House of Commons
Monday 4 May 2020
The House met at half-past Two 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
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan
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.
I welcome Ed Miliband back to the Front Bench.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Profiteering in PPE is completely unacceptable, and I want to be clear that no one should seek to exploit this health emergency for financial gain.
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
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 gov.uk 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.
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.
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 meltdown 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.
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, 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.
Covid-19: DWP Update
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement updating the House on the work of my Department. First, I want to pay tribute to the civil servants in my Department as well as our contractors and partners, who have been working tirelessly to provide help and support to those in need. They are the hidden heroes for many people in this country, and they should take great pride in their hard work in and dedication to supporting people through these difficult times.
From16 March to the end of April, we received over 1.8 million claims for universal credit, over 250,000 claims for jobseeker’s allowance, and over 20,000 claims for employment and support allowance. Overall, that is six times the volume that we would typically experience, and in one week we had a tenfold increase. The rate for UC claims appears to have stabilised at about 20,000 to 25,000 a day, which is double that of a standard week pre-covid-19. I am pleased that my Department is standing up to the challenge. We have redeployed a significant number of DWP staff—about 8,000 so far—and staff from other Government Departments, about 500 so far, to process these claims. Our payment timeliness for universal credit is running at a record high.
We have also issued almost 700,000 advances to claimants who felt that they could not wait for their first routine payment, and the vast majority of those claimants received money within 72 hours. Where possible, and mindful of risk, we have streamlined our processes. We will consider learnings carefully from this time in the response phase, and whether any of them can be made permanent.
We have also sought to make it possible for people to work from home, and have deployed 10,000 computers. We are now at a level of deploying 750 new devices a day to enable working from home, and have added to the IT capacity for remote users. However, if staff need to continue to work at the office, we are applying social distancing. Making sure that our claimants and civil servants are safe is a key priority. From 17 March we suspended all face-to-face assessments for health and disability benefits. We automatically extended awards for existing claimants that were due to be reassessed by three months, and will only undertake reviews or reassessments when claimants notify us of changes that could lead to a higher payment. Any claim made under the special rules for terminal illness continues to be fast-tracked—it takes an average of six days to process those claims.
Since 24 March, job centres have not been open for regular appointments, but we continue to offer face-to-face appointments in exceptional circumstances if claimants would not otherwise be able to receive support. Claimants can continue to receive support over the phone or through their online journals. All local jobcentres have been turned into virtual processing teams, prioritising advances and the registration and payment of new claims. We have also paired jobcentres across the country to support one another with processing, using fully our network capacity.
That focus on the processing of claims means that we have stopped checking the claimant commitment on looking for and being available for work for three months. We do, however, want claimants to continue to look for work wherever they are able to do so. Ministers are working hard to make sure that existing vacancies can be accessed by people who have become unemployed. We will continue to support those people while they are waiting for the opportunity for work. We have created a new website to guide people—jobhelp.dwp.gov.uk—and we are advertising 58,200 vacancies.
Although our IT systems have worked—thanks to extensive work by the universal credit team, including our contractors—I know that some claimants experienced significant delays in the verification of their identity. Identity checks are crucial to reduce fraud risk, so we worked closely with the Cabinet Office to increase substantially the capacity of the online Verify system, and average wait times are now below five minutes.
Call volumes have been extremely high, with more than 2.2 million calls in one day at the peak. Having recognised the delays that people were experiencing—or, indeed, that they were not able to get through at all—we turned it around with our “Don’t call us—we’ll call you” campaign. A bolstered frontline team now proactively calls claimants when we need to check any information provided as part of a claim. This has been successful in freeing up capacity and reducing the time that customers need to spend on the phone.
In respect of other departmental operations, although we have redeployed staff we have kept critical work ongoing in child maintenance and bereavement. We are monitoring our performance and will return staff to these areas if the response rate is unacceptable. We have cancelled the pension levy increase, supported defined contributions through the job retention scheme, and worked with regulators to assist defined benefit pensions and to combat scams.
It is worth reminding the House of our financial injection of more than £6.5 billion into the welfare system so that it can act as a safety net for the poorest in society. We have focused on changes that could be made quickly and would have significant positive impact. We have increased the standard rate of universal credit and working tax credit for the next 12 months by around £1,000 per year; we increased the local housing allowance rates for universal credit and housing benefit claimants, so they now cover the lowest 30% of local rents; and we increased the national maximum caps, so claimants in inner and central London should also see an increase in their housing support payments. I have been made aware that some councils have not made the adjustment in housing benefit, and my Department is communicating with them all this week. Furthermore, across England we had already increased the discretionary housing payment by an extra £40 million for this financial year.
The 1.7% benefit uplift was implemented in April, ending the benefits freeze, and the state pension rose by 3.9%, as per the triple lock, reflecting last year’s substantial rise in average earnings. We have introduced regulations to ease access to benefits: we legislated to allow access to employment and support allowance from day one of a claim; we relaxed the minimum income floor so that the self-employed can access universal credit more readily; we have made it easier to access ESA by launching an ESA portal for online applications; and we legislated to ensure that statutory sick pay was available for employees from day one of sickness or self-isolation due to covid-19. I remind the House that statutory sick pay is the legal minimum.
We will continue to look at issues that arise—for example, we are ensuring that maternity pay is based on standard pay, not furlough pay levels—and see what we can do quickly and straightforwardly to fix either unintended consequences or unforeseen issues, but it is not my intention to change the fundamental principles or application of universal credit.
We have undertaken a significant project to support the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the national shielding service by establishing the outbound contact centre. Furthermore, we use the contact centre to contact proactively our most vulnerable customers who receive their benefits or pensions solely through Post Office card accounts. I thank the Post Office for helping us to support this group of customers. We have been able to provide contact-free cash payments by Royal Mail special delivery, and we were able to signpost people to extra support from their local council.
I can inform to the House today that the DWP will stop any new benefit and pension claimants from using the Post Office card account from 11 May, as we prepare for the end of the contract. The uptake of accounts in the past year has been exceptionally low, but, in any event, given that we believe the vast majority of people using POCA already have a bank account, the cost of the contract is poor value for taxpayers. Existing customers who currently receive payment through a Post Office card account will see no change and will continue to receive payment into their accounts for the remainder of the contract period. We can use the HMG payment exception service for people who cannot access any bank account.
I thank the Health and Safety Executive—an arm’s length body for Great Britain that is sponsored by my Department—for its work on covid-19. It has been doing crucial work with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Public Health England to provide guidelines for employers to adhere to once restrictions can begin to be eased. The HSE is working hard, along with local authorities, to enable work to continue safely in the sectors for which it is responsible. It has developed practical guidance on the enforcement of the law where workers are being exposed to unnecessary risk.
In conclusion, my Department is standing up to the challenge of unprecedented demand for its services, and we are getting support to those who need it. We will continue to work across Government to help the nation get through this health emergency. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of her statement. May I add my thanks to the dedicated frontline staff of the Department for Work and Pensions for everything they have done and are doing during this crisis to ensure that we can process the unprecedented volume of claims that have been made?
I welcome the measures the Secretary of State has announced so far. The social security system we had going into this crisis was a safety net with too many holes in it, and it is good that the Government have recognised that. My questions for the Secretary of State are about how we can widen that net so that everyone who needs support gets it, and about the steps that will need to be taken as we move from response to recovery.
First, the Government have significantly increased universal credit, but people on legacy benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance have not seen a corresponding increase in their benefit. More than 100 charities have pointed out that that discriminates against disabled people in particular. When will those benefits be uprated?
Secondly, there are now 100,000 families who will not be able to receive this increase because they are still limited by the benefit cap. The Government say the benefit cap exists to force people to work more hours or move to cheaper housing, both of which are clearly impossible during the crisis. Almost every organisation, from the Institute for Fiscal Studies to the Resolution Foundation and the Child Poverty Action Group, believes it should be temporarily suspended. Does the Secretary of State agree?
Thirdly, anyone who has been saving for a housing deposit, for a rainy day or for a substantial item could find themselves ineligible for universal credit because of those savings. Those people paid into the system when they were in work; should it not be there for them now? I do not believe we should punish those savers, and I believe those saving limits should also be suspended.
Fourthly, the Government say the two-child limit exists so people supported by social security have to make the same family choices as those who are not, but this crisis shows how absurd that claim is. People could not have been expected to make family choices three years ago based on the likelihood of a global pandemic shutting down our economy. The Government have suspended sanctions during the crisis, but the two-child limit is effectively an 18-year sanction on the third and fourth child in a family. Surely it should go too.
Fifthly and finally, those people who are eligible for support from universal credit will still have to wait five weeks for their money or take an advance that will be deducted from future payments. Many people do not appreciate that if they claim universal credit before they receive their final salary payment, their income means they have no entitlement for their first month and could have to wait as long as nine weeks for any payment. Since it was introduced, the five-week wait has been the single biggest driver of housing arrears, short-term debt and food bank use in the country. It should not exist at all, but in this crisis it is particularly egregious, and it simply must go.
May I also raise a very specific issue with the Secretary of State? It has come to light that the universal credit regulations treat maternity allowance, which is received mainly by low-paid women, as unearned income but statutory maternity pay as earnings, which are disregarded by the work allowance. That could result in a low-paid pregnant woman being as much as £4,000 a year worse off. Why is that? Will it change?
I turn to preparations for the recovery. As the Cabinet Minister responsible for the Health and Safety Executive, what conversations has the Secretary of State had with it about the process by which workplaces will be made safe when people are asked to return to work? When the lockdown began, most MPs were inundated with questions from constituents still in work about whether their workplace sounded safe. That simply will not do when lockdown ends. There must be a clear process agreed by the workforce and management, not least because a failure to do so would likely result in significant litigation.
This crisis has confirmed in terms what the UK’s unequal and unfair labour market really means. Although some people have been able to work from home on full pay, others have faced having to go into work and risk their health, or have lost their job through no fault of their own and will receive social security or sick pay set at just a fifth of the UK’s weekly median income. More than 4 million British children grow up in poverty, living in poor accommodation and perhaps without the internet connections many of us take for granted. The lockdown will have a severe impact on their wellbeing. Many have likened our response to coronavirus to fighting a war. If that is true, the aftermath should be equally so, with a renewed national effort to fight the inequality, poverty and insecurity that should have no place in this country at any time.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and welcome him to his position. We are in an unusual place today—literally, as he is appearing virtually for our first exchange in a statement—but we will be seeing each other again next Monday at questions.
On legacy benefits, I should stress that the increase to working tax credits and universal credit is only temporary —until 12 months from when it was applied. There are two things here. First, we have a digital UC system. The working tax credit system is digital. It is far more straightforward and it was quick to change that. It would take quite some time to change the legacy benefits system—I am talking about several months—with the process we have. When we make changes to benefits, they tend to happen four or five months before the actual changes come through, because that is how long it takes our computer systems to work.
Secondly, the statutory sick pay weekly rate is about £95. The change to UC is about £94. We anticipate and hope that people will be on UC for a quite a short time while we go through this significant emergency. It was, as I pointed out, straightforward to change that. There are other things that people will benefit from, including the work we have been doing on mortgage holidays, on stopping renters being evicted due to issues connected to covid-19, and on electricity pre-payment. No utility supplier will restrict supply due to issues at this time.
On the benefit cap, I said in my statement that it is not the intention to change fundamentally the process, principles or application of universal credit. I am conscious of the benefit cap, but we are still talking about a potential yearly income outside London of £20,000, or £23,000 in London, being given to benefits claimants. I am conscious that that could effectively be something like a £25,000 to £30,000 take-home salary after we take into account taxation and similar, so I do not think it is necessary right now to change the benefit cap. What I do want to point out to the hon. Gentleman is that claimants may benefit from a nine-month grace period, where their UC will not be capped if they have a sustained work record.
On the savings threshold, there is no universal credit eligibility where people have savings of £16,000. UC is designed to help the poorest in society. I am conscious that, if any changes were contemplated, they would have taken some time to process. We have decided to focus our efforts on those who are the poorest in society. I should also say that money saved for taxation payments, such as by the self-employed, will effectively be treated as business assets, and so would not be included for consideration or be deemed personal savings.
On the five-week wait, there is no intention to change that. In fact, in terms of the largest number of people who have claimed, this will be our biggest payment week going ahead. I am aware of what the hon. Gentleman says about people who have been paid in the last month. My understanding is that there is a phasing issue in terms of the calculation of universal credit payments that people would be entitled to with regard to the standard allowance. One of the benefits of having the advance is that it is designed to spread an annual income over 13 payments, instead of 12. For people who are going through that right now, my recommendation is that they should consider getting the advance. As I say, the total annual payment will be spread over the year.
On universal credit regulations relating to maternity allowance and statutory maternity pay, I will look into that for the hon. Gentleman and write to him. I know that quite a lot of consideration has been given to the different rates supporting people in maternity, but I will write to him on that.
On people only receiving statutory sick pay, I point out to the House that that is a legal minimum, but one of the purposes of the furlough scheme was that people, instead of being made unemployed, had this opportunity. Of course, if people are sick, an employer is entitled to do statutory sick pay. I should also point out that the furlough scheme can be applied straightaway for people who have been shielded and cannot go to work and cannot work from home, and we are encouraging employers to do so.
The extraordinary level of support that my right hon. Friend has described is certainly welcome in Aylesbury and it is undoubtedly assisting thousands of households. I join others in paying tribute to all the staff in the Department and branches of Jobcentre Plus for making that happen.
It would be helpful if my right hon. Friend could describe the ways in which these unprecedented levels of support from the DWP can help owner-directors of small limited companies, many of whom have written to me because they are mainly paid by dividends, so they are not entitled to the assistance scheme for the self-employed. To be clear, these are not multimillionaires, but hard-working hairdressers, make-up artists, decorators and electricians. They have lost their income and would really welcome her assistance.
My hon. Friend is right to speak up for the people he represents, and especially small business owners, who have set up their companies in particular ways—I am sure that they were well advised by accountants at the time on the optimal way to do that. It is fair to say that the self-employed income support scheme is expected to cover 95% of people who receive the majority of their income from self-employment, but if not, I recommend that those other people look online at their potential eligibility for universal credit. We have removed the minimum income floor—an assumed level of income in universal credit for self-employed people—so that should no longer be considered when trying to calculate the benefits for which they may be eligible.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement. I wish to put on record my thanks to the DWP staff, who are continuing to work hard to deliver social security benefits as quickly as possible in very difficult circumstances, but the circumstances have been made more difficult by the decisions of the UK Government, who have introduced bureaucratic support schemes instead of a far simpler universal basic payment with a longer view towards universal basic income. Millions have been forced on to still inadequate universal credit, and despite DWP staff being moved to cope with the UC demand, over 200,000 people had their UC claim paid late, according to the UK Government’s best estimate. Because DWP staff have been moved to help process UC claims, MPs and other advice organisations are not getting casework inquiries answered in the normal way, which is also causing unfair hardship.
