House of Commons
Tuesday 12 May 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
The House entered into hybrid scrutiny proceedings (Order, 21 April).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
SMEs: US Trade Agreement
We are working on a dedicated small and medium-sized enterprise chapter in the US trade deal to help the UK’s 5.9 million small businesses. Some 31,600 UK SMEs already export to the US, and we want to help them by cutting red tape on customs and tariffs.
SMEs are the backbone of the UK economy, but while the US Government are engaging with their SMEs, SMEs in the UK say that there is no equivalent engagement from the UK Government. Will the Secretary of State commit to having a dedicated chapter in every trade deal that they are looking to develop, and will she create a mechanism for SMEs themselves to help shape it?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We have been in touch with a number of organisations representing SMEs—for example, the Federation of Small Businesses, which has come out in favour of a US trade deal, saying:
“For small businesses, the US is the number one single market of choice for importers and exporters for the next three years, which is why these negotiations are so critical.”
We are committed to working with businesses of all sizes in this trade process through our expert trade advisory groups, which we have with all industry sectors, and I am very happy to engage with the hon. Lady about how even more SMEs can be involved in this process.
US Free Trade Agreement
A free trade agreement with the United States is set to deliver a £15 billion increase in bilateral trade, benefiting every region of the UK, including the nation of Wales and the great county of Yorkshire, and delivering an extra £1.8 billion for workers’ wages.
In the light of the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in globally, I would like to congratulate the Secretary of State on setting up talks with the US. With the UK set to leave the EU at the end of the year, it is also important that we have free trade agreements in place with other nations, particularly our Commonwealth partners and countries in the far east. Therefore, could my right hon. Friend provide an update on progress with the potential trade deals with Australia, New Zealand and Japan?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We will shortly be launching negotiations with Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and pressing for early accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is an important step in diversifying our trade and making sure we are not just dependent on a small number of countries for our imports and exports. It is also important that we work with like-minded free market democracies to help set global standards in trade.
Does the Secretary of State agree that all parts of the UK and all economic sectors stand to gain from a trade deal with the United States? However, some lobbyists are concerned about their specific interests, so what reassurance can my right hon. Friend give that fairness to both the UK and the US, as well as economic opportunities for all parts of the country, will be central to her thinking in the negotiations?
A free trade deal with the United States is set to benefit every nation and region in the UK, including Wales. We will strike a hard bargain, and seek a deal that is fair for our producers. For example, we want to make sure that we gain access for British lamb and Welsh lamb in the United States market. It is the second biggest importer of lamb in the world, and it represents a massive opportunity for our farming sector and for the nation of Wales.
I thank the Secretary of State for the warm welcome that she has given me in this new role and for the co-operative discussions that we have enjoyed so far in relation to both coronavirus and US trade. On the latter subject, she will be aware that the Trump Administration and the US Congress see the US-Mexico-Canada agreement on trade as a template for every other free trade agreement that they are looking to sign around the world. Can the Secretary of State make it clear to them today that she will not agree to any version of article 32.10 of the USMCA that would constrain the UK’s ability to negotiate our own trade agreement with China and therefore represent an unacceptable breach of the sovereignty of this Parliament?
First, I welcome the right hon. Lady to her seat. It is great to see her in the flesh, even though we have had a number of calls over the last few weeks. I am committed to working with the Opposition to ensure that we get the best possible deal for all parts of the UK in the US trade deal. I can assure her that when we negotiate with the United States we will negotiate in the UK’s interest, ensuring that we have full freedom of manoeuvre and making our own sovereign decisions as a country. Of course, we are looking at a number of precursor agreements for the text we use in those trade negotiations, but my No. 1 priority is to ensure that we have our own sovereign capability to trade with the rest of the world as we see fit. One important benefit of a US trade deal and the trade deal we are looking to strike with Japan is that we need to be setting standards with fellow free market democracies and ensuring that we have proper transparency in our operations and proper setting of standards.
The Secretary of State really needs to think about the other Members who need to get in, so if she could shorten her answers, it would be helpful to all the Members who are waiting. [Interruption.] It is very good, actually.
Business and trade are all about the bottom line and numbers, and we know from the Treasury estimate that Brexit will cost about 6% of GDP. An American trade deal—and remember that the USA is a quarter of the global economy—will only give an average lift of about 0.2% to GDP, or a thirtieth of what Brexit will cost. Is there any prospect of that number improving? What are the GDP lifts for the deals with Australia, New Zealand and Japan and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership? We need to get to the numbers at the bottom of Brexit.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will be aware that there is a projected benefit to Scotland from a US trade deal of over half a billion pounds on gross value added, which is a significant figure. In fact, Scotland is one of the parts of the UK likely to benefit most from a US deal. We will shortly publish the economics behind the Japan, Australia and New Zealand deals when we launch the respective trade negotiations.
Free Trade Deals
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We will shortly be launching negotiations with Japan, Australia and New Zealand. This is an important opportunity for the UK to form closer ties with a fast-growing group of countries and look forward to joining the CPTPP, which comprises 11% of the global economy.
I warmly welcome the ambitious agenda that my right hon. Friend sets out. Can she confirm that any trade deal with the United States will not lower our standards on imported food and that these talks and the other ones she referred to represent a great opportunity for world-leading companies in west Norfolk such as Bespak and other pharmaceutical, engineering and manufacturing firms to benefit from reduced tariffs and the removal of other barriers to trade?
I can confirm that we will not lower our food import standards as a result of the US deal. We are going to maintain those standards; it is an important part of the quality assurance we have here in the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend will be aware that there are lots of opportunities for Norfolk farmers and producers from a US trade deal, and overall the east of England stands to benefit by £345 million.
Around a third of the value added of UK trade comes from indirect trade—indirect links—where goods and services are first exported to one country and subsequently exported to the UK. Given the importance of indirect trade and value chains generally, I am sure the Secretary of State would agree with the Dutch Trade Minister that we should rethink our trade deals to take a closer look at the sustainability of those value chains. Will she go further and agree that we should not just be looking at sustainability, but that trade deals should be as inclusive as possible and based on World Trade Organisation rules, and because of the importance of value chains and indirect trade—
Order. I think the Secretary of State will have got the question.
The hon. Gentleman is correct to say it is very important that we have resilient trade as well as trade that benefits our economy. That is why our strategy is to strike trade deals with more partners, to ensure that our companies have more options and that we are trading with a wider variety of nations than we were before.
Our priorities for the last four years were supposed to be in this order: first, securing a free trade agreement with the EU; secondly, rolling over all our existing deals with third countries; and thirdly, agreeing free trade deals with the rest of the world. Can the Secretary of State explain why the Government have failed on all three?
I would argue strongly that we are succeeding on all three of those aims. We have opened talks with the United States; David Frost is making significant progress in his talks with the EU; and we are making significant progress in increasing the number of countries that we are able to agree continuity trade deals with. We are on course to succeed in all those areas.
As the WTO makes clear, coronavirus will lead to a substantial fall in global trade. It suggests a reduction in the range of between 13% and 32% in 2020. Although it is true that this is primarily a health issue, trade will be an important ingredient of the recovery, so does the Secretary of State agree with the WTO that keeping markets open and predictable will be crucial to secure the renewed investment that we need?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman; he is right that protectionism would be a disaster for the global economy at the moment. That is why we have been pressing at the WTO to keep trade open, and why the UK has unilaterally lowered tariffs on key medical goods, to keep that trade flowing.
Will the Secretary of State tell the House what the UK’s approach will be to chemicals regulation during any future trade negotiations? Will we retain the precautionary principle, or is she looking to relax our current laws?
It is a very important principle that the UK Government have responsibility for their own regulations. That is not something that we will trade away in a trade deal; that is a matter for UK sovereign Government regulation.
As we emerge from the Covid crisis, it is vital that we keep free trade flowing. That is why the UK has been making that case with G20 Trade Ministers and the WTO. We have another G20 meeting this Thursday, where I want to see further action to cut tariffs on medical products, and for longer-term WTO reform.
Stilton producers, such as the excellent dairies of Cropwell Bishop and Colston Bassett in my constituency, face a 25% tariff when they export to the US market. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what progress has been made, in the first week of negotiations, to reduce those tariffs?
We are determined to get those tariffs reduced and removed on products like Stilton, and the brilliant producers in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The Stilton Cheese Makers’ Association has backed a US deal, saying that a US free trade agreement will help recognise Stilton cheese further in the US, and bring down some of the existing barriers that we are currently facing.
