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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 676: debated on Monday 11 May 2020

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Disabled People: Protection

What steps her Department is taking to support and protect disabled people during the covid-19 outbreak. (902418)

To provide greater financial security at this time, we have automatically extended by six months PIP—personal independent payment—awards for existing claimants that are due to be reviewed or reassessed and have suspended all face-to-face assessments of disability benefits for three months.

Disabled people are facing increased costs for food, medicine and personal protective equipment for carers, yet there has been no uplift in legacy benefits to match the £20 increase to universal credit and working tax credits. What steps is the Department taking to rectify this? I am aware that issues with the system have made this difficult to deliver at speed, but what is the Department doing to ensure that some of the most vulnerable members of our society are not left out of pocket during this crisis?

On behalf of the ministerial team, I would like to welcome the new shadow ministerial team. I look forward to working constructively with them.

In addition to the more than £1,000 increase to the universal credit standard rate, we have seen the annual benefit uprating of 1.7% across all our benefits. With disability benefits in particular, we have continued to make sure the gateway remains open, that claimants can have their assessments reviewed and that those with a terminal illness are being fast-tracked. We are doing all we can to get support to the most vulnerable people as quickly as possible.

Can the Minister give further guidance specifically on PIPs? I have been contacted by several constituents who are either looking to access them for the first time or due a reassessment. With face-to-face assessments understandably suspended due to the pandemic, will the Minister confirm what action the Department is taking to ensure that my constituents can access this vital support as quickly as possible?

My hon. Friend is diligent in championing the issues that his constituents face. We have rightly continued to accept new claims; we are allowing reviews where claimants accept them, particularly where their condition may have deteriorated and they could be eligible for greater financial support; and we are prioritising terminally ill claimants. I know that that work has been very warmly welcomed by stakeholders.

Carer’s Allowance

The Government recognise and appreciate the vital role played by unpaid carers now more than ever. We have already made changes to the carer’s allowance rules to reflect changes to patterns of care during the current emergency. Since 2010, the rate of carer’s allowance has increased from £53.90 to £67.25 a week, meaning nearly an additional £700 a year for carers.

My constituent, Natalie Hay, is a full-time unpaid carer for her son, who has Lyme disease and ME. She is entitled to that paltry £67 per week as long as she does not earn any more than £128 per week, but with the pandemic, she is having to shield her son and home-school two children and has lost all respite care and additional support, so a few hours’ paid work is out of the question. She feels completely forgotten about by the Government. Does the Minister think it is possible to live on the equivalent of £1.91 per hour, and will he commit—

Rightly, we target support at those most in need—those with low incomes—and they could, through universal credit, receive an additional £1,950 per year through the universal credit carer’s element, plus the extra £1,040 universal credit standard rate increase, which is the equivalent of the jobseeker’s allowance rate. I would encourage the claimant to look at all available support that they are entitled to.

Access-to-work Costs

What steps she has taken to help ensure prompt payment of access to work costs during the covid-19 outbreak. (902431)

The access-to-work support has prioritised payments, including those to key workers, and where possible is making payments the same day. Key worker and new employee applications are being cleared urgently. Additionally, I am pleased to announce access-to-work recipients can now email claim forms as a reasonable adjustment.

On 4 May, the Secretary of State assured the House that the Government would provide an automatic extension of PIP awards that are due to expire during the coronavirus virus pandemic. Can the Minister confirm that this extension applies to all claimants, including those who received an award following an appeal?

Obviously, PIP is different from access to work. There was an issue for those on fixed-term, short awards, but we have now addressed that, and those claimants will continue to get an automatic six months’ extension if it is due in the next three months.

Universal Credit

Since mid-March, we have processed around 2 million universal credit claims. Despite that surge, the system is standing up to the challenge and demonstrating that resilience is part of its design, with over 90% of new eligible claimants expected to be paid in full and on time. There is no way that the legacy benefit system would have been able to cope with such pressure.

I am grateful to all the jobcentres, and particularly the one in Gloucester, which has done a remarkable job of registering so many of my constituents. Some people discover when they register that they lose child tax credit before any new benefits are payable. What can my hon. Friend the Minister do to help provide our constituents with better tools to assess what will happen and whether they will be better or worse off when they first register for universal credit?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for rightly praising DWP staff for the work they are doing. That issue has been raised by a number of colleagues, and I am looking at data and exploring options. We have been working closely with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to encourage people to check their eligibility before making a claim and ensure that tax credit claimants understand that when they have claimed UC, their tax credits will end, and they cannot return to legacy benefits.

