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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 675: debated on Monday 4 May 2020

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The Secretary of State was asked—

Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans

Whether the Government have collated statistics by region on the number of businesses that have had their coronavirus business interruption loan application (a) approved and (b) rejected. (902138)

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that all firms requiring assistance are able to access the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. (902152)

What estimate his Department has made of the number of social enterprises that have received coronavirus business interruption loans. (902148)

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that all firms requiring assistance are able to access the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. (902153)

What discussions he has had with small businesses on the operation of the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. (902149)

As of 1 May, over £4.7 billion-worth of loans have been issued under the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme to 29,496 businesses. From today, businesses will be able to access our new bounce-back loans of up to £50,000 by filling in a simple, quick application. Those will be backed by a 100% Government guarantee.

Since I tabled this question, the Government have taken action in this area, which I welcome, but can the Secretary of State respond to my constituents’ concerns that the application for the business interruption loan scheme is too complicated? Will he develop a simple, standardised application process for businesses looking to access loans above £50,000?

I welcome the hon. Lady’s acknowledgement that things are starting to work in terms of the CBIL scheme. I have personally had conversations with individual banks, and I will continue to do that. We have also made the scheme more accessible—for instance, extending it to all viable small businesses and removing the forward viability test.

Businesses such as RG Millward Ltd in my constituency of Derbyshire Dales have been applying for the coronavirus business interruption loan. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment that those loans will be interest-free for 12 months. What is he doing to ensure that businesses such as those in my rural constituency can access these loans from the banks on the most favourable and reasonable terms at this difficult time?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I can tell her that my Department is working very closely with the financial sector to ensure that businesses across the whole UK, including in Derbyshire Dales, are getting the support they need. As a result of the schemes we have announced, through the British Business Bank, businesses can now access Government-backed loans worth anywhere from £2,000 up to £50 million.

It is estimated that 50% of social enterprises could run out of cash by June without further support, raising concerns that the CBIL scheme is not working for social enterprises. Some of those will be in aviation, which is coming under huge strain. The UK aviation industry could lose around £21 billion-worth of revenue, putting at risk over 600,000 jobs, with 12,000 job cuts likely at British Airways alone, which will hit Feltham and Heston and the surrounding constituencies very hard. When will the Secretary of State bring forward specific support packages for the sectors that are worst hit by covid-19, such as aviation?

The hon. Lady’s question was in two parts. The first related to social enterprises. CBILS is open to all social enterprises, so long as they make at least 50% of their income from trading, which we believe covers the majority of social enterprises. She raised a wider question about larger companies. As she knows, we have a range of schemes in place, with the bounce-back loan scheme at one end and the corporate finance facility at the other. Where an individual business is not able to access any of those particular schemes, they can come to us, and we will consider the case that they make.

Many established and previously profitable businesses in East Devon are desperate to access financial support, but they have found the major banks unwilling to lend. I joined many MPs from across Devon in writing to chief executives of major banks, because I feel that they are not living up to the expectations required during this emergency. Does the Secretary of State agree that banks need to step up and put in place enough resources to process these requests urgently, so that businesses in East Devon can get the support they need?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. As I said in answer to an earlier question, I have been talking to the largest lenders. I spoke to them particularly over the bank holiday weekend, to ensure that they were putting in place sufficient measures and more people to process loan requests quickly. I believe that they have recognised the challenge and are stepping up to it. He will know that we have made changes to the CBIL scheme to make it more accessible, extending it to all viable small businesses, removing the forward viability test, encouraging automated credit checks and, of course, banning all personal guarantees for loans under £250,000.

I welcome what the Secretary of State just said, but in my area, businesses are still reporting complications with the scheme, which is hampering their speed and eligibility to access the loans. No cap has been placed on the interest rates that can be charged, and some banks in Greater Manchester are offering interest rates of up to 20%. There are also difficulties in getting through to banks to apply. Can the Secretary of State tell me what he is doing to sort this urgently, so that small businesses can access this vital support?

We are all aligned in our wish to make sure that these loans are getting out to businesses, and I believe that is starting to happen. On interest rates, of course, I have had those discussions on a very granular basis with banks, and they have recognised, on the CBIL scheme, where we are providing an 80% guarantee, that there is a requirement to reflect that in the interest rate. Furthermore, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the interest rate on the bounce-back loans, which have just been announced, is set at 2.5%, and of course the Government have taken care of the first year of interest.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

I can tell the Secretary of State that we are committed to working constructively with the Government on all issues, and we welcome the recent changes to the loans system. I have two specific questions about his draft guidelines on workplace safety. We share the desire for a return to work as soon as it is safe, but he will know that firms with more than five employees are obliged by law to carry out risk assessments on safety. First, does he plan to ensure the publication of these risk assessments to give confidence to workers? Secondly, on enforcement of safe working, the Health and Safety Executive is operating on substantially reduced resources. What will he do to ensure that the guidelines are enforced so that all workers can feel safe?