Import of Medical Products
We continue to work tirelessly to secure vital supplies of medical equipment from overseas partners to meet UK demand. Hundreds of millions of units of PPE have been procured and over 2,000 ventilators have arrived in the UK thanks to our trade and FCO networks.
Across the world, we are being advised to wash our hands with soap regularly to keep us safe from the virus, but the average import tariff on soap among WTO members stands at 17%, with some countries charging tariffs of up to 65%. What steps has the Minister taken to seek global agreement to reduce tariffs on the import of soap and other hygiene products, to combat the spread of covid-19?
That is a very good question and I thank the hon. Gentleman for asking it. We are working tirelessly, at different international fora, to ensure that trade barriers—either long-standing barriers or ones that have been thrown up as a result of the crisis—are reduced or removed. For example, just last month, at the UK’s initiative, the G20 Trade Ministers met and discussed a lot of these and took significant action. We have also been lobbying bilaterally, most successfully, with India to ensure that such barriers are reduced or removed.
It is shameful that our national stockpile of PPE dwindled during years of austerity. The Government’s response since has been one of confusion and panic—missing three chances to join the EU scheme to bulk buy PPE, and with the recent fiasco of flying in unusable gowns from Turkey. What discussions are Ministers having with the Governments of New Zealand, Singapore and other WTO countries to support global efforts to keep medical supply chains running during and beyond this crisis?
We are extremely active at the WTO and other forums, including the G20, to ensure that products flow. We have delivered 1.22 billion items of PPE to the NHS, which is a tremendous achievement. That includes 40 million safety goggles and 1.3 billion face masks; the numbers are substantial. On the action that we are taking at the WTO, we continue to lobby at all levels. May I just correct the hon. Gentleman on one point—about the delivery of 400,000 Turkish gowns? That number represents a tiny proportion of the total, and only a tiny proportion of those gowns were actually found to be defective. We are very thankful to Turkish suppliers for what they have done.
It would be remiss of me not to welcome the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) to her new role.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I also thank my colleagues for asking such vital questions about shortages of PPE and other essential medical supplies?
One area where we have, thankfully, not seen shortages to date is the supply of prescription medicines, thanks to the so-called Brexit buffer of supplies built up in preparation for a no-deal Brexit. But given that this buffer only provides somewhere between three to six months of supplies, will the Minister tell us how the Government are getting on with replenishing these stocks from imports, so that we do not experience any shortages once the Brexit buffer starts to run out?
I join the Secretary of the State in welcoming the right hon. Lady to her position. After four years of the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), we always look forward to seeing somebody new at the Dispatch Box.
Again, we are active in all available forums to ensure that the UK’s supply of prescription and non-prescription medicines continues. For example, following the restrictions that India put in place on 3 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been very active with the Indian Trade Minister to get almost all those restrictions removed. We will continue to be active with all our trade partners to ensure that products continue to flow to our NHS at this time.
The UK has a strong history of safeguarding human rights and promoting our values globally. Our strong economic relationships with trading partners allow the Government to have open discussions on a range of important issues, including human rights. We continue to encourage all states to uphold international human rights obligations.
Twenty-one countries have been listed where negotiations are ongoing with regard to rolling over existing trade agreements beyond 31 December. A number of those countries have shockingly poor human rights records, including Cameroon, Egypt, Singapore, Uganda and South Sudan. Will the Minister tell us whether human rights are part of those discussions? Also, in order to ensure that there is no saying one thing and doing another while everyone is diverted by coronavirus, will he guarantee the inclusion of human rights clauses in any eventual deals?
I think the hon. Lady is referring to the various EU agreements. She was a passionate campaigner —and, I think, still is—to remain in the EU. Of course, if we had remained we would still be in those trade agreements with the self-same countries that she mentioned, but we are clear that the UK will remain a strong voice for human rights and that more trade does not have to come at the expense of human rights, and we will continue to encourage all states to uphold international human rights obligations.
Covid-19: Business Support
In response to covid-19, the Department continues to support UK businesses to trade. Office for National Statistics data states that 75.4% of businesses are continuing to trade.
For British companies that trade overseas, the one thing guaranteed to make a very bad situation even worse would be the loss of free frictionless trade with the rest of the EU at the end of the year, so will the Minister reassure UK firms that the top priority when it comes to trade is securing the free trade agreement that we need with Europe?
Of course. The hon. Lady will have seen that the UK is continuing the negotiations, which the chief negotiator David Frost has been doing virtually. We have completed the first round and we look forward to getting the trade agreement that I believe is in the interests of both sides and which will bring relief to British business and others at this important time.
In Sunderland and the wider north-east, lots of businesses—large, small and start-ups—rely on international supply chains as they trade internationally. What are the Government doing in these challenging times to ensure that international supply chains are protected?
The hon. Lady asks a good question. One important thing that we will learn from this crisis is the importance of the robustness of supply chains. Currently, most of the focus is obviously on medical supplies, but that will extend more broadly. We need to make sure that we have diverse sources of supply, that the supply chains that ensue are robust, and that we have choice and diversity in respect of where we procure our goods from.
Covid-19: Trade Barriers
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the negative impact of trade barriers. OECD analysis shows that cutting tariffs and addressing unnecessary costs associated with non-tariff measures could increase trade by more than 20% among G20 economies. We are working to remove barriers for UK exporters around the world—from helping British beef and lamb to export in Japan to obtaining geographic protection for Scotch whisky in Indonesia.
The most recent WTO review saw G20 economies implement 28 new trade-restrictive measures, estimated to cover around $460 billion of trade, and import-restrictive measures in force for the period January-October 2019 are now estimated to cover $1.6 trillion, suggesting that import restrictions have continued to grow. It is obvious that we need resilience in our economies, but does the Minister agree that that cannot be an excuse to engage in economic protectionism or simply close down value chains?
I entirely agree with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Lady; she is absolutely right. Pre-covid, over the past decade, perhaps since the financial crash, there has been an increase in the number of trade barriers that have been erected, which is why, as an independent nation once again, we are so determined to champion free trade and to use the WTO and the other international fora referred to by colleagues to make sure that we make that case. It will lead to prosperity for all.
Africa: Trade Negotiations
I thank my hon. Friend for his work as chair of the all-party group on Ethiopia and Djibouti. The UK has signed continuity trade agreements that secure our long-term trading relationship with 11 African countries, and a further 35 will benefit from our unilateral preferences scheme. We continue to work with our partners on arrangements for the remaining African countries covered by EU agreements, in a way that reflects the current economic and public health realities.
I thank the Minister for that response. Does he agree that trade is the best way out of poverty for developing countries? Bringing that idea together with the fact that the United Kingdom is looking to forge trade agreements around the world would create a bigger benefit. Will the Minister do everything he possibly can to bring about strong trade agreements with African countries?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is a win-win situation for the UK economy and those developing countries in Africa, and it is so important that we work together. To those considering seeking to put up barriers to foreign produce in our consideration of the Agriculture Bill tomorrow, I should say that not only would that breach the WTO’s global rules and hurt our good name in the international community, but it could also have the effect of restricting imports from developing countries, including those in Africa. Surely no one should wish for that.
The Secretary of State was asked—
South China Sea Operations
May I just pay tribute to the men and women of the armed forces who have risen to the challenge of helping to deal with covid? We will find them up and down this country, and indeed in Whitehall, embedded right across the system helping to deliver the response. May I also welcome to his place the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey)? I look forward to working with him to tackle the issues around defence.
The Royal Navy, along with other NATO allies, will continue to uphold the right of navigation across the globe. This is an inviolable right, and, where it is threatened, the UK will always be at the forefront of defending it.
The Royal Navy is at its best when it works closely with our allies. Will the Minister update the House on recent co-operation with the Royal Australian Navy?
The Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy collaborate across the globe on a near daily basis. Only this morning, I had an hour-long conversation with my counterpart in Australia. The Type 26 Hunter-class frigate partnership has flourished through the Global Combat Ship user group. Operationally, we have worked closely on the management and challenges of covid-19 in the maritime sector, as well as in the Strait of Hormuz, providing security to global shipping.