On the last day that I contributed in this House—18 March—before lockdown, I said that people needed help in hours, not days, yet the people applying for universal credit in that week will have only just received their first payment a few days ago. The British Government must finally stop the five-week wait. They claimed that they cannot solve it by making the advance payment system a grant rather than a loan because of vulnerability to fraud, so why not make the advance a grant when the applicant is confirmed as eligible for universal credit? I would appreciate proper consideration of that proposal. Airdrie food bank in my constituency has reported a 47% increase in demand for its services since the onset of covid-19. That should focus minds.
The Prime Minister said that nobody would get left behind, so why has there not been an uplift in legacy benefits, such as employment and support allowance, as there has been to universal credit? Finally, will the Government scrap the immoral, poverty-inducing two-child limit, the bedroom tax and the benefit cap, and will they uprate all benefits to make up for the years of cuts that came through the benefit freeze? 1.7% just does not come close.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. In terms of bureaucratic schemes, the Government have worked at pace to introduce brand new schemes in order to protect people right across the country. We have seen the success of the job retention scheme. The self-employed scheme is under way. Significant flexibility has been put into that system to help people who may not have had three years of earnings to give them time to submit their latest tax return promptly to get support.
There is a variety of analysis on universal basic income. The latest report I saw estimated it would cost over £400 billion a year. It is not targeted at the poorest in society and is not an appropriate way for us to try to distribute money. Instead, our schemes are focused on making sure that the poorest do get help.
On DWP staff being moved from department to department, we have made sure that we are monitoring performance and where there are increases in how long it takes to process certain kinds of payments I have made it clear to my officials that we then need to move people back. We are in the key peak of payments this week, with the largest uptake of applications, and I am confident that we will get through that with at least 90%, if not an even higher rate, of people getting their payments on time.
I have already answered the question about why the legacy benefits have not increased. On the question about making an advance a grant, that comes back to the principle that getting an advance effectively means people have 13 payments in a year instead of 12 to cover the annual allocation to which people are entitled. Nearly 700,000 people have received an advance, while nearly 1.8 million people have applied for universal credit and those others have not sought to have an advance. So it would not be fair to the other new claimants if one group of people got more money than they did simply because they had applied for an advance.
On the increasing use of food banks, extensive work is going on across Government. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), is involved in a taskforce on helping vulnerable people. I am conscious of the increase in food bank usage and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are doing excellent work in making sure we can work with them to ensure food can get to the most vulnerable people in society. While recognising the increase in food bank usage, I point out that we have had a sixfold increase in the number of people claiming UC and we are making sure we get our money to them.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and join my colleagues in paying tribute to the excellent DWP staff who have been working unprecedented hours to try to get support to the people in our country who need it.
The impact of coronavirus means more people in Bishop Auckland and across the country have been applying for UC, so what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that new claimants in Bishop Auckland and beyond receive their first payments swiftly?
The UC approach remains the same: we make an assessment of people’s incomes, and those already on UC whose income fell substantially will have seen their UC payment increase as a result. So it is working for new claimants once they have got through the initial claim. That is straightforward. I appreciate that there were difficulties early on in getting online identity verification, but the process should be very smooth now, and for those people who cannot make ends meet the advance option is there, and people can get that money very quickly.
I join the Secretary of State and others in commending the Department’s staff for handling the recent surge. I also welcome higher UC, working tax credit and local housing allowance, and it sounds from the Secretary of State’s earlier answer that she agrees that jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance should have been increased as well; it is unfair that they have not been. The unchanged benefit cap is now blocking increased support the Government have decided people should receive, and that is having a particular effect in London. It could be increased, so will the Government now be more consistent in supporting people’s extra costs during this crisis?
I should point out to the right hon. Gentleman that we were trying to make a short-term increase, we went through with the Treasury how we could do this quickly, and the quickest ways were by increasing the local housing allowance and UC, rather than other benefits, as I have mentioned. On the situation in London, I am conscious that aspects of the housing benefit regulations went through a month ago, but not all councils have applied them. What we have done with the thresholds means that people in London should be able to see an increase in the amount of money they get in housing support, but otherwise it is not the Government’s intention to change the current threshold of the benefit cap.
I wish to follow on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) about directors of small companies. The Government have done very well to protect people on PAYE and people who are self-employed, but directors of small companies fall through the cracks and it really is not good enough just to say, “They can fall back on universal credit”, because in many cases they will not qualify and because we have protected other sectors. We must do better, and we must sort out how we are going to protect the directors of small companies.
My hon. Friend will know, having been an accountant, that a variety of people will potentially receive dividends from a company, and it is not currently possible for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to know whether somebody has given this to themselves in lieu of a salary or whether it is a payment to an investor. It is a different situation where people have chosen to finance their income from the business in that way, and he will be aware that the rate of tax on paying dividends is 7.5%, once someone goes above the dividends allowance. How people who are self-employed through a normal PAYE scheme would pay aspects of national insurance and tax directly is quite different. The Treasury, in devising the scheme, has sought to try to identify as many people as possible it could help, and achieving that for 95% of self-employed people is a pretty good outcome.
There is growing support for a recovery universal basic income, and it is being considered in other parts of the world. I would dispute what the Secretary of State has said about the costings, and stress to her that it can be supported through wider changes to the taxation system. Given the current cliff edge on the job retention scheme, the danger of vast redundancies, pressures on UC and the need to inject spending into the recovery to kick-start recovery, will she at least urgently work with the Treasury to explore that option?
No, I will not, and I have already set out why I do not think a universal basic income is the right approach. The hon. Gentleman is a Northern Ireland Member and will be aware that responsibility for welfare is devolved, so if he wanted he could lobby the Northern Ireland Executive, and they might be able to devise a scheme that they think is more appropriate locally.
May I join in thanking all the staff at the DWP, and indeed the Secretary of State and her team, and in particular, the staff at Epsom jobcentre, for dealing with the current crisis as effectively as they have? Will she look again at the issue of LHA for the areas immediately outside London, as there are still anomalies that particularly affect my constituency, and of course there will be a greater need for housing support. Will she look at the level of support to make sure that it really is related to the local rental market?
LHA is done on the basis of certain housing areas, and the Chancellor announced a significant change in order to bring this up to the 30th percentile. I say to my right hon. Friend that councils across the country have been receiving discretionary housing payments—separate from the hardship fund. That was ongoing, and we added £40 million to it for this financial year prior to this situation. I encourage anyone who is still struggling in his local area to go directly to the council for some support.
During this crisis, the Government have rightly stopped recovering overpayments from universal credit recipients, but they are still deducting money from those who are given an advance payment. We need the five-week wait to be scrapped, so that people do not need advance payments. Will the Secretary of State confirm today that the Government will defer any recovery of advance payments until after the crisis has passed?
The way that advance payments are recovered is by treating it in effect as a phasing issue, so that people have 13 payments over a year, instead of 12. As a consequence, elements will be removed from the following 12 payments so that the annual total is the same.
May I begin by heartily congratulating the Secretary of State and all the staff at the DWP on the astonishing achievement of handling 1.8 million applicants for universal credit and clearing 1 million? I draw her attention to those people, many of them self-employed, on working tax credits. They were encouraged by the Government to apply for universal credit, not knowing that at the moment they applied for universal credit, they automatically lost by law working tax credit. Some of them now find that because they have been prudent—they had set aside money for pensions and they had savings—they do not qualify under current rules for universal credit and cannot go back and claim for working tax credits. I have had letters from her Department talking about new-style employment and support allowance and the new self-employment income support scheme, which are very welcome. Will she go back to those people and make it clear that they have the right to apply for these schemes, because many of them are not accustomed to dealing with the benefits system and only went through the process under Government encouragement?
First, I thank my right hon. Friend for praising staff at the DWP. He is right to do so, and I thank him for that. I am very aware of the issue he is bringing to my attention, and I am actively looking at that particular scenario, where people, not realising some of the eligibility rules, have then made the application and are no longer effectively going to receive working tax credits. I cannot give an answer to my right hon. Friend or the House today, but I assure him that I am looking very carefully into what changes we could make to address that situation. I have already asked for the website to be updated, so that people are crystal clear when they apply.
May I, too, thank the staff at the DWP for their very hard work? The hospitality, arts and tourism sectors, which are vital industries in my constituency, will not recover overnight, even when the restrictions are lifted. Many of my constituents will have no option but to go on universal credit, with no job prospects any time soon. Does the Secretary of State think—she has even been reminding company directors of their eligibility for universal credit —that the current universal credit allowance of just under £5,000 a year for the over-25s is enough to live a dignified life?
With regard to the hospitality and tourism sector, the hon. Lady will be aware of the generous approach taken by the Government, whether that is grants, the furlough scheme or the other reliefs that are being applied. The figure that she quotes is solely the standard allowance. There are other elements of universal credit that people may be entitled to, such as if they have children or housing costs. It is the rolling up of six benefits into one. She focuses only on one, which equates currently to about £94 a week. I think that is a reasonable assumption, disregarding the other costs.
I recognise the exceptional work that the DWP is doing at this time. I also want to applaud the work that everybody in Wolverhampton is doing, from following the Government guidance to caring for loved ones. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to provide support for people who have informal carers who are having to shield themselves during the covid pandemic?
My hon. Friend is right to praise people who have been undertaking that role. My Department has introduced two important temporary measures to recognise changes to caring during the current emergency. First, unpaid carers will be able to continue to claim carer’s allowance if they have a temporary break in caring because they or the person they care for gets coronavirus or has to isolate because of it. We have also made sure that, rather than just more traditional forms of care, providing emotional support to a disabled person will now count towards the carer’s allowance threshold of 35 hours of care a week. This recognises that the nature of caring might have to change during the current emergency.
We now go over to a virtual Jim Shannon.
Thank you, Mr Speaker; it is always a pleasure to ask a question. I thank the Secretary of State for her energy and commitment and her responses to the questions so far. I also thank the DWP staff across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and in particular those in Strangford, who have done a whole lot to help people.
The Secretary of State referred to self-employed directors. Hospitality, retail, fishing, construction and bus companies invest their profit back into their companies, as well as self-employed directors. Many of these are family businesses creating many jobs in the high street. Exactly what can be done to help the self-employed directors in shops in Newtownards, Comber, Ballynahinch, Saintfield and villages across the constituency of Strangford?
It is good to see my hon. Friend doing well over in Northern Ireland. I want to stress again that the scheme established by the Treasury will cover about 95% of people who receive the majority of their income from self-employment. I have tried to share with the House some of the approach taken in order to support people who pay themselves only, in effect, by dividends. As I pointed out earlier, a small percentage of people get the majority of their income in that way, on which, in effect, they pay only 7.5% tax. I am conscious that it cannot be decided whether dividends are solely for substitute pay or whether they are a return on investment, but I encourage those people to consider other forms of support that may be available at this time.
I join the acknowledgement of the superb effort of all the staff at the DWP, who have processed 1.8 million universal credit applications. I also want to acknowledge all the financial support that the Treasury has brought forward, including the bounce-back loans today. Will my right hon. Friend please look at what can be done to support self-employed limited company directors, as well as freelancers and those who started a new job in March and therefore cannot be furloughed? There are other groups who need extra support.
Several of those groups of people who are seeking support may well be able to get support through universal credit. I am conscious that the design of the furlough scheme and the self-employed scheme does not address every single worker or self-employed person in this country. I know that the Treasury worked at pace to establish those schemes, and they do cover the vast majority of people who are now seeking support.
Last week, I was contacted by a constituent who has a heart condition. He is also immobile because of a problem with his spine, and he has had a liver transplant. He applied for personal independence payments in October 2019 and has still not had a reply. When I contacted the DWP, I was told that, because of covid-19, there would be delays in responding to me, but that application was from October. I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that that is unacceptable, so what is she going to do to ensure that benefits are processed in a reasonable timeframe?
In the light of what has been happening, we have tried to streamline the process. I do not know the details of the individual case to which the hon. Lady refers, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work would be happy to look into that situation. I do not know whether no assessment had been made at all or whether the outcome was being contested. I want to make sure that we are not ignoring situations and that new claims are still being processed, but I accept that there may be people we need to follow up on, and I would be happy for my hon. Friend to do that on the hon. Lady’s behalf.
Despite the enormous support being given to business, many people are newly unemployed. What steps are being taken to highlight to them the job opportunities in growing sectors of the economy?
I am pleased that we have added to the jobs website on dwp.gov.uk, and there are about 58,000 vacancies currently advertised there. I am supportive of all the work that has gone on under my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, such as on how people can get new skills, including through courses that are being made available online. There are, therefore, opportunities to consider upskilling while people are, sadly, not working, and people can also speak to their work coaches about potential further assistance.
It cannot be fair that families on the benefit cap are not benefiting from the uprating of payments that has happened during this crisis. The Resolution Foundation has predicted that, in over two thirds of local authority areas, a couple with two children in an average three-bedroom house will be affected by the cap. We know that covid-19 will affect poorer families more than other sections of our community. Is it not time that we moved the benefit cap to stop this situation getting worse?
As I have already said to the House, there may be claimants who could benefit from a nine-month grace period, where their universal credit will not be capped if they have a sustained work record. On other raises that have happened in terms of housing, changes have been made that should help people, particularly in central and outer London. However, in general, the principle is not to remove the benefit cap.
We rightly hail all our health workers for the amazing job they are doing, but it is good that we are hearing praise for DWP staff this afternoon. Down in Bexhill and Hastings, they have been absolutely amazing, as they have been across the country. When I asked my office what cases we had outstanding, the answer was zero. When I asked how the performance level rated, I was told, “Better than ever.” On that basis, will the Secretary of State look at whether we are using more discretion now that could also be used in future? Obviously, we have to keep a cost-control mindset and commonality of decision making, but it seems there are positive lessons that can be learned, and I thank my right hon. Friend and her team for everything they have done.
It is kind of my hon. Friend to thank DWP. I think it deserves, universally, credit. We are trying to learn from the streamlining we have done on the potential for permanent future changes, so that we see the enhanced processing we have successfully undertaken over the last few weeks.
Many of my constituents suffered financial hardship and poverty before covid-19 struck, with the delays in universal credit, the processing of personal independence payments, the child benefit cap, low wages and insecure employment. That has been multiplied by the coronavirus, with communities, individuals and businesses seriously affected. Our local citizens advice bureau has been inundated with welfare benefit queries, and I thank it and all local agencies for their hard work. It is time the Government began to face the financial realities and hardship of people’s lives. Will the Minister please agree to consider introducing a recovery universal basic income to help achieve a sustained economic recovery? It could become the foundation for a future social security system that provides financial security for everyone.