I also take this opportunity to welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new role. We have already had two very constructive discussions. I hope that will be the tone of our future interactions. He raises an important point. We both want workers in our country to feel safe and confident that they are returning to a safe workplace. Work on the consultation is ongoing, and obviously I do not want to pre-empt it, but he makes some very important points, and of course he is always welcome to write to me. I will look at what he says very carefully.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I hope that he will come to the House to make a fuller statement on these matters at the earliest opportunity.

I want to ask about another aspect of the lifting of the lockdown, which is financial support for businesses and workers. Does he recognise that there will need to be a second phase of financial support for those businesses that will have to stay closed for longer, including an extension of the furlough scheme, with more flexibility for part-time working? Secondly, on the hospitality sector, which he knows is facing very challenging times, can I urge him to look favourably at the proposal, which has the support of over 80 of his own Back Benchers, to extend business support grants to businesses with rateable values of up to £150,000? It would make a difference to tens of thousands of pubs, restaurants and other businesses that are the lifeblood of our communities.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have provided support for the hospitality, leisure and retail sector. There is a 100% rates holiday for all businesses in that sector, and we are also making £25,000 grants available to them. Under the grant scheme—the £25,000 and £10,000 grants—as of last Monday, £7.5 billion had been paid out. I hope he will welcome that. On the wider measures he talks about, we keep everything under review, and I will look at anything that comes forward.

I also welcome the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) to his new position on the Labour Front Bench.

A recent poll by the Scottish Chambers of Commerce has found that 48% of Scottish companies will run out of cash within three months, with 64% identifying shortcomings in Government support schemes. Does the Minister agree with Sir George Mathewson that, far from helping them to bounce back, these loan schemes will not even allow businesses to survive, and that the only option is to write off the debt and convert these loans urgently into more accessible grants?

I say to the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have enormous respect, that one has to look at the sum total of what the Government are putting forward. He will know that about 4 million people are being furloughed under the job retention scheme and that support is available through grant schemes, which I talked about in my response to the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). Of course it is important that we support businesses, and we will continue to do that.

Support for Vaccine Manufacturing and Life Sciences Sector

What steps his Department is taking to support (a) vaccine manufacturing and (b) the UK life sciences sector. (902146)

I announced the new vaccines taskforce on 17 April, which will expedite efforts to research and produce a coronavirus vaccine. Last week, thanks to UK Government financial support of £20 million, the Oxford vaccine entered clinical trials in humans. I can update the House that as of today 601 people have taken part in that trial. We continue to talk to Oxford to understand its manufacturing needs, and colleagues will be aware it has announced a collaboration with AstraZeneca to ensure manufacturing capacity in the UK.

British scientists are working with partners around the world to develop treatments and vaccines for covid-19. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is just as important that we take the same collaborative approach to manufacturing to ensure that, wherever treatments are developed around the world, they are made available in Britain and to people right across the world as soon as possible?

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. We are absolutely committed to working with international partners in tackling the pandemic, ensuring the UK is contributing to, and indeed benefiting from, efforts around the globe. At the global coronavirus response summit, which the UK is co-hosting, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has today confirmed the £388 million from the UK towards the global £8 billion target for research and development into covid-19.

Covid-19: New Ways of Working

What support his Department is providing to businesses designing new ways of working to help safely mitigate the effects of the covid-19 outbreak. (902144)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We are engaging with businesses, business representative organisations and unions to get a shared view on how workplaces are made as safe as possible for when people return to work. We will work with industry and other key Administrations to help develop an understanding of how business can adapt to a world where restrictions may last for some time.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place. I want to ask particularly about tourism and hospitality, as Montgomeryshire is a rural, countryside constituency. It is built for socially distanced tourism, but the industry, including our pubs, our hotels and our countryside pursuits, will need some support in putting together the new normal and the new way of working. What work are the Government doing to get the sector deal on its feet?

As the Prime Minister said, we want to get the economy moving as fast as we can, but we refuse to throw away all the effort and sacrifice of the British people and risk another major outbreak. We will be relying on science to inform us, as we have from the beginning. We will also be reaching out to build the biggest possible consensus across business, industry and all parts of the United Kingdom.