I echo the comments of the Defence Secretary and say thank you to our armed forces for what they are doing to tackle the coronavirus. The British people may have come together as one nation, but the same cannot be said on an international level, which is a very different picture. Our world order was already in a fragile state, but now, under the fog of covid-19, countries such as China and Russia are exploiting this global distraction to further their own geopolitical agendas. May I ask him to call for an urgent meeting of the National Security Council to review our competitors’ activities, which, left unchecked, could lead to serious conflict in the future?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point that there are adversaries and competitors around the world seeking to use this horrendous outbreak not only to exploit our differences, but to further their ambitions. I urge them to focus on the matter at hand, which is tackling covid collectively around the world, rather than taking advantage of that. On the point about the NSC, the decision to call an NSC meeting is a matter for the Government Security Directorate in the Cabinet Office, the Cabinet and the Prime Minister. It is not the case that, by not having such a meeting, we have no agenda on security. We meet the threat every single day and, indeed, many of the decisions made at NSC are enduring and do not need to be refreshed unless there is a major turn of events. We will keep the situation under review, as will, I know, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
Covid-19: Departmental Support
On any given day, up to 4,000 men and women of the armed forces support the Government’s response to covid.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in times of crisis such as the current covid-19 pandemic, our best approach is a united one? Can he therefore describe how the military has helped the people of Wales in dealing with covid-19?
Joint Military Command Wales has provided mobile decontamination teams and drivers to support the Welsh Ambulance Service Trust. It has also provided general duties personnel to unload PPE from aircraft at Cardiff Airport and transfer it to civilian trucks for onward distribution to Bridgend. As of 10 May, there are 30 military planners also embedded with the Welsh Government.
Let us head up to north of the border to David Duguid.
I welcome the intervention of the Ministry of Defence in supporting the covid-19 testing capacity across the whole UK, but can my right hon. Friend tell me what discussions he has had with the Department of Health and Social Care and the devolved Administrations on the effectiveness of those MOD testing facilities, and will he meet me, at least virtually, to discuss specific issues that we have had recently in Peterhead in my own constituency?
Mobile testing is a capability developed between the Department of Health and Social Care and the Ministry of Defence under DHSC direction. NHS Scotland decides on the location to which each mobile testing unit will be deployed in Scotland. Peterhead, to which my hon. Friend refers, was an isolated incident in which the opening of the site was delayed due to capacity issues with central laboratories. Unfortunately, the site incorrectly remained open on the digital booking portal for a few hours longer. Such bookings were accepted when the site opened on 4 May. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss further the use and deployment of mobile facilities throughout Scotland.
In calling the new shadow Secretary of State, I welcome him to his post.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank the Secretary of State for his welcome, too. It is a privilege to take on this role, which has always been so important to the Labour party. We will do right by our armed forces and veterans and we will promote their role as a force for good at home and abroad. Like the Secretary of State, I pay tribute to our military’s essential role in helping the country to respond to the covid crisis. They are keeping us safe, and it is right that we do everything we can to keep them safe.
The US Defence Department has increased its testing capacity to 30,000 military personnel a week. It has set out a strategic testing plan and has now tested everyone deemed a priority for national security, including strategic deterrence, nuclear deterrence, anti-terror forces and healthcare as well as, of course, its entire covid support force. Has the Secretary of State done the same here in the UK?
I am grateful to the right hon. Member. May I place on record a tribute to his predecessor, the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), who did a great job as shadow Defence Secretary, sometimes in difficult circumstances? We have done it slightly differently from the United States with testing our personnel. We have no problems whatsoever testing whoever we want, when we want. The best example I can give is that, before embarkation, we tested all 799 of the crew of the Queen Elizabeth carrier. We will test them again throughout their period of sailing and when they return.
We have a strategy around protecting the national security-vital parts of our forces, which involves testing and quarantine. That is also being carried out in areas that I will not particularly comment on; nevertheless, the right hon. Member mentioned what the Americans view as strategically important. We do not have a mass programme; we have testing that is available—we do not have any problems acquiring it—and, as we bring forces up to either readiness or deployment, there is an opportunity if required, if quarantine has not done the job, to test them as well.
We need to shorten the answers.
The Secretary of State talked about testing who we want when we want, but he gave no definition of that. The last published figures show that we had tested just 1% of our entire military personnel. This is about keeping our armed forces safe and safeguarding our national security. There is no fix for coronavirus without mass testing, and we really expect the Ministry of Defence to lead the way, not lag behind, so will he get a grip of this? Will he produce a plan for testing our military, set a target for the number of tests and publish the results, just as our allies in the US have done?
I am grateful to the right hon. Member. The reality is that we have a grip, because we do have a plan. We have certain individuals whom we treat as a priority and, at the same time, we have all the availability we need for testing; getting it is not a problem. He will know that the vast majority of our military in the UK have been sent home to self-isolate in their homes and follow what the rest of society is doing; they are not on duty, en masse back in their barracks unless they are part of the covid force.
Those who are part of the covid force and either feel symptoms or come into contact with someone will be tested. There is a clear path for them, through the medical officers and the direction of the commands, to get testing. There is a plan. Unlike the United States, we have sent many of our personnel home. They can acquire testing, if they feel the need, in the same way as the rest of the public. When we bring them back for duty, we will have a proper regime for getting back to work, following the Government’s changes to advice. In getting back to work, a comprehensive testing plan will be included.
Covid-19 Support: Armed Forces
Defence remains ready to contribute however requested, with a further 16,000 troops available at high readiness if required. We keep our support under constant review and adjust the capabilities available to meet demand. We have liaison officers deployed in the other Government Departments and local resilience fora, which provide the standing joint commander and the Defence head office with insight into developing needs.
As the crisis develops in our care homes across the country, does my right hon. Friend agree that our military are ready and able to help our local authorities if they need that support to get into care homes and provide the logistical support to get PPE to the people who need it?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point about care homes. There are two parts to the issue: one is infections in care homes; and one is, effectively, leakage of infections from care homes into the wider community. Only this morning I spoke to the Prime Minister about offering up more military support if needed to make sure that our local resilience fora and care homes get the assistance they need, whether that is bringing testing to care homes or helping them with the routine and structure of decontamination, so that staff can come and go better from care homes. We stand ready to do that as required by the Department of Health and Social Care and any other stakeholder.
Covid-19 Support: Armed Forces
Reflecting on where the armed forces have been needed most shows that we have helped the most in logistics, command and control, and testing. The MOD’s strengths of moving at pace, assessing the situation, and resilience have been key enablers to the rest of Government.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to all our armed forces personnel for their significant contribution to the nation’s efforts to tackle the covid-19 virus. What plans does my right hon. Friend have for service personnel in the continuing battle as we enter phase two of this process?
As I have said, the armed forces have played a vital role in supporting the NHS and others to manage the situation, and I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to them. Defence remains ready to contribute, as requested, by any civil authorities through the MACA—military assistance to civilian authority—system. After this crisis started, as Defence Secretary, I took the decision very early on to devolve the power to grant military assistance right down to the regional commands—so it is not from my desk, from the bureaucracy of head office—and those regional commanders stand ready to call on the whole forces of the covid force for support as needed.
We go up to Sunderland again—I welcome the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), to her new position.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The armed forces are indeed playing a vital part in helping the country through this coronavirus crisis, as are our veterans, who, across the country, are volunteering to help their local community, and I commend them all for their contribution. Many are helping other veterans because the Government have closed the Veterans UK helpline. Will the Secretary of State set out why he decided to close the helpline in the midst of this crisis, when many veterans will need its help and support?
From my understanding of the helpline, the activity that it did remained and, in fact, the vast majority moved online, reflecting the changes to the working patterns that we all have to face. We have found that the services are still being delivered. My hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans has reported that there is no decline in the service being given to those veterans—this is about the medium that is currently being used. However, as soon as possible—indeed, maybe it has already started—we will be returning to some form of telephone service alongside the online service. The feedback, both from charities and veterans, is that they are getting the service they require, and my hon. Friend is absolutely, on a daily basis, keeping on top of that.
Defence is supporting the Government’s campaign against covid-19 disinformation, specifically to counter disinformation, misinformation and malign information from abroad. The Government are also working closely with social media platforms, academia and civil society to tackle this issue, although I stress that this is not a role undertaken by our military personnel. The Government’s particular focus remains on promoting factual public health advice and countering inaccurate content.
In many cases, disinformation about covid-19 can travel faster than the virus itself and pose just as great a threat to our security. Does the Secretary of State agree with me and with the majority of the public surveyed by the Open Knowledge Foundation that the Government need urgently to impose compulsory action on social media sites to clamp down on the spread of such disinformation?
