister for Africa, who has been exceptionally helpful, but may I urge the Minister for Asia to please do everything that can be done to help this 80-year-old constituent of mine?
The FCO will of course look into the case my hon. Friend raises. I thank him for his praise for the work that has been done to return his constituents from around the globe. As he will know, we have got over 2,000 British travellers back from South Africa on our special charter flights, but we will certainly look into that individual’s case and see what support we can give through our network.
The Minister talks a good talk. It was good news for my constituent when, for the first time in eight years, he was able to get over to see his ailing and elderly dad, for probably the last time. The bad news, however, is that it was in blockaded Gaza, where there are no flights in or out of what David Cameron called an “open-air prison”. Will the Minister, with whom I raised this issue on a conference call on 15 April, please have a word with his officials, who, to date, have told my constituent that it is his own fault, and get a family of four British citizens in Acton their dad back for Ramadan?
We will take up that case, if it is not already being taken up. Frankly, I doubt very much whether a member of FCO staff would use language such as “it’s your own fault”, but we will certainly follow it up. We are due another conference call on Friday this week, which I am holding for right hon. and hon. Members, but we will certainly follow up that case for the hon. Lady.
First, may I pass on my thanks for the work the Department has done during this unprecedented pandemic? Will my hon. Friend update the House on progress made by his Department in offering consular support to British nationals, especially in Peru?
My hon. Friend raises the important area of Peru. It has been a very difficult country to deal with, given the number of backpackers and travellers dispersed over a very large area. We have got 1,100 people returned on five flights—those people are back—but there are no commercial flights running. We still have consular staff available and other staff in the embassy continue to provide assistance to British nationals in that region.
It is very sunny here as well, Mr Speaker.
The travel industry is facing an unprecedented crisis. Although it is completely understandable given the current circumstances, the Foreign Office’s indefinite travel ban means it is very hard for companies to plan for the future. What thought is the Minister giving to how that advice might be eased when it is safe to do so? Has he been involved in the discussions taking place today with EU partners about the forthcoming summer holidays and how they may be made to work?
On the hon. Lady’s final point, I have not been involved, as yet; I have been at the Foreign Office and here at the Commons. The FCO is constantly talking to the travel sector. Many elements of the travel industry have been decimated by this unprecedented event. It is absolutely crucial, though, that we focus on the job in hand. The FCO’s main focus is currently to get British nationals home. The hon. Lady makes a fair point, though, and there will have been discussions with the travel sector as we approach the summer holidays. I would be delighted to update the hon. Lady in a further call.
I very much welcome the Minister’s comments about Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. The Government’s leadership in this matter is extremely timely.
Will the Minister say what part the Foreign Office played in Exercise Cygnus in 2016, and what exercises the FCO has subsequently run to test the UK’s ability to repatriate British nationals in the event of a crisis of the sort we are now living though?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. In respect of Exercise Cygnus, I am not aware of how involved the FCO was back in 2016, but as his constituents and the country would expect, the Government regularly test pandemic plans. As understand it, Cygnus was a test of domestic preparedness for a future flu pandemic. Of course, the lessons learned from Cygnus continue to be considered by Government when we are reviewing our responses.
I have a number of constituents who are still stranded in Punjab in India—some of them in real distress. I recognise the effort from the Foreign Office in chartering flights from Amritsar, but after several weeks of this effort my office is still receiving large numbers of calls from people with serious medical needs who have so far not been allocated a place on any of the charter flights and, importantly, do not know when they will be. When does the Minister think this repatriation effort will be completed?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a very good point. As he can imagine, there were tens of thousands of British nationals in India. We have got more than 10,000 back on 38 flights so far, and we have another 14 planned. Of course, with India we are doing our best to prioritise the most vulnerable people who have registered that they want to come home. We expect that we will be able to get the number coming back from India to 13,000. We are repatriating people from multiple cities across India and will consider the option of additional flights after these particular flights, based on need and circumstances. The right hon. Gentleman flags up an important area of concern for us.
Can I ask for the Government’s help in getting my constituents back from Pakistan? I also ask the Minister to provide more reassurance to constituents here who are worried about the continuation of flights from covid hotspots like Iran without sufficient checks being made to make sure that incoming flights from different parts of the world are not potentially making our virus situation worse?
My right hon. Friend raises Pakistan, another area where there are thousands of Brits wanting to return home. We have already brought back more than 2,000 people, and we have another nine flights planned, so I can assure her that, through our mission in Pakistan, we are doing our utmost to get people back. We are also putting on flights from Karachi as well because of the size of the country. With regard to the health points that she raises, I mentioned earlier that the current advice that we are giving people is from Public Health England. As we enter phase 2 of these repatriation flights and phase 2 of the pandemic here, we will be looking very closely at the advice that we will be giving, but no one who has symptoms of this virus can get on one of these flights.
May I take the Minister back to the whole issue of the EU procurement schemes? It seems at the moment that, at the very best, the situation is confused and, at the very worst, rather fishy, and the Minister’s answers are not giving us any more reassurance or clarity. May I ask him: was any Minister briefed about any of the schemes, and if not, why not?
I am at high risk of repeating myself on this point. I understand why the Opposition might want to probe this matter politically, but the fact is that the permanent secretary issued his correction to the Foreign Affairs Committee. He set out his position very clearly, and that was that a political decision was not taken—I repeat “not taken”—on whether to participate. We will be joining the EU procurement scheme on therapeutics, and any other scheme will be considered by the Government according to the public health requirements of the UK.
I thank the Minister and his Foreign Office team for all the help that they have given me and my team in returning my constituents from across Totnes in south Devon to their rightful place at home. None the less, there are some lessons to be learned from this situation, and I ask the Minister to consider that the Foreign Office might provide a retrospective analysis of how we have repatriated British citizens and present that report to this House so that we can scrutinise it in future, because I think those shortcomings will need to be addressed. Added to that, should we not also be looking at the co-operation that could be had between public and private sector when it comes to commercial flights?
My hon. Friend makes a very sensible point. Every day, we learn the lessons from such a huge operation. This is something that we have never faced before. The nearest that we have come to it is the Thomas Cook repatriation, which was not too long ago—this is a point that a previous questioner asked that I did not get round to answering—so we will learn lessons from that. However, this is on an unimaginable scale. Never before have we had to repatriate this many people. More than 1.3 million people have been brought home on a commercial route. We have been working very closely with the commercial sector. A number of airlines have signed a memorandum of understanding with Government so that we can ask them to bid for charter flights. My hon. Friend raises a very good point and, no doubt, this will be something that we look at in the cold light of day.
May I add my congratulations to the Prime Minister and Carrie Symonds on the birth of their child?
On 24 March here in the Chamber, I asked the Foreign Secretary about the situation of my constituents stuck in India and elsewhere around the world. Forty are still stuck in India, including Lashkar and Surinder Jhutti, who have been resident in the UK for almost 50 years. She is a specialist neuro care worker who needs to get back to work. There seem to be echoes here of the Windrush scandal in that they have been told that they are not eligible for consular support. She is needed back at work, as I said. Will the Minister intervene and help them, and all other UK residents, to be returned and repatriated to the UK?