We believe that people need more support during this crisis, but we acknowledge and welcome the changes that the Government have made. Those include increasing the core amount of universal credit by £1,000 a year, but that rise is only for 12 months. If the Government believe that this level of support is necessary during lockdown, why do they believe that people will need less money when lockdown ends and the normal costs of living will apply? Surely it is inconceivable that anyone still unemployed by March next year could see their benefits being cut.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and welcome him to his new position. As he knows, we have announced measures that can be quickly and effectively put in place that will benefit as many disadvantaged families as possible who are currently facing financial disruption. We at the DWP have been under huge increased demand, and we have prioritised the safety and stability of our benefits system overall. All things of this nature will be kept under review, but at the moment, as he rightly points out, the funding has been secured for a 12-month period from Her Majesty’s Treasury.

Can we speed up questions and answers, to help us get through the list? We now go over to Neil Gray in Scotland.

The two areas of universal credit causing the greatest hardship are the five-week wait and the two-child cap—both need scrapping. Taking a UC advanced loan means that payments will be lower than the already impossible to live on levels, so why will the Government not look at the idea of making the advance loan a grant when a person has been confirmed as eligible for UC? That stops the fraud excuse. The only barrier is political will.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I have said, we have announced measures that can be quickly and effectively put in place that will benefit as many disadvantaged families as possible who are facing financial disruption. We are under huge increased demand, and I have had to prioritise the safety and stability of the benefits system overall and put that above any structural change. I will always prioritise ensuring that people get their money in full and on time, over and above system change.

Universal Credit: Five-week Wait

What assessment she has made of the potential merits of ending the five-week wait for universal credit during the covid-19 outbreak. (902423)

What assessment she has made of the potential merits of ending the five-week wait for universal credit during the covid-19 outbreak. (902443)

In these uncertain times, we would like to be absolutely clear that no claimant has to wait five weeks for a payment. Advances are available, enabling claimants faster access to their entitlement. Since mid-March, we have issued more than 700,000 advances to claimants who felt that they could not wait for their first routine payment, with the majority receiving money within 72 hours.

In Croydon, all our food banks have seen a massive increase in demand. In fact, the number of food banks and soup kitchens has quadrupled in Croydon since the covid crisis began, with organisations such as the British Bangladeshi Society and the Fieldway Family Centre stepping up to the plate. One of the main reasons they cite for this need is the five-week wait for universal credit. What assessment has the Minister made of the number of people forced to use food banks because of that five-week wait? I ask him again: why can he not replace the emergency loan with a grant, so that people do not have to pile debt on debt?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. Over and above answers to previous questions, I would stress that non-repayable advances could not be implemented without significant development of the UC system and would require measures that have been previously announced to be deprioritised. In the light of current events and the huge pressure on our system, the Department’s focus is firmly on ensuring that new and existing claimants continue to receive their payments on time. We do not have the capacity to look at that kind of structural system change.

Over the past seven weeks, the demand on Liverpool’s local welfare scheme for crisis payments for food and fuel has increased by 164% compared with this time last year. Will the Minister consider easing the plight of many living through this crisis by doubling child benefits and lifting the benefit cap, as requested by the Food Foundation?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We have increased the universal credit and working tax credit standard allowance by more than £1,000 a year, and we have increased local housing allowance rates, putting an average of £600 into people’s pockets. On the benefit cap, it is important to stress that those with sustained work records may benefit from a nine-month grace period in relation to the cap. Exemptions continue to apply, and I feel many people would agree that the equivalent of £24,000—or £28,000 in London—is fair and reasonable.

From the 1940s on, we had a social security system based on handwritten forms that was capable of making the first regular benefit payment within a few days of a person applying; now, after the Government have spent several hundred million pounds on what we were assured was agile technology, that job takes five weeks. That long delay is the main reason why people on universal credit are so much more likely to need a food bank than people on the legacy benefits. Surely the Minister must recognise that that problem must be fixed.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, for his question. He knows that we introduced an agile, dynamic online system because the legacy benefits system, which was largely paper-based, was fraught with issues and errors. That is why we moved over. Notwithstanding the points that he has made, I stress that the previous, paper-based system, which relied on face-to-face contact, would not have coped in this situation. It is because of universal credit that we have been able to process more than 2 million claims since mid-March.

Food Banks

What recent discussions local officials of her Department have had with operators of food banks on referral of benefit claimants to food banks during the covid-19 outbreak. (902425)

Ministers and officials have had regular discussions with food bank providers and other stakeholders during this time. Flexibility and innovation in local jobcentre arrangements for signposting to food banks, within the parameters of the existing guidance, is encouraged during the covid-19 outbreak.

[Inaudible.] In my constituency, the jobcentre is not referring people to the Widnes food bank. It is important that the Minister intervenes and ensures that referrals do take place so that the people who need help get it quickly.