The hon. Member will know that, not just in this world of the coronavirus battle but previously, in the world of exploitation, misinformation, radicalisation and other areas, the biggest challenge for Governments across Europe has been how to deal with social media companies, many of which are based abroad. The extent of our powers and jurisdiction is sometimes limited. We have consulted widely about duties of care, but in this outbreak we are seeing media outlets way away from this part of the world that have no regard for the fact or truth magnifying or spreading propaganda in real time. That is the challenge we have. No amount of legislation will be able to deal with some foreign outlets that are based elsewhere or linked to Governments elsewhere, and that is a challenge. To be fair, the mainstream social media outlets, which are often United States-based, have been more responsible in this; Facebook, Twitter and so on have stood up to the plate and removed lots of content when it has been pointed out to them.
Covid-19: Defence Science and Technology Laboratory
Two hundred and seventy-five civilian scientists and 13 embedded military personnel from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory are currently deploying their unique capabilities right across Government. That includes statistical analysis, decontamination trials, assistance on testing laboratories, and experiments on how the virus survives in the atmosphere.
It has been reported that the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is conducting studies on Citriodiol, an ingredient found in insect repellent, to test its effect on covid-19. Can the Minister tell us if and how our armed forces are involved in those tests? If the tests show that the ingredient is effective against the virus, when will it be available for use on the covid frontline?
As the hon. Lady will be aware, Citriodiol is a natural extract of lemon eucalyptus oil, and it is readily available to the public in a range of insect repellents. It has been issued to members of the armed forces to use at their discretion if they wish to. We are aware that it was efficacious against SARS. There is no evidence as yet as to whether it is useful against covid-19, but I can confirm, as per the hon. Lady’s question, that, at the request of the Surgeon General, DSTL is conducting tests on this product to see whether it is efficacious. If it is, we will of course let the House know and let that be known more widely as soon as possible.
May I, too, put on the record my thanks to the armed forces, particularly for helping with building the NHS Louisa Jordan in my home city, Glasgow?
This Citriodiol issue is deeply serious. The Minister has just said himself that there is no evidence that it is effective in the fight against covid-19, yet it was dished out to the armed forces without being tested. Can he tell us on what basis it was given out? Will he publish the guidance that was given to members of the armed forces? Did it go through an ethics committee? Who signed off on it without it being tested? A false sense of security can be deadly.
I do not know whether you got that, Minister; it was a bad line.
As I emphasised in response to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), Citriodiol is a natural product—it is a natural extract of lemon eucalyptus oil—and it is readily available to the public as an insect repellent. We know that it was efficacious in the past, and the view was that if it was efficacious against SARS in the past, it may have properties that are useful against covid-19, but we have been very clear that that is not as a result of tests. It is very early days. Those tests are ongoing. If they prove that there are positive properties, that will be shared. However, this is just one very small element in a range of protections provided to our armed forces personnel, including appropriate PPE and all the appropriate hygiene and other instructions that are widely shared and widely known.
We need to speed up the answers as well.
Covid-19: Government Procurement
Defence’s considerable commercial expertise is actively supporting the national effort in providing procurement, supply chain and logistics advice and expertise across Government. As a purchaser of some £19 billion of equipment and services annually, we are also working closely with our suppliers to support them at this difficult time.
In times of trouble, we rely on our armed forces as much now as we did 75 years ago, as embodied by Basildon resident and veteran Don Sheppard, who celebrated his 100th birthday last week. There are many who also rely on defence procurement for their livelihoods. How has my hon. Friend ensured that small businesses and the jobs they provide, which are particularly important in my constituency, are being protected at this time?
I am sure we would all wish to congratulate Mr Sheppard on his century, just as we all thank his extraordinary generation for their fortitude and service to our country.
My hon. Friend is right about the importance of defence jobs. There are 119,000 employed directly in the defence industry, and we are hugely grateful to all who have persevered in maintaining critical defence tasks at this difficult time. Our suppliers have made clear their determination to ensure safe working environments. We have worked with them to support the industry right through the supply chain, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, and we are grateful for all their work.
Covid-19: Defence Industry
We remain closely engaged with our strategic suppliers and continue to monitor the impact of covid-19 on the defence sector during this difficult time. We are engaged with defence primes and with SMEs, directly and via the prime contractors. As I said, the sector employs 119,000 people directly, and we are committed to its success.
We now go up to sunny Manchester and Lucy Powell.
It’s always sunny here, Mr Speaker.
The UK’s world-leading defence industry is critical to our national security as well as our prosperity, particularly here in the north-west, as the Minister has just outlined, but its future capability is inextricably linked to the aviation industry, which is now suffering a collapse in demand. Will the Government now commit to bringing forward major research and development programmes and clean tech to help support the whole sector, especially SMEs and others, to retain jobs and capability?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question from sunny Manchester. The Government are providing a range of help and support across the board to every industry, as she is aware. In defence in particular—she is absolutely right that many defence companies have aerospace arms—we have been clear that we want to do everything we can to help. That includes ensuring prompt payment and looking, where appropriate, at interim payments to support companies where they are requested and required. We are doing our utmost to work with the industry, and I will be saying that again at the defence suppliers forum, which I will chair virtually later this week.
Armed Forces: Capabilities
The Ministry of Defence has rigorous processes to test its capabilities and force structure to ensure they are robust against the ever evolving threats to our country and our allies. We will be assisted in doing this by the forthcoming cross-Government integrated review.
I pay tribute to everyone involved in the covid support force. Will the Minister give an early indication of how this current deployment might influence the integrated review and whether defence planning assumptions will be amended to reflect the fact that the MOD has again provided extensive liability to support the civil power?
My hon. and gallant Friend is absolutely right that the lessons learned will be picked up by the IR. There will be many points to take on board from what has been a formidable military effort, including the value of being plugged in early for effective working at regional and devolved level. The huge value of our reserves, not only to their local links but for the specialist skills they can bring to bear, and for their agility in coping with all the tasks of our brilliant military planners and logisticians, is a point that will not be lost on my hon. and gallant Friend, a former commanding officer of 27 Regiment Royal Logistics Corps.
VE Day Commemoration
I am sure the whole country was disappointed that the planned parades and commemorations could not take place, but the activities we did manage were, I felt, still a very fitting tribute to the greatest generation. From the Red Arrows over London to our ships at sea and the military banners in the gardens of Downing Street, I was proud of the way our armed forces still managed to mark such an important moment for our nation.
My dad fought in Burma during the second world war, and clearly VJ Day has always been very significant to my family. What plans does my hon. Friend have to celebrate VJ Day in the middle of August?
First, may I thank my hon. Friend for her unstinting support for our nation’s armed forces? Like everybody, I am hoping the lockdown measures will have been lifted further to allow us to celebrate and commemorate VJ Day properly later in the summer. That day is every bit as important as VE Day, and the MOD wants to make sure that it is marked just as enthusiastically.
Covid-19: Overseas Territories
HMS Medway and RFA Argus, along with 30 military personnel, are currently deployed in the Caribbean, and our garrisons in the overseas territories have been engaged in supporting the local communities as they are required.
It is great to hear how our country has helped the Caribbean overseas territories during this emergency. Will the Minister also assure me that our armed forces will have enough resources to support any future humanitarian assistance or disaster relief, if that is needed?
People in the overseas territories will be reassured to see their plight being raised by my hon. Friend in the House today. HMS Medway and RFA Argus are already on post in the Caribbean, but additional naval assets and personnel are on standby. The commitment of our armed forces to support the overseas territories in times of pandemic or national disaster, or whatever else, is unwavering.
Covid-19: Support for Veterans
I have used this unprecedented situation to continue to modernise and improve our support to veterans in the UK. Last week, I launch the first stage in placing veterans’ care in the palm of the hand of every veteran in the country, with the launch of the smartphone application of Veterans UK. I have also secured £6 million of funding from the Treasury for service charities at this time.
Although the UK was unable to celebrate VE Day as originally planned, because of the threat of covid-19, it is still important that we remember and support the veterans who bravely played their part in fighting for peace and who sacrificed so much for our freedom. The UK’s armed forces compensation scheme, which helps veterans claim for injuries obtained while in the armed forces, was temporarily paused because of the covid-19 lockdown. Can the Minister assure my constituents that payments will be made as soon as possible? When will those payments be made?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am afraid he may be slightly misinformed; we have not missed any payments. We made 470,000 payments last month. Veterans’ care has not been suspended in the UK. We have, as the Secretary of State alluded to earlier, changed the way we provide services, but I am unaware of a single veteran currently in the care of Veterans UK who has not had their need met during this time.