Let me answer the hon. Gentleman by referring to a previous answer. We are prioritising British nationals. These flights are paid for by the British taxpayer, so our initial priority is with British nationals. Of course those who have indefinite leave to remain should not be discriminated against in any way. The priority initially was British nationals. We are certainly not in the business of breaking up family groups. We want to ensure that families are kept together. I would very much appreciate it if he could flag up that particular case with my office and we will see if we can drill down and get those people home.
May I first thank the Minister and the entire FCO team for everything they are doing? I know they are working around the clock to return not just my constituents but all our constituents to their homes.
I am very fortunate that many of my constituents are now home from Pakistan, but there are still some left there. Could the Minister give some reassurance that the repatriation flights being run by the Government will continue until such time that commercial flights resume? I know that PIA was running commercial flights before, but until they do actually commence—I am not talking about promised commencement—will our repatriation flights still go on?
My hon. Friend has been incredibly resilient in pursuing FCO Ministers on the individual cases of his constituents, and he is absolutely right to do that. We are launching a new phase of flights back from Pakistan. We have brought 2,000 people back on our special charters. On Pakistan International Airlines, it is worth pointing out that we are working very closely with the Government of Pakistan and PIA to ensure the continuation of flights alongside the charter flights. It is also worth mentioning that since 4 April, through that negotiation, over 13,500 people have returned to the UK on 40 commercial PIA flights, alongside our charter flights, which are in addition to that number.
More than two hours having elapsed since the commencement of hybrid scrutiny proceedings, the Speaker brought them to a conclusion (Order, 21 April).
On resuming, the House entered into hybrid substantive proceedings (Order, 22 April).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member contributing virtually.]
Business of the House (29 April)
(1) The following arrangements shall apply to today’s business:
Business Timings Remote Division designation Business Statement Up to 20 minutes None Fire Safety Bill: Second Reading Up to 100 minutes; suspension; up to two hours None Fire Safety Bill: Programme No debate (Standing Order No. 83A(7)) None Fire Safety Bill: Money No debate (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)) None Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993 No debate None
Remote Division designation
Up to 20 minutes
Fire Safety Bill: Second Reading
Up to 100 minutes; suspension; up to two hours
Fire Safety Bill: Programme
No debate (Standing Order No. 83A(7))
Fire Safety Bill: Money
No debate (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a))
Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993
(2) At the conclusion of the debate on the Fire Safety Bill the Speaker shall put the Question, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Michael Tomlinson.)
The Speaker declared the Question to be agreed to (Order B(4), 22 April).
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 4 May will include:
Monday 4 May—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 and the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 followed by motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Automatic Enrolment (Offshore Employment) (Amendment) Order 2020 and the draft Occupational and Personal Pension Schemes (Automatic Enrolment) (Amendment) Regulations 2020.
Tuesday 5 May—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Greater Manchester Combined Authority (Fire And Rescue Functions) (Amendment) Order 2020 followed by motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the Employment Allowance (Increase Of Maximum Amount) Regulations 2020.
Wednesday 6 May—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Census (England And Wales) Order 2020.
Thursday 7 May—The House will not be sitting.
Friday 8 May—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 11 May will include:
Monday 11 May—General debate on covid-19.
I thank the Leader of the House for his statement. This is my first opportunity to speak in Parliament virtually. It is good to see that Parliament is functioning as it is and has risen to the challenge.
I thank the Leader of the House’s office for arranging a walkthrough of remote voting, which I will be doing tomorrow. I, too, send my congratulations to the Prime Minister and Ms Symonds on the birth of their baby. We had a baby born today, and, tomorrow, Captain Tom will be 100. We wish them both well on their life journeys.
The Chancellor said earlier this week that we were all in this together. I was wondering if there was a new definition of “together”. Does it include offshore? As the Leader of the House will know, some countries are not providing support to those companies that cannot be bothered to support the country by paying their taxes while they are using its services. May we have an updated statement to set out that the emergency measures will not apply to those companies that are paying dividends or that are offshore? Can that loophole be tightened, because some businesses are collapsing? That phrase has been used by dentists in my constituency. I know that the Minister sent out a helpful letter for emergencies, but businesses will no longer be there. One of my local dentists said that he is sick of giving antibiotics and self-administered fillings. I know a dentist who—[Inaudible]—a PPE kit that allows him to tend to his patients. Whom should he contact? We know that our teachers are doing a fantastic job in keeping schools open, as they are doing in Darlaston and Walsall South. They have contacted me to say that they are running out of PPE. Whom should I contact on their behalf to get them that vital PPE?
I have been contacted by a number of road haulage businesses requesting urgent Government support. Some 85% of the transport market in the UK is made up by small and medium-sized businesses—they keep the UK’s economy moving. They need a cash injection—a grant—to literally stay on the road and move our food, goods and medical supplies. May we therefore have a statement on what support road haulage firms will get? I emailed the Treasury, via the covid-19 email address, on 9 April, but I have not received a response, so I have nothing to say to those companies, which are literally at the end. Will the Leader of the House assure me as to what I can say to them?
May I ask for the Leader of the House’s help on another matter? He will know that I have been waiting on responses from various Departments—all on the covid-19 helplines that I use—since as early as 4 April. I am waiting for three from the Treasury, two from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and one from the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Transport. Interestingly, the Department of Health and Social Care, the DFT and the Treasury circulated an incorrect email address to MPs in a “Dear colleague” letter sent on 26 April. Will he look into circulating an updated list?
When are we likely to have a statement on Brexit negotiations, which the Leader of the House did not mention in relation to next week’s business? Yesterday, the whole country stood for our frontline workers who have died looking after us during this pandemic. It is International Workers’ Day and Labour Day on Friday. Let us remember the dead but continue to fight for the living.
The connection was not perfect, so I am not sure I got all the points, but I will answer them as far as I can. First, I completely agree with the right hon. Lady in congratulating the Prime Minister and Carrie on the wonderful news of a baby. As a father of six, I know that there is no greater joy than a new life suddenly appearing in the room, and this is a huge joy for the whole country. I believe the Prime Minister joins an exclusive club of Members who are fathers of six, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). I do not know if there are any others I am missing out, but it is a great club to belong to.
As regards who can apply for the support from the Treasury, the rules are relatively clear and well set out. Companies that are not contributing, or that have not contributed, to this country and do not have their operations in this country will not particularly benefit, but employment in this country will benefit. As regards dividends, that, in a way, is a matter for companies. I notice that BP is going to carry on paying its dividend to try to help pensioners, and that is a decision for companies where I do not think it would be right for the Government to intervene.
We know the figures on PPE, as they have been set out, but there is a global shortage and every effort is being made to ensure that PPE gets to people who need it. The Government are working very hard on that and are investigating offers of supply from around the world. I notice that the Daily Mail and its readers are making huge efforts to help as well, so it is a national effort in which we are all involved.
I am concerned that the right hon. Lady says that she has not had a response from various Ministries and that email addresses have not necessarily been working. Particularly during periods of recess it is of great importance that Ministries respond in accordance with their own timelines. I know that there have been strains on certain Ministries, which is understandable, but holding Ministers to account is part of our role, and I will take that up with the Ministries that she mentioned and ensure that correct email addresses are made available.