Rugby jobcentre plus was one of the first to go to full-service universal credit, and the staff there have been providing support to their colleagues in other offices, which is very important at a time when registrations are running at six times their usual level. I know the Secretary of State will join me in thanking all the staff for their hard work to make certain that the system runs smoothly. What is her assessment of what might have happened if we had not taken the tough decisions to modernise and streamline the welfare system and we were still operating under the highly complicated legacy system?
I have to say some unkind words: judging by my hon. Friend’s new attire, I wonder whether he is seeking his pension. However, he asks a serious question which deserves a serious answer. The reality is that—and I have been told this by my senior officials—there is no way that the legacy benefits system would have been able to cope. The move to universal credit has been successful. We still want to make sure that it rolls out universally, but I think it has shown that it has absolutely stood the biggest test of all.
Small increases in universal credit allowances are not enough, particularly because many people will lose that uplift due to the benefit cap. I appreciate that the Secretary of State has noted in previous answers that she sees no need to move the benefit cap, but I see the need for it in my constituency of East Dunbartonshire. Will she review the decision and finally lift the benefit cap so that people will actually receive the temporary increase in support that they so desperately need?
We will not be changing the benefit cap.
I thank the Secretary of State for visiting the Longbridge jobcentre with me back in March. We both saw at first hand that work coaches do a fantastic job supporting people into employment, but their ability to meet people in person has, quite rightly, been restricted due to the lockdown. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on the support being given to work coaches so that they can continue to provide support to claimants despite those restrictions?
As well as having a relationship with claimants, many work coaches have been deployed into processing claims. Both those things are critical to making sure that the 1.8 million people can get paid on time, and they deserve a tribute for that. As we get over this peak, I think we will see work coaches being able to resume other work with their claimants.
There have been more than 82,000 new claims for universal credit in Wales. That is unprecedented and I echo the thanks to DWP staff, but some people are still struggling to get support with their new claims, including the constituent who could not get through on the phone and had to walk for 45 minutes to get help because she cannot afford internet access. May I urge the Secretary of State to make it much easier to access support with new claims, including by ending the five-week wait?
We do not intend to end the five-week wait—that is where advances can help. The hon. Lady is right to point out the difficulties people have with telephony. We have turned that system around, so it should be more straightforward now that the DWP calls claimants rather than the other way around.
May I join colleagues in thanking DWP staff, particularly those in West Worcestershire who have worked so hard throughout this crisis? The Secretary of State has been asked a number of times about universal basic income and has resolutely rejected it. Can she confirm that a universal basic income would have to be paid universally —to everybody—including people like us?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We know that it is not a well-targeted system, and that is why we will continue to say that it is not the approach that this Government will take. May I also wish a belated happy birthday to my hon. Friend, who turned a significant age at the weekend?
Recently the Secretary of State said that she was confident that the system was working. Prior to this pandemic, more than 8 million people struggled to access food, and now a further 8 million households with children have lost their income. With food banks reporting increased footfall of more than 100%, can she please explain what possible grounds she had for that misplaced confidence and her continued justification for the five-week wait for universal credit, the two-child policy and the benefit cap?
The fundamentals of universal credit do not change. The reason for the assessment period is to understand people’s general income and use that as a basis, but that is where the advances come in: to help people who cannot make ends meet in between. As I said, fewer than half of people who have applied for universal credit have also wanted an advance. We are getting the vast majority of that money to people within three days and I think that that shows that the system is flexible enough to help those who need it most.
The Secretary of State has made very clear how the system is working, and it is working very well, but will she take the chance to address some of the issues for self-employed people, who are still waiting for money from the announcement, and to reiterate the rules and the way in which they will be paid over the next few months? I think that it would be useful and helpful to let people understand just what the Government are doing to make sure that they are looked after and paid for the long term.
My hon. Friend will be aware that self-employed people will have 80% of their profits reimbursed in the form of a grant. I know that it will take some time for the system to be delivered; my understanding is that payments will start within a month, but in the meantime, there may be people who are currently self-employed who could seek support from universal credit.
I was horrified to discover that, contrary to the announcement that personal independence payment recipients would be entitled to a three-month extension, my constituent—a lone parent with severe mental health problems—will not be. Why not? Because, as the PIP hotline confirmed to my caseworker, if someone’s award was decided by a tribunal—in other words, if they were forced to fight the DWP for that lifeline and that entitlement —they will again be treated differently from all other PIP recipients, and the three-month safeguard will not apply to them. Can that seriously be true? If so, why?
As I set out, where people were due to have a reassessment, the situation would arise in which we extend the award automatically by just three months. People who are in a tribunal process are those who have challenged the decisions; therefore the question of what award they have received will be the one that is under debate and review.
We know that coronavirus has seen the loss of loved ones in many families across the UK. What steps are being taken to ensure that widows, widowers and their families are being supported? What improvements are being made to bereavement benefits for widows and widowers?
The bereavement support payment supports working-age people who have lost a spouse or civil partner after 6 April 2017 by contributing to the more immediate additional costs associated with bereavement. People without children get an initial payment of £2,500 and 18 subsequent monthly payments of £100; those with children receive an initial payment of £3,500 and 18 subsequent payments of £350. Bereavement support payment is not taxable, and the least well-off will gain the most, as they receive the payment in full alongside any other benefit entitlements.
Mental and physical health conditions should not be a barrier to finding work. That is why, working with the Department for Work and Pensions, we launched Working Win, an employment programme that has now helped 3,000 people across South Yorkshire. Does the Secretary of State recognise the value of programmes such as Working Win? Will she commit to providing funding to support our most vulnerable workers through the covid-19 crisis?
The Department supports a number of schemes around the country; I am not aware of the specific one to which the hon. Gentleman refers. They will continue, I am sure, to be supported more broadly, but each and every one will be evaluated, because we need to make sure that the money that we have has the best reach. I am sure that he will continue to lobby for that case in South Yorkshire.
It is clear that confusion remains about who can and cannot go to work. I receive questions every day about whether any given company is essential and, if it is not, whether it should be closed. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to make the current guidance and any future guidance clear? May I suggest that some kind of public information campaign be considered?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that matter. Our communication about staying at home has been very effective, but we have also said from the start that people should try to work from home, but that if they cannot and are able to go to work, they should go to work. The Government will provide further advice in the coming weeks to employers and trade unions about how to make workplaces safer. We have set out how work must be done in the workplace, including tailored advice for different scenarios, as examples of how employers might implement social distancing and other measures to help protect their workforce and customers. We continue to learn from each other, including in this House.
I am pleased to hear that the Secretary of State is fixing some of the glitches in universal credit—a system that many of us thought was woefully inadequate, and we have perhaps the biggest unemployment increase since the ’30s on the way. Will the right hon. Lady consider the matter in the round and do two small things: relax the savings threshold, because many people losing their businesses find that prohibitive; and replenish some of our reservoirs for discretionary housing payment in Ealing? A housing crisis was already under way in Ealing, Acton and Chiswick, and it is only getting worse.
On the question about the self-employed, where people have assets—for example, savings set aside for paying tax—they need to check carefully and go through that as they make their claim, because it will not be considered part of savings with regard to the £16,000 threshold. On housing, we have increased the local housing allowance, and I am sure that the discretionary housing payments have gone to Ealing Council. It is open for councils to come back to central Government if they would like that to be raised substantially.
It is clear from the Secretary of State’s statement and her answers to questions from Members that universal credit has been much more effective at scaling up to deal with the unprecedented level of claims arising from the coronavirus pandemic. I know from my constituents’ experience that we get half the number of problems that we got with the legacy benefits. May I therefore take the opportunity to thank all the staff, including those in my constituency, who have delivered universal credit? May they continue to do so.
My right hon. Friend is right. The old system would not have coped with what universal credit has done. It has helped more than 1.8 million people making that claim.
May I remind the House that back in March, when I wrote to the Secretary of State to ask what emergency measures were in place to allow the Department to cope with the increase in new universal credit claims, I was told that the Department would redeploy staff and review priority of work? The Secretary of State has repeated that today. However, I am afraid to say that, months into the crisis, I still have constituents who are being told that the waiting time is eight hours when calling the claim line. As a result, many have been forced to use food banks for the first time. Given the ongoing issues that my constituents are experiencing, will the Secretary of State give resolving the technical and capacity issues the highest priority by providing clearer guidance to the public and the hard-working DWP staff on the correct process for making digital and non-digital universal credit claims?
We did have telephony issues, but I am led to believe that they have been significantly addressed, particularly with the “Don’t call us—we’ll call you” campaign. I recommend that the hon. Lady considers asking her constituents to use the journal when necessary. I appreciate that they do not all have internet access, but the average waiting time should now be considerably lower. The last I heard, it was, on average, about five minutes. I ask her to look into that.
May I add my thanks to the DWP team, particularly those based in Warrington, who have helped process claims swiftly for my constituents in the last six weeks? On Friday, I visited Warrington foodbank to meet the volunteers who are working hard to support families in my constituency who have fallen on difficult times. One of the concerns they raised is the speed of recovery when universal credit is advanced. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to ensure that anyone who receives an advance of their benefits is given a reasonable timeframe to pay it back?
The advance is currently recovered over 12 months, so in a year, somebody will get 13 payments instead of 12. I should also point out to my hon. Friend that any deductions are made at a maximum of 30% of the UC payable. That will help several people as well.
Many people have had to apply for universal credit for the first time, but it is clear that, despite DWP staff working hard, the system simply cannot cope, and it was never intended to operate under such extreme circumstances. Constituents are waiting weeks for DWP phone calls and those unable to verify their identity online are told that the application does not exist, and therefore they cannot claim. What is the Secretary of State doing to prioritise new claims for universal credit, many of which are from people who have paid money into the system for decades and now find that their contribution means next to nothing?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman; I think UC has reacted very well to the increased challenge. However, I would say to him that there were initially problems with the online verification. There is an additional scheme called “Confirm your identity”, and between that and “Verify” it should be very straightforward for people to get through that part of the claim. I can assure him that he can also arrange for constituents to contact the DWP helpline and be processed that way, too.
What increment in expenditure has the Treasury provided to my right hon. Friend’s Department since the onset of this coronavirus?
Our new estimates are being published today or tomorrow, I believe, so I will refer my right hon. Friend to that for the particular element of delegated spend. Overall, however, we estimate an increase of about £6.5 billion in welfare benefits for the nation.
More than two hours having elapsed since the commencement of hybrid scrutiny proceedings, the Speaker brought them to a conclusion (Order, 21 April).
Order. I suspend the House for 30 minutes— until 5.6 pm. It may be helpful if I tell the House that I propose to continue with 30-minute suspensions from now on, but I may review the timings in the future. Thank you, everybody.
On resuming, the House entered into hybrid substantive proceedings (Order, 22 April).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member contributing virtually.]
Business of the House (4 May)
(1) The following arrangements shall apply to today’s business:
Business Timings Remote division designation Public Health: (1) motion to approve the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020; and (2) motion to approve the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 Up to 120 minutes None Pensions: (1) motion to approve the draft Automatic Enrolment (Offshore Employment) (Amendment) Order 2020; and (2) motion to approve the draft Occupational and Personal Pension Schemes (Automatic Enrolment) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 Up to 90 minutes None Environment Bill (Programme) (No. 2) No debate (Standing Order No. 83A(5)) None Scottish Affairs Committee No debate None
Remote division designation
(1) motion to approve the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020; and
(2) motion to approve the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2020
Up to 120 minutes
(1) motion to approve the draft Automatic Enrolment (Offshore Employment) (Amendment) Order 2020; and
(2) motion to approve the draft Occupational and Personal Pension Schemes (Automatic Enrolment) (Amendment) Regulations 2020
Up to 90 minutes
Environment Bill (Programme) (No. 2)
No debate (Standing Order No. 83A(5))
Scottish Affairs Committee
(2) At the conclusion of each debate, the Speaker shall put the Question on each of the motions on the Order Paper relating to the business listed in the table for that debate.—(James Morris.)
The Speaker declared the Question to be agreed to (Order (4), 22 April).
[Relevant documents: Joint Committee on Human Rights, Chair’s Briefing Paper: Coronavirus Restrictions Regulations and Lockdown, HC 265; Joint Committee on Human Rights: Background Paper: Covid-19, HC 265.]
I beg to move,
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 350), dated 26 March 2020, a copy of which was laid before this House on 26 March, be approved.
With this we shall take the following motion:
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 447), dated 21 April 2020, a copy of which was laid before this House on 22 April, be approved.
The Minister is asked to speak for no more than 12 minutes.
These sets of regulations were made by the Secretary of State on 26 March and 21 April respectively. Following the return of the House after the Easter recess, they are rightly being brought before the House today for the scrutiny and debate that they require. They are exceptional measures, brought forward to reflect exceptional challenges and times, but although it is right that these regulations—necessary to meet the public health needs of the coronavirus pandemic—are brought forward, it is also right that we ensure that this House is able to play its proper role, and that due process and the rule of law are maintained. With that in mind, I thank the shadow Minister and the Opposition parties for facilitating this debate taking place today.
The country has been, and still is, engaged in a national effort to beat coronavirus covid-19. Delivering a strategy designed to ensure that our NHS is protected, with capacity at all times exceeding the demand for intensive care beds for coronavirus patients, flattening the peak, and driving down the rate of transmission of disease and the number of infections, alongside the work to significantly expand NHS capacity, have all helped to protect our NHS and to save lives. Sadly, although this has been working, there have been many who have died from this disease—each and every one of them a tragedy, and each and every one a real person. Our thoughts are with all their friends and families at this time. I also put on record all of our continued thanks and appreciation to NHS and care workers, and to key workers around the country, for the phenomenal work that they are doing caring for people and keeping the United Kingdom going.
The regulations we debate today have played a crucial role in the success we are seeing in reducing infection transmission levels. They impose significant demands upon individuals and society as a whole, with impacts on business, the economy and daily life, and I do understand the sacrifices people are making at this time, their frustrations, and, indeed, their anxieties. But these regulations are necessary, because the single most important step we can all take to beating this disease is to stay at home in order to reduce the spread and to protect ourselves and others.
That is why, in these regulations, the Government introduce three main social distancing measures: requiring people to stay at home as far as possible, with only very limited exceptions; closing certain businesses and venues; and stopping gatherings of more than two people in public. These regulations are similar to those introduced by other countries. We have worked closely with the devolved Administrations, to whom I should also pay tribute, in developing and reviewing these measures.