Yesterday, the Government gave trade unions just 12 hours to respond to seven consultation papers on safe return to work. The entire country wants the Government to succeed, but that is not how to build confidence or trust. The proposals talk about what the Government expect employers to consider and say that social distancing and hand washing should happen where possible to help, but insufficient attention is paid to personal protective equipment. Taking the necessary steps to protect employees is not a matter of expectation or guidance; it is the law. Will the Minister therefore confirm that covid-19 risk assessments will be mandatory for most businesses; that they will be made public and registered with the HSE; and that, given the lack of capacity to carry out inspections, workplace health and safety reps will be involved in settling assessments and then in their implementation and enforcement, and that they will be able to assist in non-unionised supply chain companies?

We are engaging with businesses, business representative organisations and unions to come to a shared view on how to make our places as safe as possible for when people return to work. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are also involving Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive.

Covid-19: UK Space Industry

What steps his Department is taking to help the UK space industry to support nationwide plans to tackle the covid-19 outbreak. (902155)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The UK Space Agency, working with NHS England and the European Space Agency, has made £2.6 million available for “close to market” ideas to manage pandemics. A new, fast contracting process will ensure swift development. The agency is also working with UK Research and Innovation to explore how drones can support health services.

May I join my hon. Friend the Minister in thanking the space industry for its help with the crisis? Does she agree that investment in the UK space sector has a vital role to play in growing the UK economy, and could she confirm that programmes such as the global navigation satellite system and Skynet 6 are moving ahead at pace?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The growing UK space sector employs 42,000 people and contributes £300 billion to the wider UK economy by providing satellite services on which many industries rely. The UK Space Agency continues to investigate the requirements, design specifications and cost of a UK GNSS capability, and it is working closely with the Ministry of Defence to support activities under the Skynet contract. We are working hard to develop a UK space strategy to generate further economic growth across the country.

Covid-19: Small Businesses

What discussions he has had with (a) the Federation of Small Businesses and (b) other representatives of small businesses on the Government's response to the covid-19 outbreak. (902143)

The Government are doing everything at their disposal to support businesses through the crisis and beyond. The Department is maintaining an ongoing dialogue with key stakeholders representing the country’s small businesses. The FSB regularly participates in the Business Secretary’s twice weekly call and regularly engages with my Department on a number of issues relating to covid-19.

The best way, probably, to help small business in rural areas such as Lincolnshire is to beef up broadband. That is for the long term, but does the Minister accept that, in the short term, the best way to help businesses is to let them do business, not subsidise them to close? I know we have to help vulnerable people, but it is not going to help the vulnerable in the long term if we crash the economy, so are the Government working full pelt, obviously consistent with proper social distancing, to get business back to work?

My right hon. Friend is quite right: we want to focus on getting business back to work; but these lockdown measures were introduced to protect lives. Relaxing the measures too much would, we feel, risk damage to public health, our economy and all the sacrifices we have all made. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education said last week, it is incredibly important that we create environments that are safe in which to work and learn. We will adjust lockdown measures when the scientific advice indicates that it is safe to do so.

Covid-19: Support for Businesses

My Department is supporting businesses through the coronavirus business interruption loan schemes. In addition to those programmes, we are providing grants for small businesses linked to their business rate status, and we are scrapping business rates this year for those in the hospitality, retail and leisure sectors. We have also set up a package of support that will offer £1.25 billion for high-growth firms, and today we are launching a scheme providing bounce-back loans of up to £50,000 to small businesses.

I represent a number of businesses in Newbury that specialise in renewable energy. A secondary effect of the pandemic has been a collapse in demand for fossil fuel. When the economy begins its recovery, what support will my right hon. Friend be able to give to clean energy suppliers, to ensure a greener and more resilient energy infrastructure?

My hon. Friend is quite right. We are absolutely committed to net zero and will continue to support the development of clean energy. The fourth round of allocations for contracts for difference will take place next year, bringing forward new renewable electricity projects and creating further demand for the many businesses across the UK that supply them. The unprecedented package of support for businesses, which was mentioned earlier, will help ensure that businesses in the clean energy sector can contribute to driving economic recovery after this pandemic.

Will the Government please give local authorities and local enterprise partnerships real-time access to sector-level information about the furloughs and redundancies, and back ambitious enterprise and incentive schemes for them to help businesses to recover and transform after the virus?

My hon. Friend raises a really important point: the flow of information is key to dealing with the crisis. I am happy to meet him to discuss the specifics of his constituency businesses, and I will raise access to specific data with my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Several businesses in Carshalton and Wallington that were not eligible for the first round of grants have got in touch with me, such as those in shared offices and our lovely park cafés. Does the Minister agree that councils should make use of the discretionary fund announced over the weekend to help those businesses through the pandemic?