Regarding particular statements, the right hon. Lady will understand that there is great pressure for statements and urgent questions at the moment. We are sitting for three days, and we have had a statement every day. Today, there is a business statement as well, so there are two statements today. All requests for statements are taken seriously, and I hope that the right hon. Lady will note that the many requests we received for a general debate on covid-19 have been taken up. Finally, she mentioned 1 May. She omitted to say that it is the feast of St Joseph the Workman, so it is a good day to celebrate.
My right hon. Friend will agree that is nice to have an Exmoor man having a new child. I congratulate the Prime Minister, especially as he is a local.
My right hon. Friend and I have something else in common—Somerset county—and we are both proud of the area we live in. Big counties have received the lion’s share of the very good grants—and I am grateful to the Government—that have been given out to cope with this awful pandemic. However, I must question how some of them are using the money. I have received next to nothing from the county of Somerset, while Devon next door is keeping me enormously informed about what it is doing and how it is spending its money. When the time is right, will my right hon. Friend allow us to have a debate about the way in which counties and districts have handled this crisis in what has been a difficult time for us all?
What a pleasure it is to hear from my hon. Friend in his Somerset fastness—assuming that is where he is—and to admire the collection of ornaments behind him, so elegantly displayed for our delectation.
The spending of public money must always be held to account. It is of utmost importance that what is taken from taxpayers is spent responsibly by the authorities who spend it. The Government have provided £1.6 billion extra for local councils, and £3.2 billion will come in the fullness of time. That money must be accounted for by all councils, even those covering the great county of Somerset.
First, will the Leader of the House confirm that he will introduce a motion to establish the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs for our next meeting on Monday? He will know that the SNP has withdrawn the amendments that we had tabled on that matter, so there is no need for a Division, and it is important that that vital Committee is up and running as quickly as possible.
Secondly, may I express concern about the speed with which we are progressing on implementing electronic voting? I am well aware that there are some Members of Parliament who view such proceedings with suspicion and, indeed, disdain, but I hope that any attempts to placate those views are not the reason for the delay. Perhaps the Leader of the House would update us on when we might expect firm proposals.
Thirdly, how does the Leader of the House intend Members to contribute in learning from the experience of using digital platforms this week, and in how we might develop that facility? It seems that this hybrid Parliament—while I welcome it and the great effort that has been made by many people to make it happen—has a fundamental flaw. It is not really a virtual meeting—it is a means by which some of us can contribute remotely to physical proceedings in the Chamber, so it will always create two classes of participant, whether we like it or not. As an experiment, I wonder whether we can consider having at least one sitting of a full Parliament in which everyone participates on the same basis and does so remotely, so that there is a level playing field and we can at least consider whether that is something with which we wish to continue.
Finally, I note that on 11 May we will have a general debate on the covid crisis and the Government’s response. Rather than that taking place in the abstract, with people chipping in whatever they want from their constituencies, there would be a more focused discussion if the Government could bring to the Chamber at that time their proposals for the second phase of their response. We are now more than halfway through the first phase, and unless we have the opportunity to consider what happens next, I fear that many of our citizens will get increasingly frustrated and disenchanted with what the Government are doing. We need to keep them on board, so having firm proposals to discuss would be exceptionally welcome.
I am glad to bring pleasure to the hon. Gentleman, in that the motion on the Scottish Affairs Committee will be back on Monday. May I say that I am delighted that the Scottish National party is now removing its objections? There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repenteth, etc.
As regards electronic voting, all that is being done is temporary, and it is worth emphasising that. We would not have achieved the consensus across the House to allow these procedures to be implemented if there were any thought that it were permanent. It is being done on a temporary basis, and implemented as quickly as possible. I hope that we will be able to experiment with electronic voting on 11 May, subject to the Procedure Committee considering the proposals and to testing with a large number of Members to ensure that it works.
As regards the hybrid Parliament or all being virtual, I think the hybrid Parliament is actually working well. It is a good indication that those who need to come into work are right to come into work. That has always been the Government’s policy, and people coming in is something that they are entitled to do. It is of great antiquity that we have a right to attend Parliament; it goes back to 1340. I think the way you have run these proceedings, Mr Speaker, has made it quite clear that there is only one class of Member of Parliament and that every Member is given exactly the same treatment: there are no interventions, there is no extension on speaking time and there is no ability to intervene for those who are in the Chamber. I think there is only one class, and it is first class, because of the work done by the House of Commons authorities to get this system up and running as rapidly as possible.
Finally, on 11 May, it will be a general debate. It would be too early to pre-empt what may be said and whether the Government’s five tests have had any fulfilment by that stage—that is still quite a time off—but I was responding, as Leader of the House, to the many requests from Members to have a general debate.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I would like to convey my congratulations to the Prime Minister and Carrie Symonds on their new arrival, and to you on bringing forward this virtual Parliament and handling it in such a way that we can actually be in Lancashire, or wherever we are in the country, to make these points heard.
Talking of technology—we have been talking about virtual voting—could we not include in the debate an app, or application, so that with such technology we can move around to see our relatives when the lockdown is eased? Speaking personally—and on behalf of lots of my constituents whose views are in my inbox—I have not seen my elderly father for seven weeks; he is in his mid to late-80s. A lot of people in my constituency are starting to ask me how we can start to ease the lockdown and move around. Would not an app be better?
Mr Speaker, it is very surreal to be talking on my computer to the rest of the Chamber. However, I congratulate you on everything you have done to enable this to happen.
It is a great pleasure to hear from my hon. Friend, and not surreal for us as we see him in glorious technicolour addressing us. With regards to the lockdown, it is of course difficult for the elderly and for those of us with elderly parents, but we must follow the rules, because that is actually working. No doubt the sun will shine eventually and the restrictions will be lifted, but now is not the time to forecast when.
I think that 1 May was also the feast day of St Panacea, which may be of interest to Donald Trump.
I want to ask about cancer, because 367,000 people a year in this country contract cancer and 165,000 die of it. When I last spoke to my oncologist, he said he was terrified of a tsunami of people, who have not contacted the doctor now because they are frightened of going to a hospital in case they contract coronavirus or because they just do not want to take up the NHS’s time, presenting with their cancer too late for doctors to help. Is not it important that we get out the message, whether through a debate or statement in the Commons, that if people are ill, the NHS is still there for them now and that delaying taking a dodgy mole or something in their bowel that is worrying them to the doctor is a big mistake?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am glad to say that the health service is opening up for people to go back for continuation of treatments that were suspended and to have tests for potential new illnesses. That is important and was part of the whole strategy to ensure that the NHS could cope and that lives could be saved from other illnesses as well as the coronavirus.
I would like to place on record my congratulations to the Prime Minister and his fiancée on the birth of their first baby.
The Treasury has done a remarkable job in coming forward with various schemes to help people through this terrible pandemic. However, some people have still been left behind. People who run a small business from home and people in professions, such as dentists, solicitors, accountants and others, have complained to me that they seem to be deliberately excluded from the Government’s schemes. May we have an updated statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer on what measures he will introduce to enable those key people, who are fundamental to our economy, to be supported through the crisis until the economy can recover?
The Chancellor did make a statement on Monday. The schemes for small businesses are pretty comprehensive, including 100% loans, which have now been announced, the suspension of rate payments, the funding for entrepreneurs and the self-employed and so on. That Government are doing what they can, but those matters could be covered in the general debate on 11 May.