I think I did, Mr Speaker. I gently point out to the hon. Gentleman that jobcentres are working with local partners to signpost claimants to the support available in their local area. The Trussell Trust and the Independent Food Aid Network are putting in place appropriate solutions where food banks are in operation. I stress that local councils in England will be able to use funding from the new £500 million local hardship fund to provide further discretion to support vulnerable people.

Universal Credit

What steps her Department is taking to help ensure that people with multiple and complex needs can access universal credit. (902427)

Dedicated DWP staff continue to be available in jobcentres throughout the country. For claimants with the most complex needs, if we are unable to help by phone or online, face-to-face support is still available. In addition to that, the Help to Claim service is undertaken on our behalf by Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland.

I thank the Minister for that answer and congratulate him, the Department and the original designers of universal credit on their success in registering so many new claimants. As he knows, the original idea was for a universal support system, alongside UC, to help people with multiple and complex needs. Will the Minister consider reviving that idea to help the most vulnerable people and make the UC system work better?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know that he shares my passion for supporting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society, who often have complex needs, which is exactly why we introduced Help to Claim to support people who need support to access the welfare system. It has been a huge success over the past year, helping more than 250,000 people. I am pleased to say that we have commissioned the service for a second year.

Vulnerable Children

What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Education on support for vulnerable children during the covid-19 outbreak. (902429)

I have regular discussions with the Minister for children and families, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), and others on mitigating the effect of covid-19 on vulnerable groups. We are providing them with support as they implement the free school meals voucher system, and we have increased universal credit and working tax credit by more than £1,000 a year over the next 12 months, which will benefit more than 4 million households.

Given that we know that nearly 90% of vulnerable children are not at school or learning and that there are new frontiers of vulnerabilities in children suffering from possible domestic abuse and mental health issues, what further work, other than that which the Minister has mentioned, is the Department doing specifically with the Department for Education to help those children learn and to give them and their families proper financial support?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. We are committed to ensuring the safety and protection of vulnerable children and young people, particularly during the current period, and that is why we have invested an extra £6.5 billion in our welfare system. I know that he has huge expertise in this area. In addition to my work with the Minister for children and families, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), and others across Government, I would be very happy to work with him to explore other ways that he thinks we may be able to support vulnerable children.

Housing Allowance

What assessment she has made of the adequacy of levels of local housing allowance during the covid-19 outbreak. (902430)

In April, in response to covid-19, we introduced increased local housing allowance rates for housing benefit and universal credit claimants to the 30th percentile of local rents, providing additional support for private renters. This significant investment cost almost £1 billion and ensures that more than 1 million households will see an increase, on average, of £600 per year.

Thousands of families in Britain are at risk of being pushed into homelessness as a result of this crisis. What urgent steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the most vulnerable will not lose their homes as a result of the covid-19 outbreak, at a time when there is no option to find cheaper accommodation to move to?

Over and above the measures introduced by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, we have increased universal credit and working tax credits by more than £1,000 a year, and increased the local housing allowance rates. In this respect, in southern Greater Manchester, which covers Stockport, the two-bedroom LHA has been increased by £76 a month—£900 a year—and the four-bedroom rate in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency has increased by over £200 a month. That extra £6.5 billion going into our welfare system is supporting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society.

Economic Recovery

The Department for Work and Pensions is leading a joined-up approach across and beyond Government to address the unprecedented impacts of the covid-19 outbreak. This includes working with colleagues across Whitehall as well as employer representatives, think-tanks and others.

I thank my hon. Friend for her response. The black country still remains the workshop of the United Kingdom, and nowhere exemplifies that more than the communities that I represent in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton. It is likely that many skilled workers in my constituency will need to be redeployed or reskilled as a result of this crisis, so what work will my hon. Friend be undertaking, alongside our west midlands Mayor, Andy Street, to ensure that communities such as mine are not left behind as a result of this crisis?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. My Department works closely with Mayors such as Andy Street on the devolution in skills deals. In the west midlands, we are also working with the combined authority on its local industrial strategy, skills advisory panel and innovation pilots. We are engaged with regional labour market issues and pressure points so that all regions and communities can benefit from the recovery.

Our economic recovery will depend much on public confidence, yet polling this morning found that almost half the population believe that the Prime Minister has gone too far. Many have deep concerns that they could put themselves and family members at risk if they cannot properly social distance when they return to work, and it is clear that the workforce and management must agree safe arrangements that people will trust. Will the Government adopt the TUC’s proposals for employers to publish covid-secure risk assessments and urgently increase funding for the Health and Safety Executive, which the Minister knows has been cut by a third since 2010, to enforce these measures?