The main statutory instrument, No. 350, requires enforcement of the closure of some businesses and restrictions on others from 12 pm on 26 March 2020. As set out in the notes, the regulations require the closure of drinking establishments, including bars, pubs and nightclubs, and food and drink venues with consumption on-site, excluding hospitals, schools, care homes, homeless services and prison canteens, as well as other exemptions. Regulation 4(4) requires the closure of entertainment venues including cinemas, theatres, concert halls, bingo halls, museums, galleries, spas, hairdressing and massage parlours, casinos, funfairs, libraries, community centres, and non-food outdoor markets. Regulation 5(1) requires businesses offering goods for sale or for hire, or providing library services, to cease to do so except in response to orders received online, by telephone or by mail order. Types of businesses specified in part 3 of schedule 2 are exempt from these restrictions. Regulation 5(2) excludes hot and cold food collection and delivery from the closure restrictions. Regulations 5(3) and 5(4) require hotels and similar establishments to remain open for permanent residence only to persons in a hotel because they are moving home, attending a funeral, or unable to return home.
The second set of regulations, No. 447, makes a small number of consequential amendments to improve the operational implementation of the main regulations.
These regulations are made under section 45C of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, with Her Majesty’s Government clear that the powers under that Act are sufficient to introduce them.
Given the impact that these regulations have on individuals and businesses, notwithstanding the huge support package announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I know that a number of issues relating to these regulations have been raised in recent days by members of the public and, indeed, by hon. Members, and I will touch on those now. However, I will endeavour to respond more fully to specific points raised by Members when I wind up the debate.
First, there is the question of enforcement. The Joint Committee on Human Rights and others have expressed concerns about variations in enforcement and in the approach adopted to it by different police forces. As hon. Members will be aware, guidance was issued to police forces, and this has continued to be updated and clarified. It is important that the police operate within the law, which is the law as it is set out in these regulations, and that guidance is treated as just that—clarifying guidance.
The British people have been amazing in their collective response to the restrictions, and compliance has been very high. However, a very small minority have not always complied. The police have been doing their very challenging job at this time with dedication and, by and large, pragmatism. The approach of “engage, explain, encourage, and only then enforce where it is absolutely necessary” is the right one. The small number of examples, while important, of what can seem like over-enthusiastic enforcement should not detract from the fantastic work being done by the police across the country.
The final aspect of the regulations that I draw attention to is the requirement that they be reviewed every 21 days, to ensure that they remain necessary and appropriate. The first review took place on 16 April, with the First Secretary of State confirming that they would remain in place. The next review is due on 7 May. I am aware of the desire of Members and across the country for more detail on the UK’s progress and future steps, which I understand. The review on 7 May will consider the necessity of the regulations against the public health aim, including the five considerations set out by my right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State: first, that the NHS can provide critical care across the UK; secondly, that there is a sustained and consistent fall in the daily death rate; thirdly, that infection rates decrease to an acceptable level; fourthly, that supplies of personal protective equipment and testing meet future demand; and fifthly, that evidence is clear that any changes will not risk a second peak of the virus.
The Prime Minister has set out that further announcements on this will be made soon. As he said on Thursday last week, the Government will set out a comprehensive plan this week, which will explain how we will get our economy moving while continuing to suppress the disease. It will set out how we will seek to get life back to normal for as many people as we can, as quickly, equitably and fairly as we can, while continuing to protect the NHS. And it will, of course, as throughout, continue to be guided by the best scientific and medical advice. I hope the House will understand that I do not intend to pre-empt what the Prime Minister might say later this week on the basis of that advice.
It is right that we made these regulations as and when we did to help tackle the coronavirus/covid-19 pandemic. Her Majesty’s Government consider these regulations to be proportionate and appropriate in the face of this pandemic, but it is absolutely right that this House properly scrutinises and debates them and their impact upon our country, and I look forward to hearing Members’ contributions. I commend these regulations to the House.
Before I call the spokesman for the Opposition, I should draw to the attention of Members in the Chamber and who are going to participate by electronic means that there will be a time limit of five minutes on Back-Bench contributions. I have to adhere strictly to that timetable in order to make these proceedings work in this unusual way, so please do not look for leniency. I also ask Members who are participating from home to have some way of checking whether they have spoken for five minutes. I now call Justin Madders, who I ask to speak for no more than eight minutes.
We all wish that these regulations were not necessary, but we are all absolutely clear that, given the threat we face, they are required. Before we get into the substance of the regulations, I want to say a little bit about the process, because whether we support these measures or not, given that they represent the biggest peacetime restrictions that this country has ever seen, they do demand full parliamentary scrutiny. I do not intend this to be a criticism of the Minister or anyone else, because we all know the efforts that have been made to get this place up and running again, but a couple of hours’ debate weeks after the regulations were introduced cannot in future be sufficient to provide the level of examination and scrutiny that such sweeping laws require.
We all know the damage that this virus is doing to our society, and we all know that these measures are needed to limit that damage, but we should not forget their impact—the business shut down overnight with no idea if or when it might trade again; the child who cannot understand why they cannot see their friends any more; the grandparents cut off from their family, missing out on their grandchildren growing up. Everyone is facing their own challenges. The physical and mental toll is huge, yet virtually everyone is adhering to these rules in a way that is a testament to the resolve and determination of the British people. So we say thank you to everyone who has played their part in slowing the spread of the virus.
We acknowledge that this is incredibly difficult, and we do not want these measures to be in place for a day longer than is absolutely necessary. The first duty of any Government is to protect its citizens, and if it is necessary to curtail basic freedoms—freedoms for which people have fought and died—to protect them, reality dictates that that is what has to happen. That reality must be accompanied by openness, accountability and scrutiny at a greater level than we would ordinarily see. We accept that the regulations had to be introduced hurriedly in response to the rising number of infections, but there is now a new rhythm to life, and there ought to be time and space to ensure that any future changes have democratic consent before they are introduced.
The regulations require a review every three weeks—as the Minister said, one is due in the next few days. The Secretary of State is legally required to terminate any regulations that are not necessary or proportionate to control the transmission of the virus. A statement in the House following the review will provide a helpful examination of that requirement. I hope that when the Minister responds he will commit to that and to an oral statement after each subsequent review. If that review envisages some relaxation of the measures, we hope that any new regulations on the back of that are debated here before they are implemented and, most importantly, that they follow a wider conversation with Opposition parties, employers, trade unions and, of course, the public.
There are reports that that has begun to happen, but it needs to be done in a structured, open way, not through media briefings or leaks. I do not say that to make a political point, but because I believe that consent for an application of the rules will be better after full and transparent dialogue than it would be without that. We need only to look at the way in which some of those rules were interpreted and applied in the early days to know that there was confusion about their exact meaning. Again, that is not intended as a criticism—no law, let alone one that is completely unprecedented in its reach in modern times could be implemented without areas where there is ambiguity, and clarification is required.
Much of that was most likely due to the unusual and sudden nature of the regulations, but even recently we have seen a divergence between ministerial pronouncements and what the law actually allows. For example, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has recently said on a number of occasions that tips should be able to reopen. Regulation 6 does not state that such a visit is a reasonable excuse for leaving home.
That leads to my next point—the current rules, sweeping as they are, are not numerous. If the next phase is likely to contain a longer list of reasonable excuses to leave home, it is even more important that those rules are clear and consistent. The rules need to be harmonised with advice, guidelines and all forms of official communication. We do not want people to imply legal authority where there is none, or to act outside the law. That is vital to preserve the rule of law. We know that the lockdown was a blunt tool—effective nevertheless—and one that will change by definition as restrictions ease. There will be a measure of nuance, distinction and variation that requires careful explanation and policing. People will inevitably ask why one set of businesses can reopen, but not another. We believe that full disclosure not just of the names of the attendees of the Scientific Group for Emergencies but of all the scientific evidence and advice that has been provided is required to give the public confidence and reassurance on any changes to the rules.
It is in the area of transparency that we need a change from what have seen so far. To take people with us, and for the morale of the nation, any changes to the rules must be viewed in the context of a published exit strategy. We need clear sight of the proposed areas where restrictions will be eased, and a robust plan to protect workers and the public alongside a published impact assessment. So far, there has been no impact assessment—again, we understand why that was not possible in the circumstances, but we do not want that to become the norm, especially for regulations such as this. We see the impact every day and we know that it is not distributed equally.
I should like the Minister to provide assurances that there will be adequate personal protective equipment for all those working on the frontline and facing exposure to the virus. I should like to put on the record our thanks for the extraordinary bravery and dedication demonstrated by NHS staff and other public servants. Our thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones to the virus, and we hear the concerns from many royal colleges and trade unions in the NHS and social care sectors about the availability of PPE. That matters going forward. If, for example, any changes to the lockdown rules involve the wearing of masks in public what steps will the Government take to ensure that everyone can access them consistently and securely?
Will the Minister also address the question of what resources will be devoted to helping businesses make physical changes to ensure safe working and to increase capacity for the official enforcement of safe working practices? The Health and Safety Executive has experienced significant cuts to its budget over the past decade, and demands on it will be higher as questions inevitably arise about safety. What extra funding will be available to meet that demand?
Will the Minister provide clarity on the status of the 2-metre social distancing rule? It is probably the most effective tool in helping to stop the spread of the virus, yet it does not appear in the regulations. Does it appear elsewhere? Is it actually enforceable? On the question of enforceability, the comments today from the TUC about the lack of enforceability of the proposed guidelines that it has seen are extremely troubling. We cannot allow people back into work unless there is confidence that a robust and enforceable system is in place to guarantee their safety.
Finally, we require clarification on the list of vulnerable people in schedule 1 of the first set of regulations. For example, motor neurone disease appears in the schedule as an underlying medical condition for those in the vulnerable category, but it is not among the high-risk category of patients on the NHS shielding list. This may well be another example of where there needs to be greater harmony between the regulations and other guidance.
In conclusion, we will not oppose the regulations but, given that they represent the most severe restrictions imposed on British liberty in modern history, it is critical that they are subject to continual comprehensive and transparent scrutiny. Democracy demands no less.
We now have a formal time limit of five minutes.
I am grateful to be called so early in this important debate.
I very much welcome the tone that has been adopted by both the Minister and the shadow Minister. The overriding point was that they accepted that these are extreme and unusual measures that no Government or Parliament would want to see lasting longer than is strictly necessary. I hope that as Ministers approach the second 21-day review, they will do so always with a view to removing restrictions and removing the arbitrary rules and limitations on freedom as quickly as possible. Where possible, they should also give advance notice. If restrictions are kept in the review on Thursday but may be lifted during the course of the following three weeks, it would be enormously helpful for people, and especially employers, to know in advance.
I hope that Ministers will always see the time limit as a long stop and not as a target to be met. In pressing that case, I ask Ministers to reflect carefully on the experience of the past few weeks and, as the shadow Minister said, the way in which the British people have responded. In essence, it has worked with that overriding objective of ensuring that NHS critical care capacity was not overwhelmed, and it has worked precisely because the British public have been prepared to comply voluntarily. It has not been about policing, in the main, and it has not been about the threat of enforcement; there has been a common desire to make this work. The public have been willing to assist. If anything, in some instances it may be that the public have been a little bit too willing to stay at home. I am sure I am not the only Member who has heard from employers who are struggling to fulfil orders because it is difficult to get employees back from furlough. We all know how critical it is that they ought to be able to get their workers back so that we make sure that the jobs remain when the furlough period ends.
As the Government begin to set out a staged return to work over the coming weeks—I hope that will be set out on Thursday—it will become even more important that we rely on common sense and voluntary co-operation rather than arbitrary rules. The shadow Minister referred to the 2-metre distancing rule; it is looking increasingly likely, from what I read—probably correctly—that Ministers will look to move to a more nuanced set of guidance, which may focus far more on the importance of hygiene. Perhaps there will be the use of disposable gloves if somebody is travelling on public transport, the regular cleaning of surfaces, and all the things that may apply in schools as well as in other workplaces. As these changes come forward, it will be far easier to make them work through a conversation with the British people—by giving people guidance as the Government’s views and the advice they receive evolve, rather than by seeking always to set out very clear, arbitrary rules and regulations.
It is perhaps more important that that approach should be taken in dealing with our more senior citizens. We have the healthiest, most active elderly generation of all time, and it would be tragic if the Government threatened that by trying to extend the so-called lockdown for those judged to be most at risk based on age. Why do we not just give them the best information and advice and let them limit their risk for themselves? There is no reason why the constituent that wrote to me who is a keen cyclist and turns 70 in November should not continue regularly to cycle 30 miles to 60 miles a day, as he did before the lockdown was imposed.
Finally, let me return briefly to the importance of parliamentary scrutiny. It is deeply regrettable that the current 21-day period of extension will end on a day when the House is not sitting. The announcements that will be made on Thursday would be better made in the House. We should hear them here first; it should not be the media that get to question Ministers on those announcements. I hope that when future periods of review are considered, the House, and perhaps the Government, might bear that in mind.
The Government were right to follow the scientific and medical advice to introduce the lockdown. They did so to keep people safe. I recognise the sacrifices made by people around the country who are diligently following the rules to protect themselves, their loved ones and the most vulnerable. However, doing the right thing comes at a heavy cost, so I welcome this opportunity to scrutinise the legislation and focus on the ways it is affecting our country, especially our communities up here in Cumbria.
I am so grateful to our police, in Cumbria and across the UK, for putting our safety above their own. As the Government consider easing the lockdown, they must provide clear guidance so that the police can continue to keep us safe with consistency and confidence.
We are battling to save lives, but also to save a way of life. We must not treat lightly our democracy and our freedom. Let me briefly put on the record my concern about the use of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 to pass the regulations and urge Ministers to ensure that the three-week review of these measures is open and honest, and that there is full scrutiny of all new legislation.
The restrictions are necessary to save lives, and we should be extremely cautious about lifting them too soon. It is right that we are led by the science and not by politics. However, we have a responsibility to spare people from hardship and ruin. Here in Cumbria, we are deeply concerned about our tourism and hospitality industry, which had to shut down completely just as it was gearing up for its high season.
For many in the lakes, the dales and the rest of Cumbria, hospitality and tourism are seasonal. They operate their trading year on something of a “feast and famine” basis. The coronavirus hit right at the end of the famine, and now this year there will be no feast. If we do not get this right, we may inadvertently kill off an entire industry that is essential to our wider economy.