We have recognised that there are businesses, particularly in shared workspaces, with relatively high fixed costs related to rent payments, for example, and that they have not been able to benefit directly from the grants. I know that my hon. Friend has raised the issue with my Department; as a result of his lobbying, on Friday my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced additional funding to local authorities administering the two grant funds, which will help to support businesses that are currently out of scope. I strongly commend my hon. Friend’s input. Local authorities can now provide grants to small businesses in a variety of shared workspaces.

Local businesses in Gillingham and Rainham have asked me to ask the Minister to clarify what help is being given to those self-employed business owners and partners who earn over the £50,000 threshold. Some of those businesses cannot furlough any or some of their staff, and business interruption loans still need to be paid at a later date. Will the Minister clarify what support is available to those who fall into that category?

First, I would like to clarify our current position: we have prioritised helping the greatest number of people as quickly as possible, and in order to target that support at those most in need, the Government have chosen to cap the self-employment income support scheme. Those who are not able to access the scheme may be able to access other wide-ranging measures that the Government are providing, which are designed to support businesses across all sectors during these difficult times. I am very happy for my hon. Friend to engage with the Department and me on the issue.

Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme: Ineligible Workers

What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on providing financial support for workers ineligible for the coronavirus job retention scheme. (902139)

What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on providing financial support for workers ineligible for the coronavirus job retention scheme. (902165)

My Department is working closely with the Treasury on the coronavirus job retention scheme and the wider Government response. In developing the scheme, the Government have prioritised helping the greatest number of people as quickly as possible.

While the additional flexibility is welcome, the job retention scheme does nothing for those outside its arbitrary limits, such as my Livingston constituent, stonemason Jason Hoffman, who has a small limited business and makes up a modest salary with legal and tax-efficient annual dividends. Jason does not qualify for the scheme, is not eligible for universal credit and cannot furlough himself because he could not bid for work and his business would collapse. How many small businesses like Jason’s will be destroyed before this Conservative Government finally listen and include them in the scheme? What comfort can the Minister give to my constituent today?

As I said, we have tried to prioritise helping the greatest number of people as quickly as possible. To make sure that other people can be helped, including those who are self-employed, a scheme for them is also available. We have tried to do as much as we can through grants, as well as through local government, including £617 million in discretionary grants for businesses that may not be registered for business rates, which can get the additional help that was announced in the past 48 hours.

I am not entirely sure whether the Minister or the Secretary of State are listening. The truth is that the coronavirus business loan scheme is not working, partly because some lenders do not trust the Government to stand foursquare behind their loan guarantee without moving the goalposts at a future date. Loganair is just one of many businesses in my constituency with an urgent need to access the scheme through an overly cautious and risk-averse lender. What can the Minister and his colleagues in the Treasury do about that?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman feels that way. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s counterpart in the Scottish Government, Fiona Hyslop, to whom I speak every week, as I do to Ken Skates in Wales and Diane Dodds in Northern Ireland, thinks that the schemes are working well. We have improved them as we have reviewed them. We have also launched the bounce-back scheme, which is much simpler, of between £2,000 to £50,000, and can get money in the bank within 24 hours.

PPE Shortages: Profiteering

What steps he is taking to ensure that businesses do not profiteer from shortages of personal protective equipment in the health and social care sector. (902145)

That is a disappointing answer. The problem has been exacerbated by the Government’s failure to stockpile PPE. There are numerous examples of people exploiting this situation, so it will only get worse if the Government do not act quickly. Will the Minister commit to legislating to take power to act against operators who exploit the situation?

The Competition and Markets Authority has already written to the small number of firms suspected of profiteering, and the Secretary of State has recently met business and consumer representatives to discuss what further action might be necessary to address the issue. I have to put on record that the vast majority of firms are acting responsibly. So many across the UK, such as BrewDog, Diageo and hundreds of small operators, are supporting the national effort to tackle covid-19. As I said, the Secretary of State always keeps the options open for tackling profiteering.


The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

PPE Manufacture: UK Businesses

What progress the Government have made in processing offers of help from UK businesses to manufacture personal protective equipment. (902091)

What steps his Department is taking with UK manufacturers to increase the supply of personal protective equipment. (902096)

What steps his Department is taking with UK manufacturers to increase the supply of personal protective equipment. (902097)

What steps his Department is taking with UK manufacturers to increase the supply of personal protective equipment. (902099)

Every NHS and careworker must get the personal protective equipment they need. That is why we have appointed Lord Deighton to lead a national effort to boost PPE production and to support the scaling up of engineering efforts for small companies capable of contributing supplies.