But that is not good enough. Other Departments and businesses have found ways of operating call centres safely, so at a time when the nation has been awed by the efforts of Captain Tom Moore, why has the Ministry of Defence closed its vital Veterans UK helpline—the telephone service? It is not good enough.
I am certainly not going to take lectures on what is and is not good enough from a Labour party whose veterans’ care I experienced over a number of years. No services have been closed. We have changed the way of doing business. Clearly we cannot do new face-to-face consultations at this time. Again, I reiterate that not a single veteran in the care of Veterans UK has had their needs unmet at this time. I would caution Members against politicising what is clearly a very important issue.
Half of respondents to a recent Army Families Federation survey said that they had received no information at all about the Ministry of Defence’s future accommodation model. What are the Government doing to rectify that?
Again, I find that hard to believe, because we have gone out on a huge programme of engagement around the future accommodation model. This is a significant part of what the Government are doing to invest in what we call the offer to keep people within the military. If anybody requires that information, I am more than happy for them to get in touch with me. We have used the Army Families Federation’s publications and so on. I am always happy to do more. This is a communications battle we are determined to win. It is a positive step, and I look forward to engaging further with the Army Families Federation in future.
The final question is from Emma Hardy in Hull.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Minister has heard me speak previously about how fortunate veterans in Hull are to be supported by the Hull Veterans Support Centre and Hull 4 Heroes, which have been doing an incredible job in providing resources and mental health support. But I remain concerned that these are charities and are therefore competing with all other charities for donations at this time. So what specific funding can the Minister make available to support veterans’ charities?
I pay tribute to Hull 4 Heroes, which the hon. Lady knows I have been in contact with. It has done an amazing job during this time, as have many in the veterans’ sector. We have secured an initial £6 million out of the Treasury to support veterans’ charities at this time. But make no mistake—the environment that these charities operate in is changing, and will change, as a result of covid-19. I am absolutely determined to make sure that the ambition the Prime Minister has set out—that this is the best country in the world to be a veteran—is realised in due course.
Excellent. We now come to the urgent question. I call the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, and wish him a happy 40th birthday. He should speak for no more than three minutes.
Covid-19: Economic Package
To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on the Government’s economic package in response to the covid-19 outbreak.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your warm wishes.
This Government’s plan is one of the most comprehensive anywhere in the world. We have provided billions of pounds of cash grants, tax cuts and loans for over 1 million businesses, tens of billions of pounds of deferred taxes, income protection for millions of the self-employed, and a strengthened safety net to protect millions of our most vulnerable people. These schemes speak to my and this Conservative Government’s values. We believe in the dignity of work, and we are doing everything we can to protect people currently unable to work.
Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out our plan for the next phase of the public health response, and today I can confirm the next stage of our job retention scheme. This scheme has been a world-leading economic intervention, supporting livelihoods and protecting futures. Seven and a half million jobs have been furloughed—jobs we could have lost if we had not acted—and nearly 1 million businesses supported who could have closed shop for good.
As we reopen the economy, we will need to support people back to work. We will do so in a measured way. I can announce today that the job retention scheme will be extended for four months, until the end of October. By that point, we will have provided eight months of support to British people and businesses. Until the end of July, there will be no changes whatsoever, from August to October the scheme will continue for all sectors and regions of the UK, but with greater flexibility to support the transition back to work. Employers currently using the scheme will be able to bring furloughed employees back part time. We will ask employers to start sharing with the Government the cost of paying people’s salaries.
Full details will follow by the end of May, but I want to assure people today of one thing that will not change: workers will, through the combined efforts of the Government and employers, continue to receive the same level of overall support as they do now, at 80% of their current salary, up to £2,500 a month.
I am extending the scheme because I will not give up on the people who rely on it. Our message today is simple. We stood behind Britain’s workers and businesses as we came into this crisis and we will stand behind them as we come through the other side.
I now call Anneliese Dodds, who is speaking virtually. I ask her to speak for no more than two minutes.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I would also like to wish the Chancellor many happy returns.
As a constructive Opposition, we want to work with the Government to ensure that people’s jobs and incomes are protected and the furlough scheme is a critical element of that. Many of the more than 6 million people who are currently furloughed were taken aback by comments made in the media by Government spokespeople suggesting that, for example, people needed to be weaned off an addiction to the scheme. There were many intimations that changes might have been announced to that scheme by the Chancellor, potentially in the media, without the opportunity for proper scrutiny.
I have only heard about these changes in the last few seconds. We will look at them very carefully, but there are some critical principles that the Chancellor surely must follow as he redesigns the scheme.
First, we must acknowledge that people did not want to be furloughed. It occurred through no choice of their own and through following the Government’s advice about the closure of sectors. It is critically important that they are not penalised for that choice.
I welcome the flexibility mentioned. We have asked for that repeatedly; it applies in many other countries. It has been a long time coming, but I welcome the fact that it is occurring now.
That flexibility includes an employer contribution, so the Chancellor needs to provide more information about that employer contribution now. He also surely needs to provide more information about alternatives to the scheme. Other countries have job creation, training schemes and redeployment schemes. We do not have those yet. Will the Chancellor work with me, trade unions, businesses, local authorities and further and higher education institutions to create the support that is so desperately needed?
I thank the shadow Chancellor for her warm wishes and for the constructive support for today’s announcement. I will address two specific points that she raised. First, the word addiction is not one that I have ever used and it is not one that I agree with. Nobody who is on the furlough scheme wants to be on the scheme. People up and down the country believe in the dignity of their work, of going to work and providing for their families. It is not their fault that their business has been asked to close. It is not their fault that they have been asked to stay at home. That is why I established the scheme to support those people and their livelihoods at this critical time. I wholeheartedly agree with the shadow Chancellor in that regard.
On the next steps, I am pleased to tell her that I have already been talking to the TUC and, indeed, the CBI about the future; helping those people to get back into work who, unfortunately, may lose their jobs through this period. That issue weighs heavily on my mind. Every person who loses their job through this difficult period is a person the Government are determined to stand behind, whether that is with new skills, new training or indeed through supporting businesses to create new jobs. We are determined to make sure that that happens. I look forward to continuing my conversations with Opposition Members and with the trade unions, the CBI and other business groups as we look forward to a brighter future. As we get through this crisis, people can come back to work and we can create the jobs and opportunities, and a brighter future for tomorrow.
I broadly welcome the statement the Chancellor has made relating to furlough and, in particular, the additional flexibilities that he has outlined, most notably about part-time working. However, as we come through this crisis, many businesses will be saddled with significant debts just at the time that we are looking to those businesses to invest and to grow the economy. Does he therefore agree that it is vital that the Government come forward as soon as possible with a clear plan as to how they are going to assist those companies with that indebtedness in terms of debt forbearance and equity finance so that they can fire up the economy and grow the jobs that the country will so desperately need?
As always, my right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I agree that debt is not the answer to all businesses’ problems at this time, which is why we have provided business with unprecedented degrees of direct cash support, with cash grants of £10,000 or £25,000 for up to 1 million businesses and 750,000 businesses benefiting from a cut in their business taxes and tax deferrals. All of that will help. With regard to equity in supporting the future, I hope he will agree that the Future Fund that we have announced will be part of that solution, with the Government matching essentially quasi-equity investments in early-stage companies to ensure that they are here to power the growth and innovation we will need as we recover from this crisis.
I wish the Chancellor a very happy birthday. The coronavirus job retention scheme has kept people from unemployment at a cost to other parts of the UK Government’s spending and to the economy as a whole. I welcome his commitment to extend it to October and to look at flexibility in the scheme, because that is something that many, including the Scottish National party, have been calling for. We await the details of that, which I hope we will see before too long. Does he recognise that removing or reducing wage support levels in the furlough scheme prematurely would increase universal credit claims, force workers back to work before it is safe for them, and risk a second peak? The Scottish Government have been clear that the stay-at-home advice has not changed, so will the Chancellor commit today to ensuring that the job retention scheme will remain in place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if our lockdowns continue longer than in England? Lastly, will he commit to looking at the gaps within the scheme for new starters, and will he look at those businesses who are still waiting for money under the scheme, because he said that he would do whatever it takes, and if he does not fill those gaps, that will ring very hollow?