It is a humbling honour to speak for and from a part of Britain as breathtakingly beautiful as the south lakes. Our communities here are as strong as the landscape is beautiful. Hundreds of volunteers, many facing severe hardship themselves, are involved in serving their neighbours in their hour of need. We may need to stay a safe distance apart, but our communities have never been closer. I am proud of our people, and I am determined that they should be financially stable and secure at the end of all this.
In normal times, we are one of Europe’s biggest visitor destinations. Last year alone, we received 16 million visitors. Visitors come from Britain and all over the world, not only for the landscape but because we have a world-class hospitality and tourism industry, with the best pubs, restaurants, accommodation, attractions, heritage and history, and an innovative retail sector fully integrated with the visitor economy.
In the Lake district alone, 80% of the working population are employed in tourism or hospitality. The Cumbrian visitor economy contributes £3 billion a year, and £1.45 billion will already have been lost by next month, with 80% of the workers in the hotel and food industries currently furloughed. The RSA study indicated that Cumbria was the most exposed economy in the country, with one in three jobs now at risk. That would be utterly devastating to families throughout our area, so I am determined to defend them and to find a way to avoid that. We are encouraged by the Government’s announcement of £617 million of support to help those businesses that are falling through the gaps, but it remains to be seen whether that money will be enough to support all those currently struggling, such as small B&Bs and home-based businesses. I urge Ministers to ensure that no one is left behind and no one left destitute.
When it is safe to do so, the lockdown will ease, but it seems likely that hospitality and tourism will be the last to return to normality under the Government’s plans. We understand that. Our priority is to protect our people and to save lives. The problem is that if hospitality and tourism are phased back in in the autumn, having missed out on the feast of the summer months, they will have to try to keep themselves afloat just as the famine of winter begins. Additional grants and an extension of the furlough scheme will be needed over the summer, but if that is all we do, the Government will simply be delaying the failure of businesses, the loss of jobs and the hardship and misery of the families of the south lakes. I will not stand for that, and I hope that Ministers will not do so either. That is why I urge the Government to protect this vital industry by committing to a 12-month funding settlement for tourism and hospitality so that they can survive the winter and be ready to lead the revival in the spring of 2021.
I am reassured by the fact that the Government will be making a statement on 7 May reviewing the current lockdown, but I need to make it absolutely clear to the Minister that business is stressed. The lockdown has collapsed demand, and the longer it goes on, the harder it will be for businesses to claw back that demand. Their future is bleak. I remind the Minister that the economy is people’s lives. It is our health service, our schools, our policing, our pensions, our roads, our mortgages, our workplace and so many more things. In short, it is us.
I urge the Government to do some modelling on the impact that the lockdown will have on the 5.9 million privately owned businesses in this country. Of that 5.9 million, 99.3% employ between one and 49 people, and if hundreds of thousands—or a million or more—of those businesses go under, we will unleash a tidal wave of human misery. Unemployment of 12% means 4 million people out of work, 4 million people suffering from mental health problems, and many more millions of people underemployed. We need to have a frank, open and honest debate about the ethics of trading lives tomorrow to save lives today. The chief medical officer has made it perfectly clear that there are people who are going to die of cancer who otherwise would not have died of cancer because of this lockdown. It may well be that, after that debate, we decide that this is a terrible trade we want to make, but we need to have that discussion, as a Parliament and as a country.
The chief medical officer has said that we may well have to learn to live with covid-19 for years to come. It may not just be a battle to beat the first wave or the second wave. There may be many waves to come, year after year, and we need an economy that is resilient and that can meet that challenge and face it down. So we have to get people back to work as safely as possible. Maybe in a few months’ time, because we want to protect our public services and the things that we value, the slogan will be: “Go to work, wash your hands, save the NHS”. Most people find their purpose, their motivation and their happiness in the workplace.
May I conclude by saying that many people in my constituency are doing truly wonderful things? Each day, they get up in the morning and go to work. I know some of them are fearful and frightened, but they go to work to keep this country running as best as they can—they are all heroes. I cannot thank everyone, because it is impossible to do so, but I would like to thank those at the little Co-op in Goffs Oak, where I live. Young men and women, and older men and women, are working on the tills, behind their glass screens. I am sure they are concerned about their own welfare, but there is always a cheery smile and a warm welcome, and they give the impression that nothing is too much to ask. There are many, many heroes, and a number of them are found at the Co-op in Goffs Oak.
I am very aware that these regulations apply to England-only, so I will not detain the House for too long, but much of what is contained within them, and within future coronavirus regulations for England, has an impact on us in Wales, too.
As the Minister is very aware, the UK Government have, along with the Governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, closely co-ordinated the response to the public health crisis, in the so-called “four-nation” approach. As we enter the sixth week of lockdown, many are calling for clarity on how long it will last and on which measures could be relaxed first, especially as we are nearing the end of the current lockdown period. We all know that for measures to work properly we must ensure that the people we represent are fully on board with the decisions taken in this Parliament and in the devolved Parliaments.
Over the weekend, the Irish Government announced their plans for lifting their lockdown in some detail, and many other Governments across the world are communicating with the same level of transparency and clarity. The Irish Government have set out five phases. Phase 1, commencing on 18 May, will allow outdoor meetings between people from different households. The fifth phase, commencing in August, will allow larger social gatherings and a return to work across all sectors. Schools are not expected to return until the new academic year, and only then in a phased manner.
I urge the Minister to hold constructive and fully transparent discussions with the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland Governments over the next few weeks, so that people across all nations can continue to respect the measures contained in these regulations and their counterpart regulations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Crucially, and if the four-nation approach is to mean anything meaningful, all Governments should have an equal voice and veto on those decisions.
Joint decision making is the way forward in the post-Brexit British state, especially on restrictions on movement. There are concerns that the £60 fixed penalty notice contained in the regulations—this is reduced to £30 if paid within 14 days—does not act as an effective deterrent. I urge the Government to look again at the fines contained in the regulations. Dafydd Llywelyn, the police and crime commissioner for my local police area of Dyfed-Powys, is advocating faster fines of about £1,000, after officers in Dyfed-Powys issued hundreds of penalties during the Easter holiday. Further, stiffer penalties and enforcement actions are also required against second home owners who break the lockdown to visit their holiday homes. I hope there will be action at the Welsh level on that, and I am glad to report to the House that discussions have taken place between the Welsh police forces, the Welsh local authorities and the Welsh Government on this issue.
I agree with the points raised by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) about the impact that the regulations are having on the tourism sector in particular and on the need for a specific future economic strategy for tourism. Agriculture is another area facing considerable difficulty. I know we are all crying out for a day at the beach or a weekend away, but the regulations need to make it crystal clear that over the coming bank holiday weekend we should all be doing our part by staying home and saving lives.
These rules are necessary and the Government made the right call when they put the country into lockdown in order to protect lives. Nothing that I am about to say should in any way be taken to diminish people’s obligation to obey the law.
My first point is that we see that these regulations were made on 26 March at 1 pm. The Prime Minister announced these rules on 23 March and police officers quickly set about enforcing them, stopping people on trains and, in one case, overturning a barbecue. People very quickly found themselves subject to what seemed to be enforcement action. On 24 March, the Government sent a text message, saying that new rules were “in force now” and that people “must stay at home”. The problem is that those rules were not in force at that time; they were not in force until 26 March. I press on the Minister the fact that we must not again have a situation where the Prime Minister makes an announcement at a press conference and police officers start enforcing rules before they are made. We must in future make the law and then tell the public that it is enforced. I press on him the fact that that must not happen again.
Secondly, there is a good case that these regulations are ultra vires, and I recommend that the Government have a contingency plan in place in case a court case— a judicial review—succeeds in demonstrating that. I will try to sketch out the position very quickly—if I have understood it correctly. This is from an opinion from Blackstone, and I have tweeted the original article if people have an interest in the detail. It says:
“The regulations purport to authorise conduct which would otherwise constitute the torts of false imprisonment and trespass to the person”—
that is the physical restraint and forcible removal to one’s home. It goes on to say that for primary legislation to sanction such tortious conduct there must be
“express words or necessary implication”
to that effect. But section 45G(2)(j) of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, under which these rules are made, does not expressly, or by necessary implication, authorise physical confinement.
It is also the case that the Act expressly prohibits the Secretary of State from imposing certain of the special restrictions on people; they can only be imposed by a magistrate. It suggests that, under the 1984 Act, the Secretary of State was not meant to be able to put on people restrictions that would otherwise be tortious—false imprisonment or physical restraint, for example. Therefore, we may be in a position where these draconian rules—these necessary rules—are not well founded in law, and I would like to know today the Government’s position on that. I would like to be assured that, if the lockdown needs to continue, the Government will have a contingency plan in place to ensure that it is well founded in law.
The third point was very well made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). He called for harmony between the guidance and the law. There have been very severe, absurd problems arising because the police have sought to enforce rules that were not actually in law. For example, the law in England does not specify that people may not drive to exercise. I know of people who have stayed at home because they need to drive a short distance from a place where they cannot exercise to one where they can. People have been accused, for example, of not sweating adequately when cycling. When doing yoga, they have been accused of not exercising. These things are absurd and wrong and worrying for law-abiding people. The Government may not in future be able to close this difficult area by harmonising the guidance with the rules, so what I suggest is for them to have a look at the Highway Code, where there is already a precedent for rules given with a “should”, which means that they are, in a sense, guidance and not enforceable, and for things that people must or must not do. Given that we have that precedent, can we please close this gap, so that police officers are not put in the invidious position of trying to enforce what are really no more than Ministers’ opinions of what should be done—in other words, things that are not in law.
I want to finish by saying that I am very grateful to the Prime Minister for his liberalism. I am extremely thankful for the exceptionally high-quality policing in Wycombe, where I have had no complaints. None the less, the people of the United Kingdom should not have to rely on the goodwill of the Prime Minister and the Government or the good sense of police officers in order to go about their lawful business. I implore my friends on the Front Bench to ensure that we uphold the rule of law and the freedoms on which they depend.
Order. The Opposition Member who was due to speak next is not now taking part in the debate, so we go to another Government Member, Selaine Saxby.
Without doubt, the introduction of these restrictions and the lockdown have saved lives in the UK. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has worked tirelessly for the past few months to help to prevent the spread of this deadly virus, as well as care for those who have been struck down with it.
In my North Devon constituency, I can see how effective the lockdown has been. Our infection rate is less than 1%. While every loss of life is to be mourned, we have lost fewer than 100 lives across the entire county of Devon, and I am just one of nine MPs who represent it. We achieved that, I believe, by being locked down early before the virus had really taken hold. We are grateful to Devon and Cornwall police for their diligence in deterring tourists at this time. I have been so impressed by the outstanding community spirit, which has enabled armies of volunteers to deliver food and medicines to self-isolating vulnerable and elderly members of the community. I would also like to thank our tourism businesses, who rapidly closed their doors, and to the visitors who took the decision not to travel. Another reason why the restrictions have been so successful is our sparse population and wide-open spaces. Indeed, I look longingly at the Atlantic ocean from my kitchen and yearn for the RNLI to reopen the water and allow us back in the sea to self-isolate there.
As we look towards a gradual easing of the restrictions, it is important that we keep the infection rate in North Devon as low as it has been. As a mathematician, I hope that alongside the excellent scientific advice, which has guided decisions throughout this pandemic, there is robust mathematical modelling that determines what does happen to an area like North Devon, with a low infection rate but with a population that increases each summer due to tourism. What would happen if we allowed the population to swell by its normal five-to-tenfold, as some parts of my constituency do? How does R behave then? Do we have enough open space in North Devon to accommodate anything like our normal seasonal influx? And if the answer is yes, I hope the data will be shared to give residents the confidence they need to leave their homes and welcome visitors back, and that our tourism industry can start to reopen without endangering the health of residents.
There are concerns that all the sacrifices made in April may be undermined if we release lockdown measures too quickly, or if social distancing, combined with an influx of tourists, is not enough. North Devon does not just have some of the best beaches in the UK, part of stunning Exmoor and its fabulous zoo, we also have the smallest hospital on the UK mainland, and our Nightingale Hospital is not yet built and will be 60 miles away.
I dearly want to return to being the one-woman tourist board for North Devon, but fear that the time for that might not be now. If there is a gradual easing of restrictions, I very much hope that the police will have the powers and clarity in their guidance to be able to respond to the unique challenges of the magnetic nature of the North Devon coastline, where people think nothing of driving many hours to catch a wave.
The restrictions are concerned with our health, but I trust that the health of my tourism businesses will be considered if we are unable to welcome back our normal volume of visitors this summer. Seasonal businesses cannot survive three consecutive winters, which is why regular reviews of our restrictions are of the upmost importance. I recognise and warmly welcome the most incredible support the Government have offered to our businesses, and thank the Treasury for everything they have done—more than we could have possibly imagined. However, the seasonal tourism industry may suffer more than most despite that generosity. I hope that the Government take that into consideration in their upcoming reviews over the next weeks and months.
The mental health of the nation has been put under strain throughout this pandemic. I hope that mathematicians are also modelling and advising those taking the decisions about the relative risks to the mental health of business owners watching years of their lives unravel in front of them, or of leaving people working in their kitchens for weeks or months more alone, versus the physical risks that this deadly virus presents, particularly in a region where the level of infection is currently so low.
Thank you to everyone who has stayed at home, protected the NHS and saved lives. As we gradually ease the restrictions. I hope that there will be a similar strength of message to give people the confidence to leave their homes and welcome visitors back when the time is right, and that when the mathematics and science allows I will again revert to being the one-woman tourist board in North Devon.
We are in a crisis, and parliamentary scrutiny is, as ever, the most important thing we can provide as a Parliament. I welcome the clarifications this statutory instrument makes, but there are reassurances and clarifications we have yet to receive from the Government on loopholes in these regulations, because not everyone is receiving fair and safe treatment under these regulations and there is one shocking example that I want to raise: the plight of call centre staff.
New research from Strathclyde university shows that thousands of call centre staff are still being asked to work in offices where social distancing is not practised. Hot-desking continues and colleagues have fallen ill from covid-19, with some being threatened that unless they go to work, they will lose their jobs. They have tried to whistleblow and been told there is nothing anyone can do, and there is nothing in these regulations that enforces social distancing in workplaces. That allows employers to exploit their employees, so they do not have to change how they work, and it is deeply worrying.
The Government classified call centre staff as key workers, but this is being applied to staff who have hitherto not provided essential services at all. Indeed, many who have, anonymously in some cases, given data to this study have said that they see no reason why they are essential. This is a loophole that the Government need to rectify in future regulations.
I can see why the blanket keyworker definition was used at first, but surely now is the time to tighten this. So can the Government reassure us in this debate that these regulations will be enforced, and clarified where needed to protect call centre staff, and indeed other staff, from exploitation?