A large number of UK companies and consortia came forward with offers to manufacture and supply PPE, including the Protecting Heroes community interest company, which manufactures plastic visors and face masks. However, after the pandemic began, how many of those offers did not receive a reply for weeks at a critical time, resulting in some businesses selling vital PPE abroad? What were the reasons for the delay in processing and responding to such offers? Have the Government now established a more timely and efficient system for doing so?

We have received 12,789 offers of help with the provision of PPE and 10,436 of those companies have now been contacted. I am sure that the House appreciates that many of those who make well-intentioned and generous offers of help are offering PPE that may not be appropriate in health and social care settings. We must ensure that we have appropriate PPE in appropriate settings.

I have been assisting manufacturers in Dewsbury, Mirfield, Kirkburn and Denby Dale to register as potential suppliers of PPE on the portal. I am pleased that the Cabinet Office is now responding to those businesses. My right hon. Friend has just confirmed how many have registered on the site nationally. Will he confirm when those that have registered are likely to start receiving orders for PPE?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for the work that he, along with so many others, has done in order that generous offers of support can be processed efficiently. As I mentioned, we have 10,436 organisations with whom we have been in contact. But specifically with regard to UK manufacturing, there are 201 manufacturers with whom we are in touch at the moment, 180 of whom are qualified to provide PPE and 22 of whom are going through the technical product review necessary in order to ensure that their personal protective equipment is appropriate.

[V]: While the number of offers of help from UK manufacturers to produce PPE is high, unfortunately many will simply not be able to meet the medical standards required. What help can the Government give to those companies who wish to play their part in this national effort?

Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the efforts that he and his constituents are making. It is the case that specifications of the type of personal protective equipment required in a health and social care setting have been shared by the NHS and by Public Health England, but it is also the case that companies are in a conversation with the Department of Health and Social Care about what more they might be able to do to augment those who are not necessarily operating in those settings.

[V]: I thank the businesses, and also John Flamsteed Community School in Amber Valley, who have been making PPE for healthcare providers. Does the Minister agree that we are going to need UK manufacturers to keep making this equipment for the long term, and will he therefore be able to relax procurement rules to allow these people to have some longer-term contracts so that they can get maximum efficiency in producing this equipment?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We do need to show flexibility in the way in which procurement operates, particularly in order to ensure that we have domestic production in the future upon which we can rely. My right hon. Friend Lord Deighton is leading the work in this area.

Colleagues have made important points about shortages of PPE. Those who look after the sick and the vulnerable deserve our protection, and getting PPE to them is the priority of all of us. The Prime Minister said last week that as part of coming out of the lockdown, face coverings will be useful. As the Minister knows, in Germany and France it is now required or advised to wear face masks on public transport and elsewhere. So as the Government look to announce plans to ease some of our lockdown restrictions, how many face masks suitable for wearing by the public are currently available, and what work is being done with health experts to ensure that face coverings that people are using are of sufficient quality to stop the virus from spreading?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her questions. She is right that there are other European countries that are prescribing face coverings, particularly on public transport and in other settings where a number of people congregate. We follow the scientific advice. There is a clear distinction, as I know she knows, between the sophisticated type of face mask that will be appropriate in a surgical or social care setting and the sort of face covering that can be used by individuals in order to shield others. It is important to recognise that the wearing of these face coverings affords no protection to the individual, but, properly worn, they can be a contribution to making sure that others are protected from the aerosols—from the droplets—that all of us might be responsible for producing when we cough or sneeze. That is why Lord Deighton and my right hon. Friend Lord Agnew are working together in order to ensure that we can increase domestic production of just such face coverings.

I thank the Minister for that, but it is of huge concern that he lacks clear answers to the questions that I put, especially given the ongoing fiasco of getting PPE to health and social care workers. So I ask again: how many of these face masks, for public use, are currently available? Other countries are ahead of us. France has increased production and procurement to about 8 million masks per week. The Japanese Government are sending masks to 50 million households. What are the Government doing to ensure that masks are distributed to all those who need them? Given that the Government were slow to engage with the UK textile manufacturing sector in the production of PPE for frontline workers, what are they doing to ensure that production of masks by British manufacturers is increased, looking forward to what might come next?

The hon. Lady again makes a series of important points. In terms of the numbers of masks that have been distributed overall, from 25 February to 3 May we distributed 152 million masks, and just on 3 May we distributed 2.7 million masks. Of course, it is the case that for those masks that are appropriate in surgical settings we do need to have a particular material—melt-blown plastic—in order to provide the necessary protection for those wearing the masks. We have been in touch with the specific suppliers of that type of material here in the United Kingdom. It is also the case that suppliers of those materials tend to predominate in countries that have petrochemical industries, and we have been in touch with those, including in the Gulf in order to provide it. They are a very different sort of material from the type of face covering that would be appropriate on public transport or elsewhere, and that is a very different exercise, and the numbers that we can produce of those would be significantly greater because we do not have a reliance, as I have said, on that melt-blown plastic, which can generally only be provided by other countries.