The hybrid Parliament is a great achievement, but I am sure that the Leader of the House agrees that it does not come close to replicating the true cut and thrust of proper Commons debate, with interventions and so on. Does he intend to continue to proceed by consensus and to introduce only uncontested business at this time, unless it is urgent and absolutely necessary to do otherwise?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the real thing is better than a virtual Parliament. I will not give an advert for Coca-Cola, which views itself as “the real thing”, but there is a lot to be said for the real thing. However, the Government have a legislative agenda that they must get through, so, no, I will give no guarantees that there will not be contested business. That is why we need to have votes: so that Members may express their views.
I want to place on record my thanks to the House authorities for the extraordinary speed at which they have moved to implement a virtual Parliament. It has been a real benefit for scrutiny, and for our constituents who can see what we are doing on a day-to-day basis. I welcome the move to remote voting in the coming weeks. I know there are strong views across the House on that, but, although it is temporary, I would welcome a debate afterwards on how it has worked, because it could bring benefits for those who have caring responsibilities, health conditions and other access requirements, and we should discuss that in the aftermath.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her kind words about the House staff, which are worth underlining and reiterating. I emphasise the temporary nature of what is being done—that is why there has been such widespread consensus and support for it—but the Procedure Committee may want to look into what we can learn from the experiences in future.
I appreciate that there is a general covid-19 debate scheduled, but I urge the Leader of the House to make time for a specific debate about insurance companies and particularly business interruption insurance. There is real anger and, I believe, a real appetite across the House to properly discuss business interruption insurance. A number of small and medium-sized companies took cover in good faith that does cover infectious diseases, but because it does not specifically cover covid-19 a number of insurance companies have been posted missing. They need to be held to account. There has been a failure of regulation. There is a need for state intervention on this, and we need to debate it soon.
The hon. Gentleman makes a point that has been raised by a number of other hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House. There are concerns about how such insurance policies have worked. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this can be brought up in the general covid-19 debate, but it can also be taken up directly with the Treasury, and I have no doubt that it will be.
More than 20 minutes having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the business statement, the Speaker brought those proceedings to a conclusion (Order, this day).
Fire Safety Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Almost three years have passed since the tragic events on the night of 14 June 2017. It was the greatest loss of life following a residential fire since the second world war. None of us will ever forget the events of that terrible night, and the Government are resolute in their commitment to ensure that they are never repeated. Those 72 people should never have lost their lives. Our thoughts today are very much with the victims’ families, survivors and fellow residents, who have had to rebuild their lives over the past three years.
I know from my time as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government the profound effect the events have had on the Grenfell community, but also that community’s sense of purpose and its clear demands for justice and change. I have had the privilege to meet survivors and their families, as well as those in the local community who joined together to support them. Those discussions have been humbling and harrowing. They have underlined the responsibility—indeed, the duty—on us to act. The Government will continue to provide support to the affected families and support the creation of a memorial on the site of the tower, a process that is rightly being led by the bereaved and the local community.
The House has had the opportunity to debate the tragic events at Grenfell Tower on a number of occasions. Despite the unusual circumstances we are operating under today, I have no doubt that we will hear once again many powerful and impactful contributions. There is considerable experience across the House, and we will continue to listen to views from all interested colleagues, as well as working with the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety and rescue. I welcome the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) to his new role as shadow Home Secretary. We will continue to engage constructively with him and his team.
Our home should be a place of safety and security. At a time when we are asking the people of this country to stay at home—indeed, many of us will contribute to this debate from our homes—we are reminded of the overriding importance of people being safe and feeling safe at home, especially in high-rise properties.
In the days following the terrible tragedy, the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), announced that there would be a full independent inquiry, led by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, to get to the bottom of what happened on that night and to understand why the building was so dangerously exposed to the risk of fire. Alongside the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Home Office commissioned an independent review of building regulations and safety, which was led by Dame Judith Hackitt. Dame Judith’s findings have underpinned our unprecedented programme of building and fire safety reform. We are resolute in our commitment to delivering on them, and significant steps have already been taken to address building safety and fire safety risks.
Where a fire and rescue service has been advised of a high-rise residential building with aluminium composite material cladding, the National Fire Chiefs Council is confident that that building has been checked by the local fire and rescue service and, where appropriate, additional interim measures have been put in place to ensure the safety of residents. The Government have established a fire protection board, chaired by the National Fire Chiefs Council, to provide oversight of the programme to ensure that all high-rise residential buildings are inspected or reviewed by the end of 2021; £10 million has been allocated to support the fire and rescue service in this endeavour.
In December 2018, the use of combustible materials on new high-rise homes was banned, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in this year’s Budget that the Government will provide £1 billion to fund the removal and replacement of unsafe non-ACM cladding systems for both the social and private residential sectors on buildings of 18 metres and above. The prospectus for this new building safety fund will be published in May and open for registrations soon after. The funding is an addition to the £600 million we have already made available to ensure the remediation of the highest-risk ACM cladding of the type that was in place on Grenfell Tower.
In January, MHCLG issued specific advice for building owners on assurance and assessment and how to ensure fire doors meet appropriate fire safety standards. We have pushed owners and local authorities hard to identify and remediate unsafe buildings. We work closely with local fire authorities and fire and rescue services to ensure that interim safety measures are in place in all buildings until the cladding is replaced, but there is an urgent need for remediation to progress, even at this challenging time, recognising the continuing risks and the financial burdens on leaseholders in maintaining waking watches. I therefore want to be clear that remediation work can and should continue wherever it can be done safely—wherever it can, whenever it can.
It is critical that this work continue, and to help support that we have published information for industry and stakeholders on the gov.uk website on how to ensure sites can operate appropriately under the current restrictions. We have also appointed a firm of construction consultants to provide specific advice for those carrying out cladding remediation work.
While the focus of much of our activity has been high-rise residential buildings, it is important to stress that our work rightly goes far beyond that. To support the protection work targeting other high-risk buildings. the Home Office will be providing fire and rescue services with a further £10 million to help deliver protection work within their communities.
While talking about essential work within communities, at this time of incredible national challenge I want to use this opportunity to recognise, and pay tribute to, the essential role fire and rescue services are playing in our response to the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to their core duties, fire and rescue services have around 4,000 volunteers working to support ambulance services, coroners and local communities, as well as helping the vulnerable and those isolated at this incredibly difficult time. I want to thank firefighters and staff up and down the country for their incredible service, their dedication to duty and their desire to help others where they can, and for the incredible difference that is making.
The Queen’s Speech committed the Government to bringing forward two Bills on fire and building safety. The first is this short, technical, Home Office-led Fire Safety Bill, which will amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. The second, the building safety Bill, led by MHCLG, will put in place an enhanced safety framework for high-rise residential buildings, taking forward the recommendations from Dame Judith’s review. The purpose of the Bill before the House today is to clarify that the fire safety order applies to the external walls, including cladding and balconies, and individual flat entrance doors in multi-occupied residential buildings. The fire safety order requires responsible persons, often building owners or managers, to assess the risk from fire, to put in place fire precautions so far as reasonably practicable to keep premises safe, and otherwise to comply with the requirements of the order. The order does not apply to domestic premises, except in limited circumstances.