I want to propose another solution: to give the automatic right to work from home, as is being considered by legislators in Germany. This of course builds on Liberal Democrat changes, that we led in coalition, to allow employees to ask for flexible working. However, as many watching at home might know, not many employers actually allowed that to happen; some did, but many said no. The crisis has, I hope, shown for many that this way of working can work well. However, those who are hiding behind the loopholes in this legislation remain resistant. If there was an automatic right to work from home unless there was a good reason why not—which is the opposite of how it is now—we could create a level playing field for all. Are the Government considering such an approach at all?
When our civil liberties are being curtailed, we also need to make sure that everyone is treated equally under the law, and this includes enforcement of the lockdown. The Government must work actively to ensure that the powers given to the police in these regulations are not used to disproportionately target BAME people, as stop-and-search powers are. We must be vigilant against wrongful convictions, as was highlighted in the case of 18-year-old Lewis Brown in Oxford. He was wrongfully prosecuted recently under, strangely, Welsh powers in the Coronavirus Act 2020. While the CPS has announced that every single case under the Act involving a child will be reviewed, we need reassurance from the Government that they are working with the police to prevent what happened to Lewis—which would be distressing to anyone, but especially someone of that age—from happening again.
I, of course, recognise that we are in uncharted territory, but where regulations are being exploited by some businesses, putting the lives of workers in danger, changes must be made. Where exceptional powers have been granted, they must not be allowed to become the new normal, and I hope the Minister will be able to reassure me and other Members that our concerns and the problems we have highlighted will be listened to and acted upon.
The precedent that health trumps liberty must not be the conclusion from this period. I am determined about that, because it is fundamental to our very souls as the British people. We are not a people who take well to surveillance, and it is a little ironic that the country that has probably been surveilling its population more than any other appears to have been the source of this virus. The point is that widespread surveillance really is not acceptable in Britain, so I want to talk a little about the app being proposed as part of the next phase, which may be related to the coming regulations that replace those we are looking at today.
Obviously track and trace and testing are essential parts of getting the population confident again that they can go about their business in a normal fashion. I support those things, and they are an incredibly important part of that. The opportunities that those things present to people must be taken up, but to do that they must be voluntary, decentralised and simple, because they have to be widely taken up to be effective as a process for giving people confidence that they do not have the virus and for spreading that confidence throughout society, so that people can go about their business normally. I am very concerned that it appears that that is not how the intended app has been designed.
The app is centralised, and it is worth understanding that Germany has now abandoned its plan to use an app that would centralise the information that it collected about where people had been and what their health conditions were. I understand that the NHS has itself assessed today that the proposed app may not provide enough security, performance or clinical safety for it to be used here. I would like to hear from the Minister whether those reports, for example on the UK Defence Journal today, are indeed accurate.
The decentralised model is how the app should be implemented by design, so that it is not possible for a security breach to be as serious. It is an essential principle of our democracy and our freedom that we are not tracked by the state, and I think that the centralisation of the data is entirely wrong. I would dump the centralised design and I would dump it now, because I do not think people will take it up in the proportions required for it to be effective if it is a centralised design.
We need to remember what the point is of these big intrusions. I completely agree that the lockdown was necessary, as I have said before, but these intrusions into normal life and our normal economic opportunities are really, really massive. They were done in order that we should not overwhelm the NHS—clearly that was the right thing to do—to give us time to build its capacity and to introduce capacity for testing. The whole idea behind that was so that we could get back to normal. We must never lose sight through this process of what normal means. “Normal” is not being tracked centrally. “Normal” is not being afraid. “Normal” is not being suspicious of every stranger. “Normal” is not dobbing in our neighbours. “Normal” is working when we can, not furloughing.
I genuinely believe that we need to get back to normal when restrictions are eased. We need to communicate that very clearly—much more clearly than has been done on occasion with some of the confusion about the regulations and their implementation. Our economy and our future depend on it.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am grateful to you for calling me on my first occasion of trying this virtual system.
I would like to take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to the Minister and his team for the extraordinary efforts they have displayed during this crisis in galvanising both the health service and the entirety of Government to get behind combating this disease. This is no easy task, and I think they have done it admirably, if I may say so. I would also like to pay a brief tribute to everybody working in the NHS, in the care sector and in the public services generally—local authorities, emergency services—right across the country and particularly in Shropshire in keeping a grip. As some other speakers have said, we are some way behind the rest of the country, being a rural shire county, but that does not mean to say that the disease is not now present and, regrettably, killing people.
On the debate today, it is very clear that we are making regulations that are unprecedented in scope in taking away people’s liberty. It is therefore absolutely right that Parliament, which regards itself as the beacon of democracy around the world, is here to scrutinise, to hold Ministers to account and to hold the Government to account. I share the comments made by earlier speakers that it is absolutely right that we have the ability to review these measures every 21 days, and I encourage Ministers to acknowledge—perhaps the Minister can do so in his winding up—that it is the Government’s intent to speak to the measures as they are either repeated or relaxed over the coming weeks.
I would like to make three quick points in this debate. First, and directly related to the regulations before us, some of the most heartrending cases I have heard of during the weeks of lockdown have been the difficulties for family members of those who are patients in intensive care units in hospitals, where they quite properly cannot be visited because they are on incubator ventilators. However, when that treatment does not succeed and, regrettably, there is a tragedy and the death of a patient, it has been difficult for family members to be able to come to terms with their own grief because they are initially not able to attend either burials or cremations. I warmly welcome, first, the announcement by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government that close family members should be able to attend burials or cremations, but also that this is being confirmed in these regulations.
I would just like to add my support for care, when the Government look at relaxing the regulations, and for not imposing age-related restrictions on individuals. As we have seen all too vividly, it is possible to reach 100 and to walk—with assistance, but to walk—and take exercise in the way that Captain, now Colonel, Tom did so magnificently and galvanised the nation. We cannot introduce specific restrictions for those aged over an arbitrary limit—70-year-olds have been mentioned —without imposing very great inequality, in my view, on healthy individuals, so please do not do that.
Secondly, it is very clear from the Government’s five markers for relaxing restrictions that testing is one of the key platforms. I take my hat off to the Government again for the extraordinary effort in galvanising academia, the scientific research laboratories, the NHS laboratories, industry and even the military in achieving the very demanding testing target set by the Secretary of State for April. It is a tremendous achievement. However, these tests have all been swab tests—the antigen test—which tell whether an individual currently has the disease, so such a test is of limited use for as long as that individual is presenting symptoms. It does not help in identifying whether they have had the virus. Therefore, the antibody test is vital in order to allow us to get back to normal. It would be helpful if the Minister could give an indication to the House of what prospects we as a nation have of moving towards an antibody test that is effective.
Order. I trust that the right hon. Gentleman is going to conclude very soon, because his five minutes are up.
I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would just like to echo the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) that the contact tracing and tracking app needs to be introduced on a voluntary basis, and the Government should take great care in explaining to the public why it is such an important tool in fighting this disease.
Once again, the Opposition Member who was next on the list is not now going to participate in the debate, so I go to another Government Member, Sir John Redwood.
These measures are doing great damage to the livelihoods and incomes of many of my constituents and people around the country, and they are also damaging to our freedoms and liberties, so I urge the Government to find safe ways to get more people back to work as quickly as possible. It is great news that the NHS has much enhanced capacity. It has tackled the covid-19 waves so well so far and has plenty of capacity, so we must now think about how we get many more people back to work so that they can restore their livelihoods.
It is all too easy for us Members of Parliament, with a guaranteed high salary paid into our bank accounts every month, whether the economy does well or badly, to be a little too dismissive of the struggles faced by people who may be furloughed but are not getting their tips, bonuses or commissions. Some may already have lost their job, while many are living in fear that the company they work for will run out of cash and not be able to trade.
My first piece of advice to the Government is to not make a person’s return to work conditional on them having had the virus. The right to work cannot become a macabre lottery whereby people have to prove that they have had a certain illness before they have the right to return to their job. If safe working can be arranged for that person, they should have every right to do it, even if they belong to the majority who the Government assume have not had the virus.
I also want to look at the Government’s method of making the decisions on the basis of statistical and scientific advice. We all see the graphs that are presented every day by the scientific advisers, and some of the numbers used to address whether or not we can return to work worry me considerably. The crucial figure, we are told by the Prime Minister and others, is the transmission rate, which they call R. We have all learned that if that figure is well below 1, we can relax much more because it means that the virus is waning and is not being passed on to enough people by each person who gets it, which means that it will wane further and we can think about returning to normal. We are also told that if it is over 1, we still have a problem because it is growing in scope.
The problem is that in recent discussions we have been given a range of values—from 0.5 to 1—of what R might be. If we look at how they calculate it, we see that it is an estimate, not a precise number. I find it surprising that over the past six weeks we have not been reproducing, through testing, a representative sample of the population. Surely the way to get a more accurate transmission rate is to see over time how the total number of cases, as represented by a sample of the population, is trending. I am pleased to read in a newspaper that we are now doing a series of random tests over time. Will they please speed those up? That is not as good as having six weeks of back data, which is a pity. I trust that Ministers will cross-examine scientists carefully to see what proxies they have for a proper set of random tests over time, because if the figures are to be an important part of the decision, we need to make sure they are as accurate as possible.
We then have the so-called comparable death rates in different countries. The death rate is important, because clearly the national death rate is part of the decision-making process. Again, it is very disturbing that the basis on which deaths are registered as being with or related to covid-19 has changed over the series, and of course the series has been greatly changed by moving from just hospital deaths to a wider range of deaths, including those in care homes. Will Ministers please ensure that when they make decisions based on death rates, they clean up the figures and understand that over the six or seven-week period of the intense duration of this virus, we need comparable and accurate figures? That is what they should concentrate on and try to construct.
We then have the figures for hospital admissions, which seem to be the closest that we have to reliable figures. They look as if they are showing an extremely good story indeed, so I trust that Ministers will focus considerably on them. They argue that now is the time to let more people get back to work in as safe a way as possible. Industry and commerce are very willing to amend the way in which they operate so that they can get some revenue and start serving their customers again. If we do not do this, the whole thing will be completely unaffordable and the pressures will mount economically, which will not be good news for our health policy either.
It is lovely to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.
As the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) said, the legislation is devolved; Wales made that decision, and in Northern Ireland our now functioning and working Assembly was granted the right to establish how the legislation, such as the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020, and the amendments to it would come about. We were given the ability to determine how we would fulfil our obligations in the matter; I wish we were afforded the same right and ability to determine other essential matters such as the introduction of abortion, but that is a debate for another day.
The vast majority understand the reason why the Government have taken steps to introduce lockdown, and the vast majority agree with those steps. People understand that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures that we would never usually undertake. I am an example of that; I never thought that I would be part of a virtual Parliament. However, what concerns some people is how we ensure that we do not overstep what is necessary and enter the realms of what is convenient. I would appreciate understanding how the Minister believes we have ensured that we do not have a system that can be abused. I have every faith in the Minister and look forward to his response.
I have been contacted by constituents who are concerned about the impact on their mental health of lockdown and the closure of their usual walking spots. Every right hon. and hon. Member realises that mental health is a massive issue that strikes at many, many doors. I received one message from a nurse who needs that space to walk and think, which she always does by the sea; she, more than anyone else, knows how to distance, yet she has been nothing less than distressed. That has to be weighed against the fact that groups of people are meeting when they should not be, which is why councils have closed access where possible. I believe that there is a very tight balance, and I would like assurances about how we believe that it has been found.
Last week, at the daily coronavirus news conference, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said that Northern Ireland might make changes ahead of the UK mainland. Some of those changes have been discussed; the responsible Minister is looking at opening the recycling centres, which in some cases has already happened, but he is also looking—although no decision has yet been made—at reopening garden centres and churches and allowing angling, so that people can fish on riverbanks and in lakes while self-distancing. Science and expert advice must be crucial.
This is not just a UK issue; it is global, and we cannot ignore what is happening elsewhere. According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Governments around the world have been using the covid-19 crisis as an excuse to use police and other arms of the state to crack down on human rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. I believe that the UK Government must ensure that human rights are given full consideration when policing responses to covid-19 are considered.
There is a risk to prison populations, in the UK and globally, of contracting covid-19 because of overcrowding and limited opportunities for social distancing. I therefore believe that the UK Government should speak out—indeed, I know that Ministers have spoken out—on behalf of prisoners of conscience, and an example of that would be the Uighur Muslims in China.
Similarly, at home, asylum seekers who have been held in UK detention centres are at extreme risk during the pandemic because of the limited opportunities for social distancing, as well as other vulnerabilities. Despite not being criminals, these people, many of whom have had their human rights breached in other countries, face some of the same threats as prison populations and are extremely vulnerable. Our UK Government should at the very least increase efforts to support them during these trying times. Does the Minister agree that that is what we are doing?
To conclude, I would like to know how the points I have raised are met by this legislation and ensure that covid powers designed to help us deal with this disease are not being used in a year’s time to deal with those we do not entirely agree with or, indeed, disagree with. It is a fine line, and I want to ensure that the Minister and the Government are on the right side of it.
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures, and that is the case here. The entry of coronavirus on the scene and the terrifying wave of deaths it unleashed across the world led to a very real fear that our NHS would be overwhelmed and that we might see here some of the horrifying scenes we have seen in Italy. Therefore, the public rightly demanded action—action to keep them safe and to save their jobs. The Government have responded, quite rightly, in huge measure, unveiling a package of support of all types that has addressed almost every area of national life. Thanks to that massive effort to shield the NHS, we have avoided that uncontrollable, catastrophic epidemic, where the reasonable worst-case scenario was 500,000 deaths.
Yet, it remains the case that what has had to be done is quite extraordinary in two respects: we have seen an extraordinary suspension of normal personal liberties and extraordinary measures by means of which the state is intervening in the economy. I want to make the case today that every Member of this House should be drawing attention over and over again to how truly extraordinary these measures are.
It says something for the respect in which the country’s institutions are held that there has been such wide acceptance. The police are trusted, and the bobby is seen as our friend. There is not the suspicion here that we often see in other countries—even democratic ones. That speaks of a country whose structures are mature, stable and secure, but I confess that I am, in some ways, slightly disturbed by the extent to which these restrictions have been accepted. Overwhelmingly, of course, that is down to a desire to do our bit—to be seen to be in every way the equal of our grandparents as we face a very different challenge—and some of it, of course, is fear. However, that does not mean that we should be complacent, and that complacency would be shown by starting to accept these restrictions as normal, rather than stressing over and over again how truly exceptional they are.