I thank the hon. Lady for her warm wishes as well. To clarify, there will be no reduction in the level of support for those on the scheme. That is the commitment that I made earlier, so I am not entirely sure whether I understood her question right. It is crystal clear that those on the scheme have the reassurance that the level of support they will receive will not be changed. Those wages and support will now be shared by the Government and employers, but the levels and percentages of support will not change. I committed to bringing forward further details by the end of this month, while we work through some of the technical details of implementing part-time furloughing. As I said at the outset, this is now an extension for four months to the end of October, which will provide eight months of support in total to all regions and all sectors of the United Kingdom. I think it provides a good, generous runway for businesses and firms to plan against, so that they can start getting back to work when the time is right, as per the Prime Minister’s plan that was outlined on Sunday and Monday.
We know that international comparisons should be made carefully, but I note that polling released yesterday showed that the UK is considered the best in the world for supporting businesses and jobs during the crisis, so what steps is the Chancellor taking to ensure that this success is continued for companies in Milton Keynes and elsewhere as we gradually come out of the lockdown?
I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning that. He is indeed right. I was pleased to see polling that showed that people in this country felt that businesses were well supported, as compared with almost any other developed country. Indeed, the full scale of the economic intervention that we have put in place as a percentage of GDP stands as one of the most comprehensive anywhere in the world. I am very happy to continue listening to my hon. Friend to see what more we should be doing to support his businesses in Milton Keynes as they look forward to a future where they can start to reopen, start to get their employees back to work and start to rebuild our economy as we emerge from this crisis.
I welcome the continuation of the furlough scheme and its new flexibility to allow part-time work. That is vital for businesses in Brighton, particularly those in tourism and hospitality. Will the Chancellor consider further support to that sector by a reduction in VAT on tourism? It is a policy that many of his Government MPs support. Will he consider revising the self-employed scheme by including small business owners who take their income in dividends, as well as those who combine PAYE with freelance work?
Those who work for their own companies can indeed avail themselves of the coronavirus job retention scheme for the PAYE part of their income already. With regard to support for the hospitality and leisure sector, I agree that it is the sector that has been most impacted by what we are all going through, which is why it is the sector that has received the most support, with cash grants of up to £25,000 for those businesses—almost a million are eligible—and an entire business rates holiday worth almost £12 billion for the entire 12 months of this financial year. I believe that to be considerable support, but, of course, as we emerge from this crisis I keep all economic measures under review.
May I thank the Chancellor for the speed with which he has managed to get so much money out to help my constituents in Bury? Does he agree with me that the coronavirus job retention scheme is one of the most generous in the world? I express my gratitude to him for supporting so many jobs in my constituency and throughout the country, many of which would have been lost without these schemes.
I thank my hon. Friend for his support, and he is absolutely right. In Bury, as elsewhere, businesses have benefited from the support that the Government have put in place. They have been able to retain their employees through using the scheme. That means that Bury, when we get through this crisis, can be in the forefront of making sure that our economy bounces back as strongly as it can. I look forward to hearing from him what more we can do to support his constituents and his businesses through this crisis.
The Mayor of Greater Manchester’s United We Stream initiative has raised thousands of pounds for our creative industries, which make a vital contribution to our economy and to socioemotional wellbeing. With the sector likely to be among the last to exit lockdown, and with many artists working on a freelance or self-employed basis, will the Chancellor confirm that full support will be given to that vital sector for as long as is needed?
I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has engaged extensively with that sector as part of planning for a future where people can get back to work and sectors can reopen in a responsible and safe way. That work is already ongoing. Of course, many people in that sector are benefiting already from our self-employment income support scheme, which opens this week for applications. People will start receiving their lump sum payment as early as next week, and I know that will make an enormous difference to the many tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people who work in that sector and will benefit from that scheme.
May I too welcome the Chancellor’s announcement today on furlough? P&O and many ferry operators are benefiting from millions of pounds of support that the Chancellor has provided for furlough and freight. However, P&O, which is headquartered here in Dover, last night announced redundancy plans for more than a thousand jobs after its Dubai owners failed to provide the support that the company needs. Does the Chancellor agree with me that companies and their investors, such as Dubai, cannot simply rely on taxpayer handouts, but need to play their full part, investing and supporting British businesses and British jobs at this time?
My hon. Friend is an excellent advocate for the freight industry and the importance of the port in her town, which does so much to help fuel the growth of our country. That is why I was pleased to extend support to the sector, to maintain our vital freight links.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: as I said at the outset of this crisis, we are in this together—everyone has to play their role, and that means employers and companies as well doing their bit to support and protect their staff to the best of their ability and pitch in to help get through this crisis. I would be happy to talk to her further if there is more that she thinks we can do.
Women are considerably more likely to be furloughed than men, and the disproportionate impact of covid-19 on our black, Asian and minority ethnic communities is already being investigated from a health perspective by Public Health England. Has the Chancellor assessed the equality impact of all his package of economic measures on women and our BAME communities? If so, will he publish that impact assessment?
What is clear and emerging is that the sectors and people most impacted by the lockdown are disproportionately women, as the hon. Member mentioned, and those in lower-paid sectors, who probably are financially less resilient. That is why the scheme is so important in providing job and income security to millions of people. That is why today I have made the decision to extend the scheme, to maximise the possibility that those people will have a job to go back to. The hon. Member can rest assured that I keep a very careful eye on all the impacts of the scheme. I do believe that it is benefiting some of the most vulnerable in our society today.
The Chancellor will be aware of widespread concern about the future of our commercial airlines—not least in constituencies such as mine near Heathrow, Gatwick and other major hubs. The CEO of International Airlines Group appeared yesterday before the Transport Committee and made it clear that job losses at British Airways were only being considered as a direct result of the pandemic. What further support might be available from the Government for UK aviation?
Companies in the aviation sector, like all others, can benefit from the considerable range of support measures already announced—indeed, I know that many companies in the sector are benefiting currently from the jobs retention programme. Of course, individual companies have the opportunity to engage with the Government on a bilateral basis, where that is appropriate, but it obviously would not be right for me to comment on those conversations.
May I give the Chancellor a small birthday present by welcoming the extension of the furlough scheme and the greater flexibility for employees coming off furlough—not least because the Liberal Democrats have been campaigning for an almost identical package? But may I urge him yet again to look at those employees and self-employed who have not been helped at all and are in dire straits—people who have moved jobs, who were not on their employer’s payroll by mid-March? Will he consider the new starter scheme that I proposed in early April? Will he please review his refusal to properly help those self-employed people who operate from limited companies and who have just been cut adrift?
The self-employment scheme in this country remains one of the most generous and comprehensive anywhere in the world. It was designed to provide support to those people who have a different pattern of working. As I have explained previously to the right hon. Gentleman, there is a difficulty in distinguishing the dividends that company directors earn from the dividends that anyone might earn through earning a passive share portfolio.
I have seen the proposals that the right hon. Gentleman and others have sent. Of course, my team and I have considered and are considering those, but that does not take away from the fact that what has opened this week is a scheme that will support millions of those in self- employment and enable them to receive the same level of support as those in employment, starting with cash coming into their accounts as early as next week.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his announcement today, and also, in particular, on his handling of this crisis and the support he is providing to businesses and individuals during it.
Many of my constituents in Chesham and Amersham work for British Airways, which despite furloughing nearly 23,000 staff has been threatening to make over 12,000 staff redundant. Can my right hon. Friend send a clear message to British Airways today that with this extension it should now remove all threat of redundancy, which has been adding to the anxiety and stress of so many of its hard working and in many cases long-serving staff?
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland), my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) is right to advocate for and support her constituents employed by the airline industry, and she is right to urge employers to do the right thing at this difficult time. The Government have provided considerable support to companies to help them get through this crisis, and she knows what will benefit her constituents. I will continue to support her in those efforts to make sure that we can protect as many of those jobs as possible.
We cross over into Wales with Kevin Brennan.
Prynhawn da, Mr Speaker. The Chancellor has said that he is doing everything he can, but has he seen the New Starter Justice campaign for people who started or were due to start a new job after 28 February and are still cut adrift from any help from the Chancellor and his schemes? Why has he thrown this particular group of hard-working British people under the bus?