I thank the hon. Lady and welcome her to her place. I am very interested to hear her policy priorities, ideas, thoughts and views, and I am keen to meet to discuss what the Department for Work and Pensions is doing. It is absolutely right that, as people look to return to work, we have published our plan—a cautious road map—this afternoon. We recognise that this is not a short-term crisis. I can tell her that our Secretary of State has been engaged in broader support for the HSE, which has done a magnificent job—

Order. Too long, Minister, far too long. We have to get through to the questions to the Secretary of State, which are coming further on in the order. Claire Coutinho is waiting with her substantive question. Can you please answer it?

Employment Support

Thank you, Mr Speaker. We have launched two key new websites, “Job help” and “Employer help”, to provide additional information tools and links to the DWP’s “Find a job” website, which has approximately 1.7 million users signed up and over 145,000 public and private sector employers registered. The DWP is currently considering a wide range of options on how best to support people back into work.

I commend Ministers and civil servants for the tremendous work they have done to get millions of people on-boarded over the last few weeks. What steps are being taken to get self-employed people, in particular, back on their feet in the next stage?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We have temporarily relaxed the minimum income floor to allow self-employed claimants to access UC at a more generous rate. Meanwhile, the Treasury’s self-employment income support scheme online service is available from 13 May, and the DWP is providing mentoring and business support through our new enterprise allowance programme. As the economy restarts, we will continue to keep under review how we can best support all of this cohort.

Workplace Safety

What steps her Department is taking to ensure that people who cannot work at home are able to work safely at their place of work during the covid-19 outbreak. (902424)

What steps her Department is taking to ensure that people who cannot work at home are able to work safely at their place of work during the covid-19 outbreak. (902426)

What steps her Department is taking to ensure that people who cannot work at home are able to work safely at their place of work during the covid-19 outbreak. (902434)

The Health and Safety Executive is involved in safer workplaces and, across Government, this work is being led by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The DWP has put a number of measures in place itself. We have closed jobcentres to the public; suspended appointments, except in exceptional circumstances; introduced social distancing, extensive communications and a route for staff to raise concerns; and deployed up to 15,000 laptops to allow people to work at home.

Trade bodies play a key role in helping businesses to comply with coronavirus workplace safety measures. What engagement has my hon. Friend had with the major trade bodies to keep workers safe?

I thank my hon. Friend for that. It is vital that we work with trade bodies, which play a vital role in supporting businesses and ensuring the right messages reach employers within their sectors. In the last few weeks, I have been listening to and engaging with key stakeholders such as the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and UKHospitality. One key theme in getting across the message is confidence for both employers and employees to be able to come back to work together.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is clear from the Government’s publication today that many employers that closed initially, out of an abundance of caution, can actually stay open provided they can do so safely. I welcome the covid-secure guidance that is going to be published. Could the Minister set out how the covid-secure guidance will be publicised, and will there be a PR campaign to make sure that employers that can be open do open?

As the Prime Minister announced yesterday, those who can return to work safely should do so, and I do encourage all employers and employees to use the safety at work guides due to be published later this week to help, support and inform decisions about safety in the workplace. Colleagues will have an opportunity to hear more from the Prime Minister when he makes his statement to the House shortly.

Many employers and employees in my constituency in the Scottish borders are very keen to go back to work. They want to do so as safely as possible, so could the Minister outline what the Government are doing to foster good relations between employees and employers to allow that to happen, and also to allow them to adjust to the new normal way of working?

As I said previously, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is leading the way on safer workplaces. There are lots of opportunities to build relationships between employers, employees and trade unions as we open up the economy, and the guidelines will be published in due course. The Health and Safety Executive is an arms-length body of the DWP. It has been actively involved in each of the work strands in the sectors. Our Department takes an interest in recruitment, helping to build confidence so claimants can return to work or take up new employment.

That concludes what are referred to as questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. The arrangements for hybrid proceedings allow Departments to reorder questions according to the answering Minister, but I do not believe that it was the House’s expectation that this would lead to the Secretary of State not answering any questions and to important issues raised by Members from the Opposition parties being relegated to the bottom of the list. I will raise this matter with the Leader of the House, and I do not expect to see this repeated.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

British Citizens: Repatriation

What recent steps he has taken to repatriate (a) British citizens and (b) UK residents overseas during the covid-19 pandemic. (902369)

What steps he is taking to repatriate British nationals stranded overseas as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. (902379)

What steps he is taking to repatriate British nationals stranded overseas as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. (902384)

What diplomatic steps he is taking to help provide financial support to British nationals stranded overseas as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. (902386)

What recent steps he has taken to repatriate (a) British citizens and (b) UK residents overseas during the covid-19 pandemic. (902388)

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the Government's response to British citizens stranded overseas as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. (902390)

We estimate that over 1.3 million people have now returned to the UK from abroad on commercial routes. I can also tell the House that on the charter flights—the special arrangements—that we set up, over 30,000 British nationals have now returned on 141 flights chartered from 27 countries and territories.