I will be absolutely clear: I have total faith in the Government’s good intentions. They have done what they had to do to save lives and jobs, and I support them wholeheartedly, but it is not this Government I am concerned about. What I want us to do is to guard against a change in the national mood music and to prevent a ratchet effect, such that we become used to restrictions we never would have tolerated in normal times, not least because there will always be some who argue we should do more.
We can see how the acceptance of restrictions has an effect long after their intended period in the economic sphere. When I was my son’s age—he is three now—Margaret Thatcher was beginning the huge task of dismantling the vast socialist edifice that had dominated the UK since the war. What is not always appreciated is that that edifice was not just the result of Labour party manifestos from 1945 onwards, but was essentially the basis of a command economy set up during the second world war. In essence, that wartime command economy was not dismantled until the 1980s, despite there being Conservative Governments during that time. There was a Butskellite consensus that did not challenge the basic premise that the state owned and controlled the essential parts of the economy. Why were Conservative MP so complicit? There were many reasons for that, but one was that the level of state control had become something people were comfortable with—something they were used to—and they failed to question it. That state control had been the new norm.
We are now in a world in which huge amounts of workers’ wages are being paid by the state, and I wholly support the action taken and the reason for it. It was right to protect the economy in the short term to enable it to bounce back in the medium to long term, but that does not mean that we ought to tire of pointing out how unusual these measures are and that we have no intention of allowing them to continue for the long term. This applies to these regulations as much as to the economic effects. If not, we will see that those on the left who want to see a bigger state anyway will find an excuse to say, “Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”, so the ratchet cranks up another notch. We will see arguments for things such as universal basic incomes and all the failed ideology of the state finding a specious pretext for an unwelcome return. What we Government Members have to do is to tirelessly make the case that economic liberalism put us in a good place to meet this crisis, and it is to economic liberalism that we must return. That starts by pointing out how unusual and, in the long term, undesirable the current restrictions are.
The police have been given powers that are in some ways greater than the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939—a raft of powers that they are now trying to make sense of and apply in a practical way. As constituency MPs, we have all been inundated over the last few weeks with requests by the public to help them to understand what they are and are not allowed to do.
Order. I trust that the hon. Gentleman is concluding as his five minutes are up.
I am indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am very grateful for the efforts that the police have made in very difficult circumstances. I simply ask that all Members of the House keep vigilant at all times as to the effect of the regulations that we are currently supporting.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) and relatively close geographic neighbour, because what I want to stay chimes with the sentiments that he has just set out. I fully support the regulations in front of the House, but it is worth emphasising what an enormous restriction on our liberty they are—the greatest restriction on our liberty that there has been in British history. That restriction is there for a very good reason, but in a democratic country such as ours, where we have to have consent, it is the Government’s task each time they bring forward such regulations to remake the case as to why we are doing it. It is also worth saying that with each of the review periods, it is not for others to justify the regulations going away; the Government must rejustify why they have to remain in place so we do not consider that they become the new norm.
In that spirit, and I hope that the Minister will address this when he winds up, I request that before any changes to these regulations come into force —indeed, there has already been one set of amendments—any amended regulations are brought forward and debated and decided on by the House. I understand why that did not take place when the regulations were first brought in, but any subsequent amendments should be debated by the House. I was pleased that the Opposition have taken that view. I would prefer the process to remain consensual, but it will only if the Government behave in that way. Scrutiny is important because, as we have already seen with the current regulations, there has been confusion and debate about the guidance that the Government set out and the meaning of the regulations—that is, the law and what has therefore been interpreted by the police.
The Prime Minister confirmed last week, when he addressed the nation on his return to Downing Street, that he was in favour of the greatest transparency as we debate these measures. I therefore say to the Minister that it was disappointing that the seven documents that have been created to set out safe ways of working—the guidance for employers—have reached the public domain, whether that was through leaks or briefing. I think that those documents should have been published by the Government. They could have been published in draft form for discussion. That would have been a better way of conducting the debate than to have those documents reach the public in the way that they have. If we want to take the public with us, the more open and transparent we are about the trade-offs and the difficult decisions that we have to take, the better.
The final point that I want to make is about this House. When I spoke in the House last week, I said that we should pay great tribute to Mr Speaker, the House staff and those who have supported the ability to get the House up and running in this virtual way. It is clearly better to have the House back in virtual form than not at all, but we do lose something. Ministers are not under the same pressure or same level of scrutiny that they are when we are in the Chamber—[Interruption.] I can see that the Minister is laughing in his seat. The sooner that we can work out ways to enable the House to function with more of us physically present, albeit in a more socially distant way, the better. I urge the Government to consider ways in which we can do that.
The Prime Minister has set a decision point this week: for the regulations that we are debating today to be considered, and for the Government to take decisions about whether they wish to continue with them in force or to make changes. Either decision—keeping them in force unchanged, or making changes—is very significant, and has an impact on everyone in the country and on businesses around the country. I think that that statement should be made in Parliament so that Members of Parliament can ask questions, not our own behalf, but on behalf of all those whom we represent. I hope that the Government will bear that in mind when they are making those decisions.
It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). It is right that these regulations have been debated today on the Floor of the House of Commons—and, indeed, on my own living room floor.
Like many other Members, I praise the general adherence by the population to these difficult and restrictive measures. I know that they have caused pain, heartache and financial hardship for many, but I recognise from the evidence that I have heard on the Science and Technology Committee that they are working both here and abroad, and that that compliance has been higher than was originally estimated for the models—although, of course, such estimates were necessarily cautious, because nothing like this has been necessary for over a century.
The only true route out of our present predicament is a vaccine. On that note, I was greatly encouraged by my visit to Cobra Biologics in my constituency last week. It is part of the consortium that will produce the Oxford vaccine that is currently in clinical trials. I ask the Government to ensure that we put all the finance necessary for future production in place as soon as possible, putting some investment at risk—making a bet, if you like—on the basis that the potential prize is so valuable.
In the meantime, I support these regulations as a proportionate and time-limited response. As we all recall, their stated purpose was to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed, and the evidence is that we have succeeded, not least in the mercifully light use of the Nightingale hospitals. I do, however, have some concerns about aspects of the implementation of the regulations, and about the possibility of their extension over a prolonged period.
These regulations are the law—no more and no less—and we police by consent in this country, so it is of concern to me, as it has been to other Members, that some police forces, doubtless with the best of intentions, have read into them words that are not there. I stress that my criticism is emphatically not aimed at Staffordshire police, whose response, in my experience, has been balanced and proportionate. Under subsection (2)(a) of regulation 6, people can buy luxuries such as Easter eggs, a bottle of wine or even custard tarts, if they are out of the house to obtain basic necessities such as food. We should not be in the business of deciding which types of food are necessary. Under subsection (2)(b)—my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) made this point earlier—people can travel to take exercise, including by car, if reasonable. Indeed, in many urban areas that might be sensible—although I do, of course, hear and understand the concerns of my colleagues in national parks and tourist hotspots.
The biggest national misunderstanding, judging by my inbox, is over subsection (2)(f) of regulation 6. People can travel to work if the travel is essential; it is not about whether we deem the work itself to be essential. We are not trying to shut the entire private economy. Housebuilders, factories and distribution centres can and should operate, although, of course, they should all practise social distancing and good hygiene. If the scientific advice had been that we needed to close those businesses too, doubtless the Government would have followed it, but the evidence shows that the measures we have taken have reduced the famous R0—the reproduction ratio—to below one.
Talking about science brings me to my second, more philosophical point. Politics and Government are about trade-offs. That is always true because resources are not unlimited, but a crisis like this highlights it more starkly than ever. Science and its epidemiological models do not, by design, always capture all elements of those trade-offs. They can show us specific consequences of specific measures, but they cannot consider every dimension of the choices politicians must make.
There is the obvious trade-off between health and the economy, which is represented most clearly by the businesses that we have asked to close, though of course, in the long run, we can have a strong NHS and good public health only with a strong economy.
As Professor Whitty said in his evidence to the Science and Technology Committee, there is also a more direct trade-off between health and health: the direct health implications of coronavirus versus the damage to people’s mental health, the tragic increase in domestic violence and the risk of cancers and other conditions going undetected as people put off visiting the doctor, even virtually. I urge anyone with such concerns to seek the appropriate professional support.
Finally, there is the trade-off between health and liberty. As I have made clear, I support the regulations as a proportionate, time-limited response to a generational challenge, but the purpose of life is not simply the extension and preservation of life itself, though, of course, that is a prerequisite. Life is for living, for adventures and journeys, for taking chances, for learning lessons, for falling in love, for being entertained and for being with friends and family. In considering the ongoing nature of the regulations and the restrictions, any future calculus needs to recognise properly all the costs of lockdown: health, economic and social. I call on the Government to consider that point carefully as they review the current situation and lead the nation through these difficult days.
I am pleased to follow so many of my colleagues on the Government Benches in this important debate. I completely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) who emphasised the vital role of Parliament in overseeing the extraordinary measures that are being taken. Only we in Parliament can supply legal and democratic legitimacy to the difficult decisions that need to be made in this crisis. In that context, I regret several aspects of today’s debate.
First, I regret the fact that we are discussing only now, on 4 May, regulations to which our citizens have been subject since 26 March. I am afraid that, by some distance, the House could not be said to be debating them at the first possible opportunity. Secondly, I regret the fact that matters of such importance were not dealt with by primary legislation, given that the House was able to pass the Coronavirus Bill when it met before the Easter recess on 23 March. Thirdly, even today, only two hours have been given over to debating what the Minister acknowledged to be extraordinary measures of a kind never seen before in peacetime. I note that, for whatever reason, fewer than 3% of Members are participating in a debate on a subject of such magnitude, which may have consequences for the liberty of the individual for generations to come.
It was utterly foreseeable to anyone who has experienced an event much larger than the average parish fête that over-zealous police officers and public officials would jump into the ambiguous space between legislation and guidance. I exclude from my remarks, and indeed would like to praise Sussex police under the leadership of Police and Crime Commissioner Bourne and Chief Constable Giles York for avoiding many of the excesses we have seen elsewhere. However, there is a type of personality who, if given a high-vis jacket, a uniform or an official title, relishes dishing out prohibitions to their fellow citizens. Such a minority—we must be clear that that is what they are—are ignorant of and usually untroubled by the limits of the law unless they are specifically drilled into them in a way that time has not allowed to happen here.
I would like to propose to the Minister what I believe to be a reasonable notion. When the police or public authorities purport to issue guidance or spend taxpayers’ money on paid-for advertising, it should contain footnotes indicating the clear basis in law for that guidance. It was Hayek who wrote:
“Nothing distinguishes more clearly conditions in a free country from those in a country under arbitrary government than the observance in the former of the great principles known as the Rule of Law.”
In the UK, the rule of law was central to the great charter of freedoms, described by Lord Denning as
“the greatest constitutional document of all times”—
Members may recall that the Earl of Arundel was one of the 25 barons tasked to hold the King to account, however uncomfortable a position that may have been. Today, as the Member of Parliament for Arundel and South Downs, I am pleased to support the Government and believe that they have done an exceptional job in difficult circumstances, but it is hard to argue that a touch more parliamentary scrutiny would not have exposed, and therefore narrowed sooner, the gaps between legislation and guidance.
Today we have had in this Chamber a very important debate on regulations that, while absolutely necessary to help beat covid-19, are having a profound effect on people’s lives and businesses. Despite that necessity, it is equally necessary that we uphold the hard-won rights we have in this country: the rule of law and the right and duty of this House to scrutinise and question the Government—something that Members have done with determination and, indeed, enthusiasm today.
In the course of the debate Members have raised a number of important points, to which I will endeavour to respond as fully as I can in the time allowed to me. First, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) raised a number of key points. He talked about the need for clarity around an exit strategy and how it develops and the importance of taking the British people into our confidence, because in this country we govern and police by consent, and therefore it is important that it is a shared endeavour, where we take the British people with us.
As I mentioned in my opening remarks, the Prime Minister said last Thursday that the Government will set out a comprehensive plan this week, which will explain how we will get our economy moving while continuing to suppress the disease, seeking to get life back to normal for as many people as we can as quickly and, importantly—this goes to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady)—as fairly across our society as we can, while continuing to protect the NHS.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston was right: that needs to involve a conversation and a dialogue. As he alluded to, that dialogue on where things may go in the future has already begun, which is a positive step forward. I am grateful for his typically reasonable and measured tone, and I want to put on record once again my gratitude to him and to the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), my constituency neighbour. He, too, has adopted a constructive and reasonable tone throughout this, and I am grateful to them and Members across the House for the tone they have adopted.
I turn to other points that have been raised. If I miss anything, the shadow Minister is welcome to come back to me privately, and I am happy to write to him to fill in any gaps in my answers. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West mentioned the importance of scrutiny, as did many Members, and that is absolutely right. It is important that we remember that these regulations are born out of necessity, but they are exceptional and should only be kept as long as the exceptional circumstances necessitate. He, too, mentioned the importance of a route map and giving the UK a route out of the current restrictions as quickly as we can when we can do so safely; he is right. Sadly, the necessity of the time means that we are not there yet, but it is important that that dialogue with the British people continues and is open, including in this House.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for the tone of their remarks and their support for the necessity of what we are doing. They highlighted the impact—the hon. Gentleman in respect of the south lakes area and my hon. Friend in respect of rural north Devon—of these necessary regulations on the hospitality and tourism industries that play such a huge part in their local communities and economy. That is why it is absolutely right that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is looking carefully at the matter and has put together a package designed to do everything that he can to support industry and businesses in this country. Nevertheless, I hear what they say, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will have heard it as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker) was the Chair of the first Select Committee that I served on after I became a Member of this House in 2015, and back then he emphasised to me that the key Committee to get on was the Procedure Committee, because by learning how this place works a person will not go too badly wrong. I do not know whether it has yet been long enough for me to have proven or disproven that, but he is right, and he is a doughty champion of the rights of this House and the importance of scrutiny and due process. He is also right to emphasise that just as we must ensure that we protect the NHS and protect people’s health, we must also recognise the need to support and protect our economy, because it is indeed a vibrant economy that pays for the NHS that we all rely on. My hon. Friend highlighted the need for openness, and his contribution was typically decent and insightful.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) was right to emphasise the importance of the four nations working together and taking a co-ordinated approach. I again re-emphasise my gratitude and the Government’s gratitude to the devolved Administrations for the spirit of genuine partnership in which we have all been working in recent weeks. The hon. Gentleman talked about whether the fixed-penalty notice amount was an adequate deterrent; it is arguable that the far more effective penalty is, rather than the penalty imposed, the sense of common national endeavour in this country and everyone wishing to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) is not only an hon. Friend but a friend, and a good and decent man. He has long been a champion, inside and outside the House, of due process, the rule of law and the need, despite the safeguards in this country, always to be vigilant and protect the hard-won freedoms that we enjoy. Such voices as his are absolutely vital to the health of a vibrant democracy such as ours. He was right to emphasise the difference between guidance and law. As I said in my opening remarks, what is in the regulations is the law; guidance may be helpful but it is not the law. My hon. Friend drew on the highway code to make a point about the difference between “must” and “should” in the way we communicate these things. That is a good and valid point that my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who is not able to be present today, has made to me in the past.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe also asked whether the regulations might or might not be ultra vires. I will say only a few more words on the issue, because I am conscious that, if the press reports are to be believed, there is a possibility that some may be considering legal cases on this issue and I would not wish to stray into that territory, save to reiterate what I said in my opening remarks: the Government believe that section 45C of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 does give sufficient authority to Ministers and to the Government to implement the regulations.