The Grenfell Tower inquiry’s phase 1 report found compelling evidence that the external walls of the tower were not compliant with building regulations. In January this year, the independent expert advisory panel on building safety set up by the Government shortly after the Grenfell fire published its consolidated advice. That includes advice on measures that building owners should take to review ACM and other cladding systems to assess and assure their fire safety and the potential risks to residents of the spread of external fire.
We have established that there are differing interpretations of the provisions in the order as to whether external walls and, to a lesser extent, individual flat entrance doors in multi-occupied residential buildings are in scope of the order. For that reason, we submit that the Bill is a clarification of the fire safety order. It will apply to all multi-occupied residential buildings regulated by the order. The current ambiguity is leading to inconsistency in operational practice. That is unhelpful at best and, at worst, it means that the full identification and management of fire safety risks is compromised, which can put the lives of people at risk.
Twenty flats in Barking were destroyed in June 2019 when a fire spread from a wooden balcony. Richmond House was a four-storey timber-framed block of flats in Worcester Park that burnt down in September. Only last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) highlighted a further significant fire in her constituency. Such fires are stark reminders of how a conflagration can spread on the external envelope of a building, and why those risks need to be identified or mitigated.
The Bill will therefore ensure that, when the responsible person makes a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks, it takes account of the structure, external walls, balconies and flat entrance doors in complying with the fire safety order, and allows enforcement action to be taken confidently by fire and rescue authorities. That will complement existing powers that local authorities have under the Housing Act 2004.
The Grenfell inquiry’s phase 1 report, published last October, provided a comprehensive picture of what happened on the night of 14 June 2017. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear at the time of publication, the Government accepted in principle all of the 14 recommendations addressed to the Government directly.
For high-rise residential buildings, the inquiry’s recommendations included new duties on building owners and managers: to issue information to the fire and rescue services; to ensure that there are premises information boxes; to carry out regular inspections of lifts; and to ensure that building floor numbers are clearly marked. For all multi-occupied residential buildings, the inquiry also called for new duties for regular checks of fire doors.
The objective is to ensure that fire and rescue services can plan for and respond to a fire in a high-rise residential building, alongside overall fire safety benefits for residents. As we said in our initial response to the report, we are committed to working closely with other organisations to ensure that the right changes are brought about to protect the public.
The Bill will also provide the firm foundation on which the Government will bring forward secondary legislation to enact those recommendations. Our proposals will be the subject of public consultation, to be published in the coming months. The consultation will also set out proposals to ensure that the fire safety order continues to regulate fire safety effectively in all the premises it covers, as part of the ongoing improvements to building safety following our 2019 call for evidence on the order.
The Bill will give the Secretary of State a regulation-making power to amend or clarify the list of premises that fall within scope of the fire safety order. That will enable us to respond quickly to any further developments in the design and construction of buildings and our understanding of the combustibility and fire risk of construction products.
As the order and therefore the Bill relate to matters within the legislative competence of the Welsh Assembly, the Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government in the Welsh Assembly has confirmed that she will put the matter before the Assembly for a legislative consent motion.
I am aware that the provisions of the Bill will require potentially significant numbers of responsible persons to review and update their fire risk assessments. For many, that will require specialist knowledge and the expertise of the fire risk assessor. We are working with representatives of the sector to understand the particular challenges in delivery. That will inform our approach to the implementation of the Bill, while maintaining a clear and consistent approach to fire risk assessments. In any event, and in line with the independent expert advisory panel’s consolidated advice, I would none the less encourage those with responsibilities to carry out a fire risk assessment under the order as a matter of good practice and to consider flat entrance doors and external wall systems as part of their fire risk assessment for multi-occupied residential blocks as soon as possible, if they have not already done so.
As I have highlighted, there is further legislation to follow. Following the 2019 consultation, the building safety Bill will put in place an enhanced safety framework for high-rise residential buildings. It will establish a new system to oversee the performance of building control functions, with stronger enforcement and sanctions, and give residents a stronger voice in the system, ensuring that their concerns are never ignored. That Bill will be published in draft form before the summer recess.
We will also establish a new national building safety regulator within the Health and Safety Executive. The new regulator will be responsible for implementing and enforcing a more stringent regulatory regime for high-rise residential buildings, as well as providing wider oversight of safety and performance.
The Fire Safety Bill complements all the actions that we have taken to date. It demonstrates that we are applying the lessons from the Grenfell tragedy and will continue to do everything within our power to ensure the safety of people in their homes. While legislation alone can never provide all the answers, I believe that it will make a significant and lasting contribution to the safety of residents. It will provide a catalyst to drive the culture change that is needed within our building and construction sector to put safety and security at the forefront and provide responsibility and accountability where people fall short. Above all, it will help to provide the legal foundations to ensure that such a tragedy can never happen again. I commend the Bill to the House.
I thank the Security Minister for his speech and his welcome. I shadowed him briefly in a previous role over recent months, and I look forward to working with him on issues of national interest.
In our deliberations today, at the forefront of our minds are the 72 people who lost their lives and the more than 70 who were injured in the terrible tragedy of Grenfell on 14 June 2017. All of us in this House and, indeed, the whole country will remember where we were when we first saw those devastating scenes in west London. It was one of the most heart-wrenching tragedies we can all imagine, and what made it unbearable was the fact that the event that unfolded was wholly preventable. It is and always will remain a stain on our national conscience. For those who escaped, for the emergency services at the scene and for all the family, the friends and the wider community, the events of that awful day will live with them forever.
The fact that such a tragedy could happen in one of the wealthiest boroughs in one of the wealthiest countries in the world shines a piercing light on the inequality in modern Britain and the many ways in which it manifests itself. Over the course of this debate, we will, of course, discuss the legislation, the numbers and the finance, but at the heart of it, we must always remember first and foremost that this is about people, and most strikingly, those who lost their lives and those who managed to escape but will live forever with the memories of that night. That is why people will rightly look to this House for not just words but action.
Getting the Bill right is vital, not just to address the failings so horrifically exposed by Grenfell but to guard against similar incidents—incidents that may appear unlikely or unimaginable today, but could be all too real in future. Labour Members support the Bill, but we urge the Government to go further and faster on fire safety so that there are no more Grenfell Tower tragedies and people are kept safe and secure in their own homes.
In October, we welcomed the first phase of the Grenfell Tower inquiry, which addresses the events of the night itself: when the fire began, when the first 999 call was made, at six minutes to one in the morning, and when the first firefighters reached the tower, five minutes later. We await phase 2 of the inquiry and its investigation into the broader causes, but we already know from the first phase report how it happened. The report says:
“Once the fire had escaped from Flat 16, it spread rapidly up the east face of the tower. It then spread around the top of the building in both directions and down the sides until the advancing flame fronts converged on the west face near the south-west corner, enveloping the entire building in under three hours.”
The report also sets out that there is
“compelling evidence that the external walls of the building failed to comply with…the Building Regulations 2010, in that they did not adequately resist the spread of fire having regard to the height, use and position of the building. On the contrary, they actively promoted it.”
“It is clear that the use of combustible materials in the external wall of Grenfell Tower, principally in the form of the ACM rainscreen cladding, but also in the form of combustible insulation, was the reason why the fire spread so quickly to the whole of the building.”