One of the key issues on this rather vexed subject is that of transparency. Would my right hon. Friend consider releasing the figures that he and other members of Government are made aware of each morning on the Cabinet Office dashboard to show stocks and quantities of PPE set against demand?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is the responsibility of all of us to do everything we can to ensure that we have visibility on the need for PPE. That is why NHS trusts and others report on their stocks and the additional requirements that they have. It is also why we have ensured that, across our resilience forums that are responsible for the distribution of PPE to more than 58,000 settings, we have seen something like 57 million pieces of PPE distributed, but, again, he makes an important point about improving the visibility that we all have, and I will talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary State for Health and Social Care about just that.


What steps his Department is taking with UK manufacturers to increase the supply of ventilators to the NHS. (902093)

My Department and the Department of Health and Social Care have been working with a variety of UK manufacturers in order to increase the supply of ventilators to the NHS. We have placed an order with one in particular, Penlon, for 15,000 additional ventilators. I am pleased to see so many UK manufacturers and medical supply companies working so well together to ensure that we can increase domestic supply.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how many companies have risen to the challenge to make the extra ventilators needed—companies that do not normally make them such as Dyson or Rolls-Royce?

Yes, of course. We have been working with 11 new potential, or existing potential, suppliers, but more than 5,000 businesses have been involved, offering to provide services, because, of course, when producing a complex machine such as a ventilator, we need to make sure that we source everything from the appropriate batteries to the appropriate valves and the appropriate other technology. As I say, 5,000 businesses, including Rolls-Royce, have been involved in the manufacture.

EU Withdrawal Agreement: Covid-19

What assessment he has made of the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on the Government’s ability to implement and apply the withdrawal agreement by 31 December 2020. (902098)

From 20 to 24 April, a full and constructive negotiating round took place, with a full range of discussions across all workstreams. Our next scheduled round of talks with our EU friends will take place in the week beginning 11 May.

Everyone will understand that we have left the European Union and everyone will understand that the impact of covid-19 might have an impact on the timetable for negotiating our future relationship, so why will the Minister not give businesses the reassurance they need that if the Government need more time, they will take more time? Is it dogma; is it vanity; or is it paranoia?

The hon. Gentleman provides a helpful list of conditions, but it is none of those. It is plain prudence. Were we to perpetuate our membership of the European Union-lite through the transition period, we would end up spending more taxpayers’ money, which could be spent on the NHS. We would have to accept new EU rules that might constrain our ability to fight covid-19 and to deal with other crises, and we would, of course, be unfortunately and unfairly trespassing on the EU’s need to concentrate on other vital priorities.

Can my right hon. Friend inform my constituents in Don Valley whether the covid-19 pandemic is likely to lead to an extension of the transition period?

I can reassure my hon. Friend and the good people of Don Valley that the Government are not going to extend the transition period at the end of this year.

Michel Barnier, the leader of the EU negotiating team, has expressed frustration that the UK’s negotiators seem happy to run down the clock on leaving the transition with no deal in place at the end of this year. We have already heard repeated warnings of the perils of a cliff-edge Brexit, which could be calamitous for the economy at a time when businesses are fragile and crave stability. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy do the right thing by ensuring that his party does not bring about this calamity?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. There have been cordial conversations and negotiations between our negotiator David Frost and Michel Barnier, and I would not want to prejudice those by making any criticism of Michel Barnier, other than to say that he will negotiate hard on behalf of the Commission, but we will negotiate hard on behalf of the whole United Kingdom.

Is it not the case that what businesses want more than anything else is certainty that this Government will not do anything to compound the economic difficulties caused by this pandemic? The Government could not of course do anything to stop covid coming to our shores, but it is in their hands to stop further economic misery from a disastrous Brexit. Does the Minister agree that the last thing businesses need is more economic turbulence and that the certainty they seek is one that says there will be no no-deal Brexit and there will be an extension to let them recover from this pandemic?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the point he makes. There will not be a no-deal Brexit; we have a deal, and that deal was legislated for in the House of Commons. I think he is right: it is important that we give business certainty, and I think one of the best ways of giving business certainty is recognising that we respect referendums. That is why this House has voted to respect the referendum that saw the British people take us out of the European Union, and I would urge him and others to respect the referendum that made it clear that the people of Scotland want to stay in the United Kingdom, instead of having the damaging uncertainty of an indyref2 hanging over future investment decisions.