The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) was right to highlight the challenge posed in some businesses—she highlighted the experience of call-centre staff—and the need for businesses to do everything in their power, if people are working in a job that they cannot do from home, to ensure that their workers are supported and protected and that appropriate social-distancing measures are in place to protect workers who are fulfilling important roles to help everyone else in our society.
My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) both highlighted the importance of reassuring the British public and this House about the need for openness and for scrutiny. They highlighted the fact that we must always treat liberty as a precious thing, protect it, and ensure that we do not see it whittled away: I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil that there is no intention to do any such thing.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham also touched on the need to be open about the science. He spoke with a degree of erudition and knowledge that I will not seek to emulate, but he is right to say that we must interrogate the science carefully when making the decisions on where to go in future with these regulations.
Turning to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), we are, as ever, very grateful for his support and for his contribution to this debate. He is always a strong voice for his constituents. Among a number of points that he made, he was quite right to highlight the importance of doing what we can to ensure that people’s mental health is supported and protected at what is a very difficult time for many, many people. He also alluded to human rights implications. I reassure him that the Government are clear that these measures are fully compliant with the Human Rights Act 1998.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) and a number of other colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), made the point, as have other hon. Members, that these regulations, while necessary, should be in force only for as long as they are absolutely necessary, highlighting not only the health impact but the broader impacts on society and on the economy. I reassure them that we are absolutely clear about that. These measures are a necessity at the moment, but the Government have always been clear that they will be retained only for so long as they are a necessity to tackle this disease.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow was right about the importance of testing, and also right to highlight the work of the Secretary of State in this respect. The Secretary of State has always been very clear in saying that it is a team effort that has got us to reaching the target, last week, of 100,000 tests per day. I would say, however, that in a team, leadership is important. He has shown that leadership in this very important matter, and I pay tribute to him for that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith) was absolutely right to highlight the importance of consent. Consent comes from us following due process and adhering to the rule of law through this Chamber—through this House. We will always bear that very much in mind. The shadow Minister and others made the point very clearly that they would expect this House to be very much involved, as swiftly as possible, in any further decisions or changes. I know that will have been heard by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in Downing Street.
I conclude with my thanks—and indeed, I suspect, all of our thanks—to NHS and care staff and key workers around this country, all of whom are doing so much for all of us. These are exceptional measures that we should only maintain for as long as necessary, but at the moment, regrettably, they do remain necessary. Therefore, I also thank the British people for their incredible spirit and support for these measures. The fight against covid-19 is a tough one that has brought forth a national effort in this country. I am convinced that we will beat it, for when this great country comes together, it is unbeatable. I commend these regulations to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 350), dated 26 March 2020, a copy of which was laid before this House on 26 March, be approved.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 447), dated 21 April 2020, a copy of which was laid before this House on 22 April, be approved.—(Edward Argar.)
We have concluded this session a few minutes earlier than expected—not through bad arithmetical calculation, I would like the House to know, but because a few people who had indicated that they wished to speak and had been on the list to speak decided at the last minute not to. I therefore suspend the House for rather more than 30 minutes, until 7.30 pm.
Sitting suspended (Order, this day.)
I beg to move,
That the draft Automatic Enrolment (Offshore Employment) (Amendment) Order 2020, which was laid before this House on 16 March, be approved.
With this we shall take the following motion:
That the draft Occupational and Personal Pension Schemes (Automatic Enrolment) (Amendment) Regulations 2020, which were laid before this House on 16 March, be approved.
The Minister is asked to speak for no more than 20 minutes
I am pleased to introduce these instruments, which follow the statement that I laid before the House on 16 March. It is an honour to address the House remotely, and to be the first Member of Parliament for Hexham to do so. I hope that it is also the last time I do so, and that we can get back to business as usual and to the Parliament that we had before.
Before I turn to the substance of the instruments, Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope that you will indulge me briefly while I comment on some of the matters before us. We have a situation in which 25% of the working population are furloughed, with their wages paid for by the Government, and the Department for Work and Pensions is undertaking the Herculean task of taking well over 1 million people on to universal credit. As you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is also Star Wars Day. While I am absolutely certain that the force is with you, I hope that the force is also with my broadband provider. If it fails, I can assure you that I will not blame the Government.
It is an honour to be a Minister at the DWP and to be the first to move regulations in this way. In her statement earlier, the Secretary of State rightly thanked our fantastic workforce, who have worked day and night to ensure that all the DWP’s services are provided in a professional and competent manner. I should like to put on the record my thanks to all the staff who work at the DWP, including those in jobcentres up and down the country, such as Hexham jobcentre in my constituency.
I also thank everybody at Team Pensions, who have worked tirelessly to ensure that covid-19 does not adversely impact local and national populations. In particular, we have cancelled the pension levy increase, help has been given to defined contribution and defined benefit providers, and we continue to try to stop the public being scammed. Finally, I thank my team in Hexham, led by James McArdle, and my team at the DWP, led by Lauren Thomas.
Mr Deputy Speaker, you are aware of the importance of automatic enrolment in all our constituencies, and these instruments are important. Automatic enrolment is one of the great cross-party success stories. Conceived under a Labour Government, formulated and brought forward under the coalition, and expanded under a Conservative Government, it is one of the finest public policy successes in the last generation. We now have 10 million plus people who have been automatically enrolled on to an occupational pension; automatic enrolment has transformed workplace savings. They are now saving 8% per annum on an ongoing basis, which simply was not the case previously.
The instruments will implement the conclusions of the 2018 statutory review. The review concluded that automatic enrolment into workplace pensions should continue for eligible employees in the maritime industries, ensuring their access to a pension in the same way as workers in the rest of the UK economy. Subject to the approval of the House, the instruments will remove the sunset clauses contained in the original 2012 legislation so that it continues in force beyond the current expiry date of 1 July 2020. The business of the Government goes on notwithstanding the impacts of covid-19. We will overcome this pandemic, we are Great Britain. I commend these regulations to the House.
I ask the shadow Minister not to speak for longer than 15 minutes.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Following on from what the Pensions Minister said, our country is gripped by the greatest crisis since 1945, and in the great battle to save jobs and livelihoods I too have nothing but praise for the DWP staff, who, together with key and essential workers throughout our country, have been utterly magnificent in rising to the challenge of protecting the public and the public interest. We will come through this, not least because in an hour of darkness what we saw was our staff, the very best of Britain, rising to the challenge, putting themselves on the line to support others, sometimes in desperate difficulty and occasionally putting themselves in harm’s way, to do the job they are determined to do. They deserve nothing but our warmest praise.
The Pensions Minister has heard me say before that auto-enrolment, introduced by the last Labour Government, was a landmark achievement. It is deeply welcome that there has been a continuity of policy, as a consequence of which 10.2 million people are now saving £90 billion a year via auto-enrolment. We are seeing extraordinary benefits: for example, 77% of people are now engaged in a workplace pension. It was a dream that we would ever make such progress in years gone by; it was a vision that we gave birth to and carried forward. I stress once again that I welcome the continuity of policy on the part of the Government.
There is undoubtedly room for improvement with auto-enrolment; 8% cannot be the summit of our ambition —the £10,000 threshold and the age of 22 threshold likewise. There are improvements that require to be made at the next stages, including tackling the deep-seated problems for the self-employed. Having said that, it is absolutely right that we celebrate the progress made thus far.
Turning to the statutory instruments, we must constantly broaden the scope of auto-enrolment to take in yet more workers on the one hand and ensure that nobody falls out on the other. To that end, these statutory instruments are necessary; otherwise, the interests of maritime workers and seafarers would be put at risk, and that cannot be right, not least because of the job that they do. The sunset clause that would otherwise have created real problems for continuity requires to be dealt with by way of these statutory instruments, and we are therefore pleased to endorse them and we will certainly not be voting against them.
Going forward to the next stages, in the spirit that the Pensions Minister referred to I say that we have monumental problems as a country and I am in no doubt whatsoever that there will be significant implications for pensions and future generations of pension earnings for years to come. But today these are necessary statutory instruments, which we are more than happy to support.
Order. There is a 10-minute limit on contributions and I hope contributors have timing devices so they do not go over that limit.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
It is great to join you from Aberdeen, just 400 miles or so north of Parliament. It is perhaps apt that I am partaking in these proceedings from the north-east of Scotland, given that many of those who will be directly affected by the business before us will live or work in this wonderful part of Scotland.
Before I start, I wish to echo the Minister’s sentiments about the tireless work being undertaken by public sector staff across Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. It is important to state from the outset, without equivocation, that we must always treat the health and welfare of seafarers and offshore workers with the utmost importance and to commend these workers for the duties they undertake on a daily basis, in conditions that can often be harsher and more challenging than any of us can imagine. From those working on oil platforms to those fishing the seas, the workers we are referring to tonight are many of the unsung heroes who keep our society functioning, and many of them will still be working as hard as ever despite the obstacles posed by the ongoing pandemic. That is why it is important that we all agree to the business before us tonight, for it ensures that these key workers continue to quality for auto-enrolment into a workplace pension, something that many of us on dry land simply take for granted.
In such challenging circumstances, doing anything but continuing to provide this guaranteed access to a workplace pension would be unforgivable, and I am glad that we all seem to be in agreement on that point. However, given the subject matter before us, it would be remiss of me not to outline where the Government can and should be going further in their support of these workers in the future. It should come as no surprise to anyone that my colleagues and I in the Scottish National party have many, many frustrations about the policies of the UK Government, and that is very much true of the business tonight, because despite this debate being focused on protecting workers’ rights to auto-enrolment and to a workplace pension, these measures will ultimately fail to cover all seafarers and offshore workers. The reason for that is simple, and it lies in the fact that those who earn less than £10,000 each year, through low pay or having part-time work, or, in some instances, a combination of both, are simply not eligible for automatic enrolment. It is not unreasonable to suggest that fair pay and fair pensions should be at the forefront of what we seek to promote as parliamentarians, so I urge the Government to look again at this point in the future. I appreciate and accept that many immediate and pressing challenges are facing Ministers, but where they have the power to elicit positive change, they should be doing so, and lowering the auto-enrolment threshold of £10,000 would be a proactive and positive step in the right direction, one that would undoubtedly provide a further layer of support to many of the hardest workers who find themselves on the lowest pay.
The second key area of frustration that I wish to reflect on relates to the situation facing many offshore workers based here in Aberdeen. At present, not a day goes by when we do not pick up a paper, or look online, and see that companies and organisations operating in the offshore industry are looking at job cuts. Indeed, in some instances the decision has already been taken to dismiss hundreds of staff members. However, despite that worrying trend, coupled with continued pleas for support from both workers and businesses, the UK Government have opted to sit silent. It is all good and well the Government bringing forward this business tonight to ensure that offshore workers have access to a workplace pension, but when will the Government bring forward measures to ensure that jobs are protected in the first place? Put simply, someone cannot have a workplace pension if they no longer have an employer.
I have raised this issue of the lack of support for the offshore industry with the Government on numerous occasions in recent months, and it is important to stress that the challenges facing the industry are not isolated to the coronavirus pandemic. On 3 January, the price of a barrel of Brent crude oil was almost $70, whereas as of 5 pm today it stood at about $26, having been as low as $19 last week. The industry has had to face the perfect storm of an OPEC price war coupled with the unprecedented situation posed by covid-19. The harsh reality is that the storm is being felt in Aberdeen, and I, like many others, feel that it could get much worse before it gets better. One way in which it can get better, and sooner, is if the UK Government listen and act upon the support mechanisms proposed by the likes of Oil & Gas UK in relation to the job retention scheme, the covid corporate financing facility and the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme—CBILS. Another way is to provide the money necessary to support the city and wider region to embark on a just transition that protects jobs and builds a sustainable future.
If this UK Government do not act, the reality is that the business before us tonight will not be worth the paper it is written on for the thousands of workers who will lose their jobs. We should all back this motion as it protects the auto-enrolment of seafarers and offshore workers at present, but let us not stop there. Let us remove the unnecessary financial cap on entry to the scheme, and let us do everything we can to ensure that those workers whose jobs are currently uncertain have their futures protected by this UK Government.
I will speak briefly in response. I thank both hon. Gentlemen for their support for the regulations. It is entirely right that my Labour colleague, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), should say that this is a cross-party success story, and I thank him for the commendable way in which he has approached these regulations and the work that we do together. On the comments by the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), who speaks for the Scottish National party, I would merely point out that approximately 24% of the population have been furloughed and are being supported by taxpayers and the Government and that over 1 million people have recently moved on to universal credit, massively enhanced. There is no doubt that there are great difficulties in the north-east of Scotland, but I am certain that the Chancellor and the entire Government are fully supportive, whether through the coronavirus job retention scheme or any of the other schemes that they are putting forward, to ensure that this country gets through this terrible pandemic.
Question put and agreed to.
Occupational and Personal Pension Schemes (Automatic Enrolment) (Amendment) Regulations 2020
That the House has considered the Occupational and Personal Pension Schemes (Automatic Enrolment) (Amendment) Regulations 2020.—(Stuart Andrew.)
Business Without Debate
Environment Bill: Programme (No. 2)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the Order of 26 February 2020 (Environment Bill: Programme) be varied as follows: In paragraph (2) of the Order (conclusion of proceedings in Public Bill Committee), for “Tuesday 5 May” substitute “Thursday 25 June”.—(David T. C. Davies).
Question agreed to.
Scottish Affairs Committee: Adjourned Debate on Question (2 March)
That Mhairi Black, Andrew Bowie, Deidre Brock, Wendy Chamberlain, Alberto Costa, Jon Cruddas, David Duguid, Sally-Ann Hart, John Lamont and Liz Twist be members of the Scottish Affairs Committee. ”.—(Stuart Andrew).
House adjourned without Question put (Order A(5), 22 April).