Given the particular focus on the actions of the London Fire Brigade at the scene in the first phase report, recommendations made to the fire service should be given the full response that they require. At the same time, while recognising what the first phase report says and learning the lessons, we continue to pay tribute to the heroic actions of firefighters in our country every day, including on the night of the Grenfell Tower fire, when so many put themselves at serious risk to save the Grenfell Tower residents. We will continue to press the Government to give all survivors the support that they need, to bring those culpable to justice, and to put in place every measure needed to prevent a fire such as Grenfell from ever happening again.
As the Security Minister said, the Bill’s provisions clarify that the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 applies to external walls, including cladding, balconies and windows, and individual flat entrance doors in multi-occupied residential buildings. Responsible persons will need to ensure that they have assessed the fire safety risks of the relevant premises and have taken the necessary fire precautions, with fire and rescue authorities having enforcement powers, including the ability to remove cladding and to put in place prohibitions until changes are made. However, we have to be absolutely clear who the responsible persons are and allow nobody—owners or anyone else—to shirk their responsibilities under the Bill.
Although those powers are welcome, they are clearly not enough in themselves to meet the Government’s pledge to prevent another tragedy from happening. Clause 2 gives the Government powers to make further changes through secondary legislation, and the Government have said that that will provide a foundation to take forward recommendations. The Government have said they will launch a consultation on the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 in spring 2020, and that that will include proposals for implementing the Grenfell Tower phase 1 report recommendations, which will be delivered via secondary legislation.
However, the Government have not given a timetable for when they will deliver those recommendations through secondary legislation. They must do so urgently. There is an urgent need for the fire safety measures recommended, and that urgency must be reflected in the actions of Ministers. Indeed, almost three years after Grenfell, this three-clause Bill is the first and only piece of primary legislation on fire safety that the Government have put before the House.
The Bill does not include provisions for the inquiry’s recommendations. The Government had already promised, in October 2019, to implement the inquiry’s recommendations in full and without delay. The 2019 Conservative manifesto repeated that commitment, but even the simpler recommendations, such as the inspection of fire doors and the testing of lifts, are not in the Bill. Long-overdue reforms of building safety are also not included in the legislation—they are to be in a separate building safety Bill. The Security Minister indicated that the draft version of that Bill would appear before the summer, but that process still needs to be moved forward as quickly as it possibly can be. He should clarify when it will appear in final form.
The House cannot escape the way in which the inquiry report was repeatedly critical of the Government: for the failure to remove ACM cladding from other blocks; for not funding the fire service efficiently to be properly equipped; for failing to publish national guidelines on the evacuation of tall buildings; and for ignoring recommendations to retrofit sprinklers in social housing blocks in the years leading up to the Grenfell tragedy.
The Bill will require a higher level of inspection and enforcement and will increase the workload on fire and rescue services. There has to be clarity about the funding to carry out such work. The Fire Brigades Union has said today that there are 1,100 fire-safety inspectors left; there have to be more to carry out the duties in the Bill. Between 2010 and 2016, the fire and rescue services were cut centrally by 28% in real terms, with a further cut of 15% by 2020. That led to 12,000 fewer firefighters—20% of the whole service.
As Mayor of London, the Prime Minister was responsible for deep cuts. An independent review by Anthony Mayer found that in the eight years of the Prime Minister’s mayoralty, the London Fire Brigade was required to make gross savings of more than £100 million, leading to the cutting of 27 fire appliances, 552 firefighters, 324 support staff, two fire-rescue units and three training appliances, along with the closure of 10 fire stations and a reduction of fire rescue unit crewing levels.
Grenfell was not the first fire in a high-rise block of flats that resulted in loss of life. In 2013, coroners wrote to Ministers about two separate fires: in Camberwell in 2009, in which six people died; and in Southampton in 2010, in which two firefighters died. The coroners’ letters included clear points of criticism and recommendations, important parts of which—including recommendations to retrofit sprinklers in high-rise housing blocks and to urgently overhaul building regulations—were either rejected or ignored. Letters were sent to the then Housing Minister by the all-party group on fire safety and rescue, with the last sent just 26 days before the tragedy.
An issue that must be recognised is the reaction to the Grenfell fire, with the Government not acting swiftly enough to remove Grenfell-style cladding from tower blocks and a failure to support residents with interim safety costs. To give an example, waking watches, when fire wardens patrol residences, can cost residents £10,000 or more for very short periods of time.
Coronavirus is an unprecedented challenge and I recognise what the Security Minister said about action continuing where it can and the crisis that we are currently in. We of course recognise that it absolutely changes working patterns, but it cannot ever be an excuse for failing to take strong and swift action on the removal of cladding, because 60,000 worried residents are still living in buildings wrapped in cladding that needs to be replaced. Almost nine in 10 private sector buildings and half of social sector buildings have not had cladding removed.
The Security Minister will, I am sure, remember setting a deadline of the end of 2019 for social sector blocks to be made safe, and of June 2020 for private sector blocks—a deadline that now looks likely to be missed. In addition, the Government have yet to publish their findings from the audit of how many buildings are covered with dangerous non-ACM cladding, such as high-pressure laminate. I urge the Minister to make that audit’s findings, which I understand were available at the end of March, fully available as soon as possible.
After Grenfell, the Government accepted that there were flaws in the building safety regime and commissioned the Hackitt review, as the Security Minister said. That was published in May 2018. The Government accept that they did not go far enough. That led to the ban on combustible cladding in November 2018 and the restrictions on desktop studies. As I have indicated, the Government have yet to publish that primary legislation. While the draft will be available in the summer, as the Security Minister said, the process must be faster.
Labour will look to improve the Bill during its passage through Parliament. I urge the Government to have an open mind in the short Committee stage they have allocated and to give reassurance on a timetable for the measures they intend to take. Anything less than that would be a breach of promise to those who were lost and every person affected by the terrible tragedy of Grenfell, which none of us wants to see ever happen again.
I will conclude by taking a moment to pay tribute to all those who were impacted by the Grenfell tragedy and the remarkable community efforts that grew up and have been maintained to support people. In this, the most awful of incidents, we also saw the very best in people. I commend the work that they have done campaigning for justice.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which has already been published. I also declare an interest in that I used to be a fireman. I look across the Chamber trying to see Jim Fitzpatrick, but he has retired. His expertise, knowledge and balanced attitude in these debates over the years is something that we will miss a lot.
I am also almost fully responsible for it being the shadow Home Secretary who is representing the Opposition in this debate and it being my good friend the Security Minister, sunning himself in Kent, who is representing the Government. I convinced the then Prime Minister and then Home Secretary that the fire service should be part, along with the police, of the Home Office emergency provision. Sadly we have not yet gone as far as I would like, with the blue-light services coming under one ministerial umbrella. The regulations should have come across with the fire service responsibility. It should not two different Departments vying over it with the Cabinet Office being involved; it should be one Minister who is responsible for safety in our fire service.
I welcome this very short Bill, but I share some of the concerns about what is not in it—those will be talked about in the House today—and that the shadow Home Secretary has expressed.