EU Joint Procurement Programme for PPE

For what reasons the UK did not join the EU joint procurement programme for personal protective equipment. (902110)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Owing to an initial communication problem, the UK did not receive the invitation in time to join the four EU joint procurements, including on PPE. We will, however, participate in the EU joint procurement scheme on therapeutics that is soon to launch, and we will consider participating in future schemes, including any on PPE, on the basis of public health requirements.

The UK has left the EU, but the NHS Confederation and other top health officials have warned that failing to continue co-operation would be a disaster for public health. Does the failure of working together over PPE signal a new approach by the Government that puts ideology before the nation’s health?

It was good to hear reports this morning that the Government are getting behind the EU-led international initiatives to find a coronavirus vaccine. Given this approach, can the Minister confirm reports that the Government are now seeking to retain participation in the EU’s early warning and response system for pandemics, as requested by the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS Providers, and will they look again at participation in the European Medicines Agency?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. We will co-operate not just with our European neighbours, but with other countries in the fight against covid-19. He is right to say that the Prime Minister is joining the call today to ensure that we can support the effort to secure a vaccine. The effort to secure a vaccine is necessarily an international one. We will of course look pragmatically at how we can co-operate with our European friends and partners, but participation in the European Medicines Agency would involve, certainly at the moment, the acceptance of the European Court of Justice’s oversight, and that is not something the British people voted to do.

Transition Period: Extension

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on a potential extension to the transition period. (902132)

As I think Members will appreciate given previous exchanges, the Government will not be extending the transition period. Indeed, Parliament has legislated to prevent Ministers from agreeing to such an extension. The Government will therefore continue to negotiate a new fair trade deal with the EU, the process of which will conclude by the end of December.

A YouGov poll released this weekend showed that half the population now think that the transition period should be extended, versus 35% who think the Government should press ahead. The public know that kicking the economy when it is down, especially with a no-deal Brexit on top of a covid crash, is in no one’s best interests. The right hon. Gentleman said just now that there was a deal, but he knows full well that that is the withdrawal agreement and not the future deal that will determine the trade relationship. No deal is still on the table, so will the Government consider asking for even a short extension to avoid a no-deal Brexit, or are they intent on putting ideology before pragmatism?

This Government always put pragmatism and the interests of the British people first. The hon. Lady mentioned a YouGov poll. There was another poll, on 12 December last year; it was called a general election, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) secured a majority in order to take this country out of the European Union on the basis of the deal that he negotiated. The Liberal Democrats took part in that poll. I cannot recall exactly how well they did, but it certainly the case that they were not entrusted by the British people with the discharge of policy on our relationship with the EU.

Covid-19: Devolved Administrations

What steps he is taking to ensure that there is a co-ordinated response to the covid-19 outbreak with the devolved Administrations. (902088)

We have established a Cabinet Committee structure to deal with the health, economic, public sector and international aspects of the covid-19 outbreak on behalf of the whole of the UK. Ministers from the devolved Administrations are regularly invited to participate in those discussions, and do so, in order to ensure the highest level of co-ordination and effective working to tackle this crisis on a UK-wide basis.

I thank the Minister for her response. Can she assure me that the level of co-operation will continue to ensure that north Wales and Ynys Môn are equipped with enough PPE provision for our struggling care homes and vital testing centres? Can she also assure me that there will be a UK-wide approach to the easing of restrictions, and an application of the five tests?

I hope I can give my hon. Friend such reassurance. I am particularly grateful to the devolved Administrations, and in this case the Welsh Government, for their co-operation, and we will continue to work with them in responding to the pandemic. That is in the interests of all our citizens. We respect the competence of the devolved Administrations in issues such as health and, where appropriate, we will seek a four-nations approach.

Covid-19: False Information Online

What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to prevent false information on covid-19 spreading online. (902094)

Misleading information about coronavirus, whether it is maliciously intended or not, could cost lives. The work to tackle false information is led by our colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport across all of Government. We are also working closely with social media platforms to help them to remove dangerous incorrect claims about the virus and promoting steps that everyone can take to reduce the spread of false information.

We will move on. I call Minister Mercer who is going to take a question tabled by James Sunderland.

Covid-19: Armed Forces Support for NHS Trusts

What steps his Department is taking with the armed forces to support NHS trusts in their response to the covid-19 outbreak. (902089)

What support the armed forces are providing to civil authorities in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (902109)

As part of the national covid-19 response, Defence has supported NHS trusts in a variety of ways. We have distributed PPE and diagnostic equipment, we supported the planning, construction and staffing of Nightingale hospitals and we provided service personnel to conduct testing at regional and mobile testing sites. We also established a covid support force to assist wider Government, with 2,935 personnel in that force, as of this morning, currently deployed to assist civil authorities.