Many of my constituents who had their flights cancelled are facing considerable financial hardship as they are yet to see any refund for these flights or for hastily arranged alternative flights that were also cancelled. So will the Secretary of State guarantee that those whose flights have been cancelled will be refunded and that the Government will step in to make sure that this is the case?

We certainly share the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman about flights that are cancelled. There is an onus on the operators to make sure that they can be reimbursed. Insurance can also kick in. In the last resort, there is also financial assistance that can be made available in the form of a loan, but of course that would have to be repaid on return.

Many of my constituents have said, “We’ve all been locked down but people have still been allowed to come into our country.” Why is the quarantine about to be launched at airports being done now, and will it include arrivals by port and the channel tunnel?

The reason the measure is being introduced now is that the advice that we have always had is that there was little point, if any, in introducing quarantine at the border with the R level—the level of the prevalence of the virus—at a high level, particularly above R1. Now that it has come down, and is still coming down even further, it makes sense, as we reduce the level of coronavirus in the UK, to introduce the measure to stop reinfection coming in from people carrying it from abroad, particularly those who would not necessarily be showing symptoms. There will be some flexibility in the detailed arrangements set out, but this will cover, in principle, all people coming in, whether it is to ports or to airports.

A number of my constituents were overseas when this pandemic struck and are now unable to get together the money they need to pay for new flights home. What action is my right hon. Friend’s Department taking to financially support British nationals who are unable to get home and have no access to funds?

We have, in the first instance, worked with insurance companies to make sure that they extend travel policies by 60 days when emergency support is needed. I can also tell the House that the Foreign Office has introduced a special package to make sure that those who are stranded and cannot get back can receive support with food, accommodation and other essentials of up to £3,000 for individuals, £4,000 for a couple, and £5,000 for families. That is a last-resort option, but we are making sure that those who are hunkered down or stranded and cannot get back have the support that they need.

I commend my right hon. Friend’s Department for the efforts made to get people home, but can he update the House on progress in getting passengers and crew stranded on cruise ships home?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. In March, when the Foreign Office changed its travel advice to advise against people travelling on cruises, we had more than 19,000 British passengers aboard 60 cruise ships. I can tell him that they have all now been brought home safely. There is still an outstanding issue with a number of UK crew on cruise ships around the world, but we are working with operators such as Royal Caribbean and Costa Atlantica to make sure they can get back as soon as possible.

I have a couple of constituents who were last heard of in the Philippines. They told me that they were struggling to afford the cost of repatriation flights to get home. What additional help can my right hon. Friend now offer them?

The Philippines has been a challenge, but I can reassure my hon. Friend that we managed to secure the return of over 600 British nationals on UK charter flights in April. I spoke to Foreign Minister Locsin at the end of March to secure those April flights. My hon. Friend will know that the Government of the Philippines suspended commercial flights earlier this month. They have resumed today. On the financial support that she referred to, in exceptional circumstances, as a last resort, there are loans available to enable UK nationals to return home on flights.

It is now clear that other European countries used emergency repatriation flights in parallel with commercial options to much greater success. The German Government chartered 30 times more of these flights by April than the UK Government, so it was the Foreign Secretary’s decision early on to rely almost solely on commercial options to get people home that left so many British citizens stranded abroad for so long. So will he publish the official advice that he received on his decision, which led to so many British citizens being stranded abroad for so long?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about any British nationals stranded abroad—Brits are a nation of travellers—but his comparison with Germany is not correct, because he is not including, as far as I understand it, all those who came back on commercial flights. We worked very hard with airlines, airports and foreign jurisdictions to enable that to happen. We have secured and helped to facilitate the return of 1.3 million British nationals on those commercial flights—50,000 from Australia, 15,000 from Pakistan, 7,000 from Indonesia and close to 4,000 from New Zealand.

I have constituents stuck in many countries, including Nigeria and Australia. The one in Nigeria says that he is No. 3,233 on the repatriation list, and only one of the Australian cases has reached home, at substantial personal cost. How can the Minister say that this is an adequate response?

In terms of Nigeria, we are concerned. It has been a challenge, but I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that over 1,700 British nationals have been repatriated to date, on seven charter flights, in addition to which a further flight came home on 8 May, and we will continue to do everything we can. Of course, he will know that all airports in Nigeria are currently closed to all international commercial flights until east of 4 June. That is the challenge we face, but we are doing everything we can.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker; I think that is the last time Chorley will be nice to Wigan in this place.