It would be wrong for me not to praise and have deep-felt thoughts for those who lost loved ones and have been affected so much by Grenfell, including my former colleagues, the ambulance service and the police who saw things that night and in the following days that they never thought they would ever see in their careers. I was trained in high-rise, and I never thought I would see what I saw on television and subsequently when I drove past on my way into Westminster the following morning. I never dreamed that we would see double-glazing units fully alight falling out and coming down the side of a building, or that the cladding itself would be the perpetrator. However, the cladding is not the perpetrator of what happened at Grenfell; the perpetrator is who allowed it to be installed. Who did not do the checks? The inquiry will go into that. In the five minutes I have, I am not going to be able to go into that in depth, but what needs to come out is how this happened. I am sure that that is exactly what will come out in the inquiry.
It is not only ACM. Other fundamentally unsafe claddings are being put around buildings. I will come on to those in a second. I looked very carefully at the Local Government Association’s brief and I share some of its concerns. One of my biggest concerns is the shortage of engineers, to which the shadow Home Secretary alluded. When I was in the job, the firemen did that. We had guys who went away on specialist courses and they were responsible for the topography of their patch. They did those sorts of checks. It was not just the guys on appliances, but officers who had gone away and were trained to do so.
There is an anomaly that can be resolved in the Bill, or the subsequent Bill, to prevent that from happening. One thing that shocked me when I was first made the fire service Minister was that it is not possible for a local fire service to charge the local authority to do such inspections because it is not allowed to make a profit. That is against regulations when there is a shortage of engineers around the country. The other day, I was in a warden accommodation where the lovely folk said, “The firemen came around and said I couldn’t have a mat outside my front door.” The firemen did not come around and say that; that was a private contractor. Frankly, it is lunacy if you cannot have a mat outside your front door. What sort of problem that is going to be in a fire, I do not know. Perhaps they thought that people would throw them away. The point is that often it is the fire service that does a lot of those inspections, but very often it is not.
We could change the regulations tomorrow to allow the fire service to do what it wants to do, which is to be responsible for their ground on their patches, in a way that it is unable to do at the moment. Perhaps we could do that through an amendment in the short Committee stage, or perhaps we could do that in the future Bill as it comes forward, because it will be published in draft and we can do a lot of work on it. I will work across the House to help to get this right. The Security Minister has now disappeared from our screens, but I know he would be similarly encouraged to do so.
There is another major anomaly. The LGA’s brief says that it should not be responsible for properties owned by leaseholders. The leaseholder does not own the property—that is the freeholder—and they should not have the burden, which is currently on them all the time, day in, day out, in the Bill.
First, may I allude to the work, which has just been mentioned, by my honourable friend and colleague, Jim Fitzpatrick? When he was a Member of this House, he did an awful lot of work in this area, and he deserves to be respected and remembered for that.
This is the first of two Bills to improve building safety, particularly in relation to fire. This Bill will be followed by the building safety Bill, which we understand will come in draft form. If that is the case, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, will look forward to undertaking pre-legislative scrutiny on it. We will certainly treat it with the urgency it deserves. The Committee has taken evidence in recent months from Dame Judith Hackitt on her report on fire safety, expert witnesses and Ministers. We recommended at an early stage that all combustible cladding should be removed from high rise residential buildings and we called for Government funding to enable that to happen. I am pleased that many of the Committee’s recommendations have been accepted, but it is unacceptable that at this stage there are still over 300 high rise residential buildings that have combustible cladding on them.
The Select Committee has just started a new inquiry into combustible cladding. We have had 1,300 responses to a survey. In those responses, we have been told by the respondents that 70% of them are living in buildings that still have combustible cladding on them. We have been told that in many of those buildings, fire breaks and fire doors are missing or inadequate. We have been told that many of the buildings have combustible insulation as well as combustible cladding. Nearly three years after Grenfell, it is not good enough that those buildings are still in that state.
It is welcome, however, that the Bill clarifies the responsibility of building owners with regard to those issues and defects. It gives powers to the fire service to enforce the regulations that are in place. One of the challenges highlighted by Dame Judith Hackitt is the need for responsible and accountable persons at all stages of a building’s life. A responsible and accountable person needs to be identified at the construction stage and then, when the building is built, for its maintenance and management. As the previous speaker, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), said, the question is: who is the responsible owner in each case? Is it the leaseholder? The real problem for leaseholders is that they are not normally the building owner. Is it the freeholder, who may not have legal responsibility, or is it the management agent? Do any of these bodies actually have the necessary skills to take on this role and, indeed, would a management agent want to do that job if they had to take on those liabilities? There are real challenges that are not addressed in this legislation.
On the role of the fire service, it is welcome that it will be given powers to enforce the regulations and make sure that buildings are safe, and that owners do their job. We heard in our Select Committee inquiry that the job of the fire service, in all matters, could be greatly enhanced and helped if every single property has a log book, which has the materials used in the construction of the building, the building’s layout and the responsibilities for the management of that building, including evacuation procedures. It would help the fire service to carry out enforcement and, of course, it would make it much easier for the fire service to deal with a fire when one breaks out in such a building.
Dame Judith highlighted the need for residents of these high-rise residential buildings to be fully involved in, informed of and consulted on matters to do with the safety of those buildings. The Select Committee completely agreed with her, and it is welcome that in the Bill, there is the possibility to go on and ensure that evacuation procedures in buildings are fully understood by the people who live in them.
Finally, to echo the comments that have been made, all this legislation we are discussing today and future legislation should have the simple objective of making sure that a Grenfell disaster never happens again.
As most hon. Members are aware, Grenfell Tower is in my constituency, so the whole issue of fire safety is very close to my heart. I start by paying tribute to my constituents, the Grenfell bereaved and survivors, their friends and neighbours, and the wider community, with whom I have spent a lot of time over the last six months, since I was elected to this place. They have been through so much, but they have always conducted themselves with great grace and dignity and they have campaigned tirelessly for improved fire and building regulations, so I commend them for that.
I also commend the Bill to the House, because I believe that it will improve the safety of those living in multiple-occupancy residential dwellings, and it will provide a platform whereby we can implement the recommendations of this first phase of the Grenfell inquiry. As previously stated, the Bill puts beyond doubt that the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 does require building owners, of any height of building, to mitigate the risks in their building when it comes to external walls, balconies and fire doors.
We also need to think practically, and we need to think forward. There is no question but that the Bill will increase, quite rightly, the amount and nature of the work that needs to be done on fire risk assessment on buildings, so we need to ask industry whether it has enough fire safety experts and whether they are trained to a sufficient standard whereby they can assess the entirety of a building.
Clearly, there will also be cost implications for building owners, and we need to make absolutely sure that if a building owner is unable or unwilling to pay for these remediation measures, that does not stand in the way of fire safety. I would also say to the Minister that we need to act with speed and with a real sense of urgency. I am very conscious that the tragedy of Grenfell Tower happened almost three years ago. We need to see tangible results not only in legislation but in improvements to buildings on the ground. I welcome the £1 billion in the recent Budget for the remediation of non-ACM cladding coming on top of the £600 million fund for ACM cladding, but we need to see that money utilised soon, and the work needs to continue in spite of the coronavirus lockdown. I would strongly encourage industry to focus on that remediation work now.