When we announced the job retention scheme, I said clearly that it would apply for those of whom HMRC was aware on 28 February. We were able, while protecting the taxpayer against fraud, to extend that date to 19 March, the day before I made the announcement, which is reasonable, in the sense that without HMRC or the Government knowing whether someone was actually employed the scope for fraud would be considerable. I did not think it appropriate to expose the taxpayer to that.
That change to 19 March brought in 230,000 of the 350,000-odd people that the hon. Gentleman talks about. Yes, that left a number of people who could not be covered, but for a reason that I believe is defensible. The scheme is able to cover the 29.5 million people who were notified to HMRC on that date; indeed, 7.5 million of them are benefiting from it. We should not lose sight of that. The scheme is doing an enormous amount for several million people up and down this country.
Time and again, the Chancellor has stepped up to ensure that our businesses have what they need to get through this difficult period, and I welcome the measures announced today. The bounce- back loan scheme is another example of the unprecedented interventions that the Chancellor has made and this has been unequivocally welcomed by organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that work is continuing to be done to ensure that we increase the number of accredited lenders that provide bounce-back loans so that we can make sure we are getting funds to those businesses that need them, wherever they may be?
I thank my hon. Friend for his advice as we looked to design and improve our lending scheme. I very much value his direct links with business and his relaying that to me. If you will allow me Mr Speaker, I can update him and the House on the number of loans that have now been approved. I am pleased to say that more than a quarter of a million bounce-back loans have been approved—267,000—with over £8 billion of capital benefiting small and medium-sized companies up and down the UK. On top of that, 35,000 CBILS loans worth more than £6 billion have now been put out. Hundreds of thousands of businesses are benefiting from the loan schemes that my hon. Friend helped to implement, ensuring that they worked well and quickly for businesses.
We go over to the wonder of Lancashire, with Rosie Cooper.
As a result of the loss of income through both fundraising and small service charges, many small and local charities will be struggling financially despite being heavily involved and active in the covid-19 response and in supporting constituents. When will the Chancellor issue guidance to local authorities on providing grants to charities that are in receipt of local charitable rate relief but have up to now been excluded from securing the £10,000 grants from the small business grants fund?
Just over a week or so ago, we outlined plans for a top-up fund for local authorities worth more than £600 million nationally so that they could distribute further rate relief to the businesses that they thought were appropriate. Indeed, it would be up to those local authorities to make the decisions and they could well use the money for that purpose if they so wished.
We also unveiled a £750 million package to support charities through this crisis. They are an important part of the social fabric of our country. Charities are impacted in the same way that businesses and the rest of us are, and it is important that we maintain them through this crisis, not least for the valuable work that they do on the front line, but also for the contribution they make to our civic society as we come out of this.
The Isle of Wight is Britain’s festival island, and we have a unique tourism sector that is supported by events in the arts, music and sport. Will the Chancellor confirm that the furlough extension will help islanders in that devastated part of the economy? Will Ministers meet me, and others, to discuss how we can further protect the visitor and festival economy, which relies on specific parts of the year, and sometimes only on weekends, to generate an entire annual livelihood?
Let me start by conveying the thanks of the whole House, and certainly of the Government, to my hon. Friend’s constituents for the role that they are playing in trialling the new app. That will be important as we look to gain control of this virus in the second and third phase of our approach to tackling it. Will he please pass on our thanks to all his constituents? I reassure him that they are very much in our minds. We know that the sector he mentioned is struggling and will need support. The document that the Government published yesterday spoke about creating an industry taskforce, and I look forward to working with my hon. Friend, and others, as we chart a future for those in the leisure, hospitality and tourism sectors.
The all-party group for disability, which I chair, believes it is crucial that the Chancellor accelerates efforts to include people with disabilities in the economic recovery plan, enabling a disability-inclusive covid-19 response. Will he address that issue by undertaking an impact assessment of the economic recovery plan, based on equalities principles?
The Government and the Treasury will, of course, undertake all appropriate equalities and disabilities assessments for policies as they are unveiled and as is required. I have talked about this issue in the past with the hon. Lady, and the Budget outlined something that she and I care very much about, which is the Changing Places campaign for those with complex disabilities. We created a fund to help local authorities and businesses to adapt or build new changing places that will benefit hundreds of thousands of those, especially young children, who suffer with complex disabilities, and who require different types of facilities so that they can enjoy time with their families out and about. I hope we can continue to work closely on that issue.
I support the Chancellor’s bold move to extend the furlough scheme to October—[Inaudible.]
Order. Unfortunately we have to move on to the next question. I call Judith Cummins.
Has the Treasury made an assessment of how many employers are currently topping up the wages of furloughed workers to full pay? If the Government reduce the amount they are contributing, many employers may struggle to top up wages. What will the Government do if employers cannot top up wages?
As well as the furlough scheme, the Government have provided direct cash support to businesses in the form of cash grants or tax cuts, and allowed them to defer taxes such as VAT. We have also provided them with access to discounted and attractive loans to ease cashflow. I believe that in sum that represents a considerable amount of support for business, and we have now stretched and extended the furlough scheme to cover eight months. Sitting alongside the plan that the Prime Minister outlined, that will provide businesses with a generous and sufficient amount of time to help bring their employees back to work. Indeed, they will also benefit from the part-time flexibility to ramp up their operations.
I welcome the world-leading package of measures that we are providing to support livelihoods and businesses through this pandemic, which is helping a huge number of people in Runnymede and Weybridge. Aviation is crucial to my constituency due to our proximity to Heathrow, and many constituents have contacted me who are employees of not just BA but logistics firms and others associated with the aviation industry. Getting our planes flying again is crucial to our economy through air freight and just-in-time supply lines. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in addition to direct support for the carriers and industry, we need to get planes flying again as soon as possible?
I know that my hon. Friend is rightly focused on that issue for his constituents, given the location of his constituency. Of course, aviation has been impacted considerably by this, but he is right; the best way to help, in the end, is for us to find a way to control this virus, live with it and reopen those parts of our economy that are currently closed. That is the best long-term way to provide the support to the industry and his constituents that we all want to see.
The extent of Government support available is of cold comfort to those who are still not receiving any support. New starters are being abandoned simply by accident of the date on which they happened to change jobs. Those workers could be helped if the Government would accept evidence of their employment in the form of a contract of employment. Many of these workers have paid taxes for years. Will the Chancellor reconsider his approach and take further action so that new starters are not left behind?
I do not have much more to add to my previous answer, but for those who do not benefit from this scheme or others, we have taken significant action, investing several billion pounds in strengthening our safety net in this country. Whether it is through tax credits, universal credit, the local housing allowance or the hardship fund provided to local authorities, the most vulnerable in our society through this crisis are seeing considerable extra support from Government to help them get through.
Like others, I am grateful to the Chancellor for his extension of the furlough scheme, which is a reverse birthday present from him to workers and firms in my constituency. He will want our brilliant creative industries to come out of this crisis intact, and he knows that many people working in them are freelancers or on short-term contracts. Can he give some hope to those producing world-class work, often in precarious circumstances, that their sector will survive and flourish again after this is all over?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; the creative industries play an incredibly important part in our economy in this country, and they are also one of our great exports around the world and add to our soft power. He is right that we should do everything we can to preserve the jewel that is that industry. As I said, I am talking to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who is engaged with that industry to find the safest way for those workers to get back to work. We all want to see that happen in a measured and safe way. He can rest assured that I am also thinking about it from an economic perspective and seeing whether our support schemes and everything else are optimised for that industry as we emerge from this recovery.
The furlough scheme is hugely welcome, but it needs greater flexibility. I hear what the Chancellor says, but the Opposition have set out ways in which the furlough scheme arrangements could be adapted to include new starters who have just missed out without risking fraudulent payments. Will he give those proposals urgent and serious consideration?
We did give consideration to proposals that we received and worked with our systems, which is why we were able to extend the date from 28 February to 19 March, the day before I made the announcement. To me, that is a reasonable and defensible date to choose. It is important not to underestimate the operational challenge of creating these schemes and ensuring that they work for people. As I said at the time, from announcement to the scheme going live was a matter of weeks. Thousands of people worked their socks off to make that happen, and several million people’s pay packets are now being supported because that all works. These things are not straightforward to do, and changing them and adding complexity to them will simply make it more likely that they do not work and that people have to wait a lot longer to get the support they desperately need at this time.
I welcome the fantastic announcement about the coronavirus job retention scheme, and thank my right hon. Friend for all that his Department is doing to support businesses in Redcar and Cleveland, with the CJRS, the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme and the new bounceback loans. Will he reassure me and employers in my constituency that this support will be kept under review so that it reaches the businesses that need it most?