I thank the Minister for the weekly briefings that he has arranged for me and for his kind words on me taking office. It has enabled us to work together to bring many more Britons home. However, he will know that this is the sixth time that I have had to raise the lack of quarantine measures and the fact that the UK is one of the few countries with no specific policies in place for returning citizens. Thousands will be flying into the UK in the next few days from parts of the world where infection rates are rising and healthcare and testing are limited, on packed planes with no social distancing measures, and as of Wednesday many of them will be asked to go straight back to work. This really is absurd; so will he personally intervene to get a grip on this situation, not in a month, but now?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and welcome her to her position. I know that she has huge tenacity and will scrutinise everything that the Government are doing, but that she also looks forward to and enjoys engaging on a constructive basis; that will certainly be reciprocated on our side.

The crucial thing about the quarantine and self-isolation that the Prime Minister announced last night is that all the scientific evidence we received said there was little point in introducing it until we got the prevalence of the coronavirus and the level of transmission down. At that point, it does make sense to introduce it because of the risk of reinfection—or re-seeding, as it is sometimes referred to by the scientists—in the UK. I can reassure the hon. Lady that we have followed the scientific and medical advice at every step along the way.

Well spotted, Mr Speaker. It is good to see everyone.

I echo the shadow Foreign Secretary’s concern about the quarantine restrictions coming in. We need a lot more clarity on why they have not been brought in before now, and on what they are actually going to mean in practice for people who are making travel arrangements and for vulnerable people coming back and sharing concerns about their own health and the risk of passing the virus on to others. I would be grateful for more clarity on that.

Let me also pick up on the Foreign Secretary’s comments about the repatriation efforts to date. Now, I would not say that nothing has happened, but we need to acknowledge that the FCO’s response has been patchy and pretty stretched in parts. I have already called for an inquiry into this, so that we can learn lessons for the future. I think that we need to reiterate that point today, and would be grateful for an assurance that we will properly look at how the FCO has handled this situation. The expectations that were put upon the FCO by—

And the Foreign Office has got a grip of the problem as well. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. We have been stretched, and I think that that is the case for countries around the world. I talk to Foreign Ministers every day and every week, and we have had a shared challenge—but particularly with a great travelling nation like the United Kingdom. At the same time, working with those countries and with the airlines, we have returned 1.3 million Brits from abroad on commercial flights. We have now returned over 30,000 people on the charter flights that we have arranged. We have also got all those who were travelling on cruise ships back. The consular team at the Foreign Office and our networks around the world deserve great praise, but we take nothing for granted and are not complacent for a moment. We will keep up those efforts, with all the other scheduled flights and charter flights that we are looking into in order to return other stranded nationals.

Covid-19 Vaccine

What diplomatic steps the Government are taking to support the development of a covid-19 vaccine (a) in the UK and (b) throughout the world. (902375)

What diplomatic steps the Government are taking to support the development of a covid-19 vaccine (a) in the UK and (b) throughout the world. (902377)

What diplomatic steps the Government are taking to support the development of a covid-19 vaccine (a) in the UK and (b) throughout the world. (902380)

The UK is playing a leading role in supporting global research and development efforts to find a vaccine, with vaccine trials commenced in this country, and the UK leading internationally to find and distribute vaccines abroad.

The Prime Minister acknowledged that, although there is an international race to find a vaccine, it is not a competition, and a breakthrough could come anywhere around the world, although one of the first likely candidates is the Oxford project. If the project is successful, that vaccine will be manufactured by a consortium including Cobra Biologics in my constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme, but I know that it is keen to produce enough not just for the UK, but to send around the world, especially to the many countries with no manufacturing capacity of their own. Could my right hon. Friend reassure me that we are coming to reciprocal understandings with other nations around the world to ensure that any vaccine, wherever it is produced, both reaches the UK swiftly and is made available on an international basis as soon as possible?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to spearhead the pursuit of a vaccine through the research that has been conducted in this country—and, if possible, manufacture it at the kind of scale that would deal not just with UK needs, but with those more broadly. Through the contributions that we are making to the Coronavirus Global Response Initiative, to CEPI and to the Gavi funding calls, we are the leading donor in the latest call for donations to ensure not only that we can provide vaccines for UK nationals here at home, but that those vaccines can be expanded, particularly to the most vulnerable countries abroad.

May I thank my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for his personal intervention, after a text to the Moroccan authorities at 11 o’clock at night led one of my constituents to return home to Morecambe? Does he agree that keeping commercial routes into the UK open is critical to ensuring that British nationals can continue to return home? These routes have been a vital connection for many of my constituents who were stuck abroad.