I strongly commend the Bill to the House, but I cannot stress enough that when it comes to fire and building safety improvements, we need to work collectively with a sense of urgency and purpose. As we spend ever more time in our own homes as a result of coronavirus, it becomes ever more clear that safety in our own homes needs to be of paramount importance. Nothing can stand in the way of improved building and fire regulations. We cannot allow another Grenfell tragedy to happen on our watch.
I would like to associate myself with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), the shadow Home Secretary, both in welcoming the Bill and in relation to what is needed in respect of fire safety, funding for fire services and, in particular, justice for the Grenfell community. I shall focus my remarks on the plight of leaseholders in my constituency, who have been badly affected and for whom I believe the Government need to take much stronger action.
I represent hundreds of people who have been affected by cladding-related issues, including those in the Islington Gates development and at Brindley House in my constituency. Islington Gates is a 144-unit development, and Brindley House is a 182-unit development. Both have flammable cladding, which has rendered the buildings unsafe. In my view, the Government have not moved quickly enough in dealing with cladding that is not of the ACM type that we saw in the Grenfell fire. I welcome the new £1 billion fund, but it took far too long for us to get to that point. It was the result of sustained campaigning from Members across the House, the Labour Front Bench and campaign groups such as the UK Cladding Action Group, the Birmingham Leaseholder Action Group and Manchester Cladiators, alongside many others, who kept up the pressure on the Government ahead of the Budget, that the announcement of the remediation fund was eventually made.
Some big questions remain unanswered about that fund, on the speed with which the fund will be paying out for remediation works and on whether there is enough money to cover the cost of all the works that will be required in buildings such as Islington Gates and Brindley House. If the money is not enough, the Government need to make it clear that they will meet any and all of those costs, and that the £1 billion fund does not represent the limit of the support that the Government are prepared to make available.
These issues are difficult enough for the people who live in these properties, but many, such as those I represent, have now been overtaken by another even more pressing matter: the insurance cover for their buildings. On this issue, there has been a depressing lack of understanding and engagement from Government. If we are not to preside over an even bigger social disaster, that has to change.
At Islington Gates, residents were already paying very large sums for interim fire safety measures before they were hit with a fivefold increase in the cost of insuring their building from £36,000 to £190,000. They had to find a consortium of five insurers to provide cover for their building. When those sums are added to the money that leaseholders already have to find for interim fire safety measures, they are looking at bills of many tens of thousands of pounds—more than some of them will earn in a whole year. For residents of Brindley House, the new quote for their insurance costs is 1,000% higher, having soared to £530,000; the commission and taxes alone on their premium are more than the whole of their premium for the previous year. Last year, they spent £150,000 on internal compartmentation and fire door works; they are paying over £180,000 for their 24/7 waking watch; and on top of all that, they have had to pay £100,000 to replace their fire alarm system.
Can Ministers on the Treasury Bench imagine the stress of receiving a bill for a sum that is much more than they earn in a year? On top of that is the tightening of everyone’s financial circumstances as a result of the covid crisis. My constituents are enduring a level of stress that has left them at breaking point. Their situation is unconscionable, given that they have done nothing wrong. They are facing the consequences of national regulatory failure, and they should not simply be left to it. I have asked the Government repeatedly to take action on insurance for buildings affected in this way. In other parts of the sector, where insurance companies have been unwilling to provide affordable cover for natural disasters such as flooding, the Government have stepped forward with measures such as the Flood Re scheme. I urge them to consider stepping forward in a similar way on cladding insurance cover. It offends every part of our British values, our sense of fair play and decency, that people face ruin through no fault of their own. It is a national failure and it requires a national response.
Today our country is in the midst of a national crisis, and together with the rest of the world we face an invisible enemy. No individual or group of people can say with any certainty how this crisis started and how it will end, but I feel certain that working together we will overcome it. That is in sharp contrast to the Bill before the House, which was of course triggered by the Grenfell disaster.
Who can forget the chilling morning of 14 June 2017, when we all woke to see the Grenfell Tower become a burning inferno? Words cannot describe adequately the horror that I and everyone in our country felt when we saw the tower ablaze. We could see the enemy there. It was a fire, and yes, Parliament could and should have done something to prevent it from happening. The all-party parliamentary fire safety and rescue group drew attention on countless occasions to the underlying issues surrounding the cause of the fire, but unfortunately, those warnings were not acted on swiftly enough.
I, as chair of the APPG, do not want to dwell on the past. Instead, I want to say that I am delighted by and welcome the Bill, which will at long last require owners and managers of multi-occupancy residential buildings in England and Wales to reduce the risk of fire through unsafe materials on the external walls of buildings and individual flat entrances. Essentially, I am delighted to say, it closes at last a legal loophole that left it unclear whether fire safety legislation applied to certain parts of multi-occupancy residential buildings, such as the structure’s external walls, including anything attached such as cladding, balconies and windows, and the entrance doors to individual flats that open on to common parts. Our APPG strongly supports the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan), who represents the constituency where the tower is, said, the Bill provides reassurance to residents that the Government have learned lessons from the Grenfell tragedy and are taking steps to improve the safety of those residents while ensuring that building owners and managers—the Opposition spokesman was right to draw the House’s attention to this—are clear that they are responsible for assessing the risk of external walls and fire doors of any height. If I had the time, I would say something else about height, but I hope that Members will discuss that in Committee.
The fire and rescue services’ role of undertaking enforcements against dangerous cladding and fire doors in residential buildings is also made clear. While the application of the order initially applies to a building containing two or more sets of domestic premises, the relevant authority may, by regulations, amend the order to change or clarify the premises to which it applies. The Bill will bring these areas within the scope of the 2005 order, ensuring that the responsible person assesses and mitigates the fire safety risk associated with these parts of the building. Fire and rescue services will at long last be able to take enforcement action and hold the responsible person to account if they are not compliant.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government will gain powers to amend the 2005 order by way of secondary legislation, enabling Government to adapt legislation to align it with the proposed new building safety regulatory system and to implement the recommendations of phase 1 of the Grenfell public inquiry, such as new requirements for signage and evacuation plans in residential buildings. As has been said, this Bill is, in effect, enabling legislation that will address much-criticised legal ambiguity that has hampered fire and rescue services in trying to deal effectively with unsafe cladding and flat entrance doors. They will be expected to use these new powers, and landlords and responsible persons should be prepared for that, as the Minister of State said.
For the past 11 years, since the July 2009 Lakanal House fire tragedy, and with more intensity since the inquest on that fire seven years ago, the all-party parliamentary group has warned what would happen. I am delighted that now the Minister of State will work with us in the future.
Criticising this Bill would be as futile as criticising an empty bookshelf: one needs to look at the quality of the books. Clause 1 simply clarifies the fire safety order of 2005, and clause 2 is no more than a delegated power to make regulations amending that order in future. While the Bill is, in itself, welcome, it is no more than a piece of legislative furniture—the content is yet to come.
I want to illustrate the futility of even the best regulations on fire safety if the monitoring and enforcement regime is flawed from the beginning. Almost 1,000 people had their homes in the TNQ development of 460 flats in my constituency. The flats are unsafe because of fire stopping and other defects, which means that there is no compartmentation between them and a fire would spread swiftly up inside the walls of the building. When the building was completed in 2015, the regulations from the 2005 order were not unclear in any way. Approved document B specified that fire a