Given the challenging operational circumstances in which key workers have found themselves in recent weeks, what steps are being taken by the Cabinet Office to recognise those who have gone above and beyond the call of duty, and might those steps manifest themselves in the form of a campaign medal?

We are carefully considering the appropriate ways to reward and recognise those involved in this unprecedented response. There will be a range of ways to mark exceptional contributions once we are through the crisis, including consideration of how the honours system might play a role. Departments continue to consider existing internal mechanisms to reward individuals and teams, with the recent example of Captain Tom Moore being appointed as an honorary colonel.

I am sure that we all agree that the military bring a huge amount to our national effort, including manpower and, much more importantly, their mindset and can-do approach. Yet, rather than using their skills to the full, too many Whitehall Departments are still clinging to the old, discredited ways, involving layers of middlemen, questionable mega-accounting and consultancy firms, and needless delays. For example, the Foreign Office put all its trust in the airlines and left thousands of our people stranded abroad, rather than properly using the RAF’s planes and, more importantly, its planning and chartering skills. As the Department responsible for procurement policy, will the Minister get a grip not only in order to get my constituents home, and to get kit to the NHS and care homes, but also to ensure that we are much better organised to come out of the lockdown?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point. Although today we see the military in the media, particularly with regard to how we have stepped up to meet the challenge of testing, the military have been involved from the very beginning. We mobilised a covid support force of 20,000. Yes, we have 2,500 people testing and 4,000 people deployed at the moment. It is for other Government Departments to choose when to use this resource. We receive those demand signals, that produces a response, and we are only too happy to step up and help other Departments where requested.

Covid-19 Testing: Restriction to Hospital Admissions

What role his Department played in the decision to restrict covid-19 testing to hospital admissions at the beginning of March 2020. (902090)

The Prime Minister established new implementation committees to co-ordinate the covid response. The committees are supported by the Cabinet Office secretariat and meet regularly on all issues, including testing.

Tapadh leibh, Mr Speaker. May I first say how sorry we are in Na h-Eileanan an Iar to hear the concerning news from our neighbours in the Isle of Skye about the covid outbreak in Portree? Over to the western—with ourselves, Na h-Eileanan an Iar—we are an ideal area really, with the lowest R rate, to conduct a “test, trace, isolate” pilot, and even more so with the kind offers of help from the world leaders in population testing: namely, our neighbours in the Faroe Islands. Given that, and if and when the Scottish Government give the green light to this sensible pilot, will the UK Government also assist, perhaps by using RAF training flights to take test samples on the half-hour flight from either Stornaway or Benbecula to the Faroe Islands?

I thank the hon. Gentleman and all colleagues who have put forward ideas and solutions, and shared good practice in the early weeks of this crisis. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s request will have been heard by our joint Minister, the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). Of course, Defence has stepped up in every case where it has been asked to do so, and I am sure that it will support testing wherever it is taking place, as well as the pilots.

Covid-19: Large-scale Testing and Tracing

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on large-scale testing and tracing for covid-19. (902092)

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on large-scale testing and tracing for covid-19. (902104)

Both the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Health Secretary attend a daily meeting with the Prime Minister. Testing and tracing are a part of the issues that are considered in detail at that meeting.

It is clear that testing, tracing and tracking will be an essential part of our battle against coronavirus, and tech and IT will be required to support that. There have been concerns in the past few days about the allocation of these contracts, and perhaps about a bit of cronyism in Downing Street. What safeguards will the Minister put in place to ensure that applications, and the data that those applications use, will be safeguarded and used solely for the purpose of defeating coronavirus?

Clearly there are very strict protocols that surround any kind of procurement or pilot that might take place across any Government Department. Those protocols have given us confidence in the past, and there is no reason why they should not in the future. If the hon. Gentleman has concerns, he should raise them with the relevant Minister and certainly with the Cabinet Office, but those protocols are strong and have stood us in good stead; we have transparency around these issues.

I am pleased that the Government recognise the importance of testing and tracing to contain the virus. It is just one of the issues that we need to get right before we can safely reopen schools. Headteachers in my constituency are really struggling to support vulnerable pupils, particularly with free school meal vouchers, because the system used by the Government’s chosen provider, Edenred, is not fit for purpose. Will the Government get a grip on this urgently, to ensure that our children at least are fed?

The hon. Lady is right that ensuring that we have the right testing and the right volume of testing in place is one of the five criteria for our being able to reopen society and ease lockdown measures. I know that there have been issues with the voucher system, and the Department for Education has been looking at that. If there are any remaining issues in her constituency that she would like to flag up with me, I will take them up with the Department for Education.