I thank my hon. Friend for his tenacity and for raising the case of his constituents so swiftly. I am delighted and relieved that they have been able to get home. On his broader point, he is absolutely right. Yes, the charter flights are important—we have got more than 30,000 British nationals back on those flights—but we have had to work very hard to keep the airports and particularly the transit hubs open. As a result, we have managed to secure the return, safe and sound, of more than 1.3 million UK nationals on vital commercial flights.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Thanks in part to our leadership and our work with international partners on the Gavi programmes, we are in a leading position to collaborate on developing and manufacturing vaccines. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to take the same collaborative approach to developing and, crucially, manufacturing a vaccine to tackle covid-19?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are proud to be pioneering trials in this country to crack the issue of finding a vaccine. Of course, we need to leverage the manufacturing base we have here and our incredible pharmaceutical sector. We are proud that we co-hosted the coronavirus global response initiative on 4 May, and we will host the global vaccine summit on 4 June. On CEPI and Gavi, as I said, we are the largest donor to the recent calls for funding, and we will continue that international collaboration, which is so vital.

The UK’s participation in the international pledging conference was extremely welcome, but it is deeply concerning that the USA was notable by its absence. Without US participation, the search for a vaccine will undeniably be slower and more lives will be lost, so can the Foreign Secretary reassure us that he or the Prime Minister asked the United States to attend? What was its reason for turning us down? What realistically does he think the UK can do to turn this situation around before not just the Gavi summit that he mentioned but the crunch G7 leaders summit in June?

The shadow Foreign Secretary raises an excellent point. This is a moment when we need to try to reduce political tensions and work collaboratively right across the world. On returns, I work with my Cuban opposite number, my Chinese opposite number and Foreign Ministers from around the world, and when it comes to finding the vaccine there is an even stronger impetus. We will keep making the case in the G7 and bilaterally, with the Americans and all the major countries, to try to get really strong international leadership, and of course we will continue to try to ensure that the coalition is as broad and deep as possible.

We are unable to connect Tom Tugendhat, so I call Minister James Duddridge to answer the substantive question tabled by Ruth Jones.

Zimbabwe

The humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe is bad. I had been an optimist on Zimbabwe post Mugabe, but things are bleak across the political, economic, social and humanitarian fronts. Her Majesty’s Government stand ready to support, but only when we see genuine reform. Until then, we support the people of Zimbabwe with a £140 million development package, but, crucially, none of that money goes directly through the Government of Zimbabwe.

I thank the Minister for that update. There are currently 7 million people in urban and rural areas of Zimbabwe in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, compared with only 5.5 million in August last year. What conversations has he had with the Zimbabwean Government to discuss their humanitarian needs?

On Thursday I spoke to the Department for International Development head in Zimbabwe and our ambassador about the situation. They were very clear, as I am, that we need domestic reform in Zimbabwe as well as external international development.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

What recent assessment he has made of the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran’s regional activity. (902370)

We are concerned about Iran’s destabilising regional activity. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps provides military and financial support for groups that include the Houthis and Hezbollah. Support for those groups is in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions and undermines prospects for regional stability. We have called on Iran to play a constructive role in the region, and Ministers and senior officials routinely raise concerns with Iranian counterparts and regional partners.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is the nexus of Iran’s destabilising activities, distributing funds and weapons in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. The revolutionary guard is already subject to UK sanctions, but does the Minister agree that full proscription should now be applied? Does he share my concerns that the expiration of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action arms embargo in October stands to enable the revolutionary guard to expand its murderous regional actions?

We have long expressed our deeply held concerns about the de-stabilising activity of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. I take into consideration the points my hon. Friend makes about its activity, but the UK Government do not routinely comment on organisations that they may proscribe. The proscription list is regularly reviewed and we will always take situations on the ground into consideration when we update it.

Covid-19: Israeli and Palestinian Authority Co-operation

What recent reports he has received on Israeli co-operation with the Palestinian Authority in tackling covid-19. (902371)

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of Israeli-Palestinian co-operation in tackling covid-19. (902373)

We welcome the ongoing co-operation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority towards tackling covid-19, a matter I was pleased to discuss directly with the Israeli ambassador to the UK and the Palestinian Prime Minister recently. UN agencies, the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority are working together to ensure essential medical supplies and staff reach the most vulnerable areas, including Gaza. We encourage continued positive interaction between Israel and the Palestinian authorities in their efforts to fight covid-19.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the UN special co-ordinator for the middle east peace process recently praised the way the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority have been working together to tackle covid-19. Does he agree that that kind of practical co-operation—the building of trust and meeting shared challenges head on—is the way that peace will get built in the region? Will he step up his efforts to encourage genuine negotiations based on the two-state solution?

In conversations I have had with both representatives of the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority I have praised the way they have worked together on this matter. I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend that international co-operation is the way that we, as the international community, will fight it. As the Prime Minister said at the coronavirus global response international pledging conference he co-hosted in May, the race for a vaccine is not a competition between countries, but the most urgent shared endeavour of our lifetime. If the attitudes we bring into fighting this disease can be more broadly applied, I think the world would be a better place.

I thank the Minister for his comments. Will he join me in welcoming the news that Israel has approved a $230 million advance payment to the Palestinian Authority, alongside coronavirus test kits, intensive care beds, ventilators, drugs and protective equipment? Is that not exactly the kind of behaviour we should welcome and encourage?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the points he makes. We have indeed commented positively to the Israeli Government on how they have worked with the Palestinian Authority. I made the same point to Palestinian Authority representatives on the way they have worked with the Israeli Government. It shows a pattern of co-operation that should be replicated. I hope it is a step towards building trust that will enable a sustainable peaceful solution to the situation in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

We are going to have to speed up the answers Minister, please. We now go across to welcome Wayne David to his new position.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. As has been said, there is encouraging co-operation between Israelis and Palestinians with regard to covid-19. I am sure the Minister agrees that that highlights how wrong it is for a new Israeli Government to pursue a policy of illegal annexation of large parts of the west bank. What are the Government doing to mobilise international opinion against that annexation?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place, although it is virtual. The UK Government have expressed, both publicly and to the Government of Israel, our concerns about reports of annexation, which we have consistently said we oppose and could be detrimental to the chances of the peaceful, sustainable two-state solution that we should all be working towards.

Occupied Palestinian Territories

What recent representations he has made to the Government of Israel on the proposed annexation of parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. (902378)

What recent discussions he has had with the Government of Israel on the proposed annexation of parts of the West Bank. (902381)

The UK is deeply concerned about the reports that the new Israeli Government coalition have reached an agreement that may pave the way for annexation of parts of the west bank. Any unilateral move towards the annexation of parts of the west bank by Israel would be damaging to efforts to restart the peace process and contradictory to international law, and might make the chances of a sustainable two-state solution harder. We recently made clear our concerns at the UN Security Council remote meeting on the middle east peace process on 23 April.

I appreciate the Minister’s concern, but does he believe that the proposed annexation by Israel of the Palestinian territories would be illegal under international law? If so, does he think that the United Kingdom Government’s response should be the same as it would be with other countries guilty of illegal annexation, such as Russia?

Our long-standing position is that such a move would be contrary to international law. We continue to have a constructive relationship with both the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and we will continue to work towards a peaceful resolution that takes us to a sustainable two-state solution. That is our long-standing position, and we continue to work towards it.

I am pleased to hear the Minister condemn any proposed annexation of territories in the west bank by the Israeli Government. Will he go further and accept that such an annexation would render any future Palestinian state unviable, would destroy its geographical integrity, and as such would render a two-state solution obsolete? Is it not absolutely essential that the Government act now with others to stop the Israelis annexing territory in the way that they currently intend?

As I said, our long-standing position is that we do not support the annexation of parts of the west bank, as doing so could make a sustainable two-state solution harder. We support actions by the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority that take us closer to a sustainable two-state solution, and we express our concerns about anything that might put that at risk.

Sino-British Joint Declaration

What assessment he has made of the effect on the Sino-British Joint Declaration of recent actions by the Chinese Government in Hong Kong. (902374)

There have been a number of concerning recent developments in Hong Kong. As co-signatory of the joint declaration, the UK expects the mainland Chinese authorities to respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms provided in that legally binding treaty. We are monitoring the situation very closely and will provide a full assessment of implementation of the joint declaration in six-monthly reports to Parliament.

Beijing’s top political office in Hong Kong recently referred to pro-democracy protesters as a “political virus” and declared itself as being entitled to interfere in Hong Kong as it sees fit—clear breaches of the joint declaration. What plan do the Government have to help British national (overseas) passport holders in Hong Kong, should the deterioration of relations continue?

The Foreign Secretary commented in Parliament on 26 September that the status of British nationals overseas was

“part of the delicate balance”—[Official Report, 26 September 2019; Vol. 664, c. 865]

in the negotiations that led to the Sino-British joint declaration. We believe that it would undermine the commitments made under the memorandum exchanged in connection with the joint declaration to change the arrangements regarding the status of BNOs, but we monitor the situation constantly. I know the right hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in the issue.