I can give my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour exactly that reassurance. I thank him for all that he is doing to support his businesses and constituents at this time. I very much welcome the advice that he has given me, as he has fed back what he is hearing on the ground from businesses in the north-east. He and I have a shared ambition to make sure that Teesside drives our economic recovery as we come out of this situation, and I look forward to continuing those conversations with him.
Aberdeen has been hit by the double whammy of covid-19 and a massive drop in the oil price. Will the Chancellor tell us when he last had a conversation with the industry, and will he please give consideration to announcing sector-specific support in order to protect my constituents and those in other regions where employment is centred around oil and gas?
Regardless of the industry in which companies operate, they are able to benefit from our furlough scheme. That is something that we were keen to do. It is not necessarily replicated by every scheme around the world, but we thought that that comprehensive approach was the appropriate one. Many of the companies that the hon. Lady mentioned will be able to benefit from that scheme. Beyond that, my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary engages regularly with all sectors regarding their particular concerns, and I will continue to liaise closely with him.
I strongly welcome the extension of the job retention scheme. It is the most generous in the world, and is saving a huge number of jobs here in Harborough, Oadby and Wigston. One of the great successes of policy in recent years has been a huge reduction in youth unemployment, but the virus is inevitably going to disrupt a lot of apprenticeships and work placements. Is my right hon. Friend thinking hard about how we can limit or stop any rise in youth unemployment?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that he has put a lot of thought into this particular issue, and I look forward to hearing his ideas on it. As we emerge from this situation, we need to be cognisant of having the right support available for those who are most affected by this issue, especially those who are young and entering the labour force for the first time who will face this challenge, but also younger people who work in the disproportionately affected sectors of retail and hospitality; and that support might include skills, retraining and a dynamic labour market. This is about the economic impact on us all, and especially on those individuals; not having a close connection with the labour market at that early stage in their life is very damaging for their long-term prospects. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend to ensure that that does not happen.
If 800,000 businesses have benefited from the welcome job retention scheme, the 800,000-strong world-class automotive industry will be key to recovery, including Jaguar Land Rover, whose Jaguar factory lies at the heart of my constituency of Erdington. Does the Chancellor recognise that the continuation of the job retention scheme for as long as is necessary, together with welcome measures to help companies that are deeply in debt and battling with liquidity, will be crucial for the future, providing the necessary certainty upon which businesses, workers and trade unions can plan to rebuild?
I think I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member. He is fortunate to have such a fantastic company locally to him. I know that that company and its workers will be pleased that the Government, and their representative, are advocating on their behalf. We have extended some of our loan schemes for larger companies—not Jaguar Land Rover specifically—and many companies in the automotive supply chain, for example, will now be able to benefit from our larger CBILS programme, which went live last week and is already lending billions of pounds. The hon. Gentleman is right; these various schemes are important and the industry that he mentions is critical to the UK. I look forward to ensuring that it can have as strong and swift a recovery as possible.
I, too, welcome the announcement the Chancellor has made today. It will be particularly welcome to the businesses in the leisure, hospitality and tourism sector, which are very important in my area and have been very hard hit. I welcome the fact that the Chancellor has extended the scheme to October. Should businesses plan on that scheme coming to an end in October if we are able to stick to the timetable set out by the Prime Minister in the Government’s recovery strategy, or is there any chance that the Chancellor will be able to extend the scheme? I think some certainty for businesses will be helpful.
We will of course keep everything under review, but my expectation is that by then the scheme should end. As I have said before, we have stretched and strained to be as generous as possible to businesses and workers. That is why we have made the decision we have made today, which is important to me personally, but of course as I have also said the scheme is expensive. It is the right thing to do—the cost of not acting would have been far higher—but it is not something that can continue indefinitely into the future. Eight months of total support is a considerable amount of time. Now that we have a plan from the Prime Minister, with a path to reopening those parts of our economy that are closed, I believe we can get the country back on track and get people back into work. This scheme will help them to do it in a measured and phased way, and protect as many jobs as possible.
Diolch yn fawr, Lefarydd. May I take the opportunity to wish penblwydd hapus to the Chancellor? In Wales, workplace restrictions have not been changed as many parts of the country have not yet passed the peak of infection. The economic taps must not therefore be turned off in Westminster before the public health emergency has subsided in Wales. Will the Chancellor ensure that the furlough scheme remains in place for as long as necessary and in such a form as to enable expert-led public health guidance to be followed in each nation?
As I have just said, and have said previously, this is a UK scheme. It applies equally to all regions, nations and sectors of the country. It is generous in its length, extending all the way to October, and I believe that provides sufficient runway and support to businesses wherever they might be in this country. But I thank the right hon. Lady for her warm wishes.
I commend my right hon. Friend and the Treasury team for bringing together the economic support package that has given businesses and families across the UK the support they need during the lockdown. Obviously, it is one of the most comprehensive packages in the world and my constituents are pleased that when they needed help this United Kingdom Government had their back. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the work is in progress so that businesses, particularly in the tourism sector, are prepared for when the lockdown restrictions are eased, as it is a significant element of Delyn’s economy?
May I start by thanking my hon. Friend for everything he is doing not just for his constituents but in providing advice to me, using his own experience about how best we can support the economy and businesses at this time? I very much appreciate all the time and effort he has put into that and hopefully he can see the fruit of some of that work in the announcements that have been made. I can also give him that assurance on the tourism sector. That work is under way. The report talked about setting up a taskforce. I look forward to hearing his thoughts. I know how important it is to his constituency and others. The Culture Secretary and I look forward to engaging with him, creating a plan to make sure as many businesses as possible can safely open as soon as they can.
Many minimum wage workers have been furloughed. They are now expected to get by on just 80% of the minimum wage, even though rents, bills and food prices have not fallen. Will the Chancellor implement guarantees, so that no furloughed worker is ever forced to live on less than 100% of the national minimum wage?
The scheme, as it is designed, does provide income support of 80% of those wages. Indeed, where those wages are variable the scheme allows an average to be taken to benefit the employee. We have also strengthened the safety net, as I mentioned earlier. Crucially, employees who are furloughed are then able to work elsewhere as well to supplement their incomes. That flexibility is often unnoticed, but it is very helpful. I know many people are taking advantage of that to boost their incomes during this time and I think the scheme, as it is designed, provides the required support especially to those on the lowest pay.
The Chancellor has spoken about freelancers, who often work on short-term contracts or for personal service companies. In answer to the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), he talked about optimising the existing mechanisms for those people, but will he come forward today with the suggestion that there are concrete proposals in place? These are people with clear financial records and they often have accountants, so there is a track record. Will the Chancellor support these different types of self-employed people?
They are being supported. The scheme to support them goes live tomorrow, ahead of schedule. Those who are self-employed whose returns and earnings we are aware of will be contacted, and are already being contacted. They are able to apply from tomorrow and will receive cash in their accounts for a three-month grant as early as next week. The scheme is one of the most generous in the world for those who are self-employed.
Excellent birthday work on the furlough scheme from the Chancellor; the flexibility that is being added to it is very welcome. When he announced the original furlough scheme, many of us in this House and outside in the country talked about the self-employed and asked for parity. He then acted but, notwithstanding the issues that he knows I have with the people left out of the self-employment support scheme, that scheme will come to an end very shortly. To return to the call for parity, can we assume that he is working on an extension to the self-employed income support scheme? Many people will be listening carefully to what he says about that today.
My hon. Friend has spoken passionately about this issue before, and I look forward to continuing conversations with him. I am of course keeping those measures under review. As I said at the time, there is of course parity in the level of support, but the nature of the schemes is different in the sense that employers who have been closed and have to make employment decisions, potentially 45 days in advance in respect of redundancies, do need to be treated slightly differently in that regard. I will of course continue to keep all things, including that scheme, under review.
Women who are eligible for the self-employed income support scheme but have taken a period of maternity leave since 2016 could receive up to one third less financial support. This discriminates against women on lower incomes in particular, penalises families with young children, and exacerbates the gender pay gap. Will the Chancellor therefore exempt periods of maternity leave from the self-employed income support scheme calculations?
People have ups and downs and variations in their earnings for all sorts of reasons, whether because of maternity, ill health or something else. To deal with that, we have provided an average of income over up to three years on a look-back basis, to smooth out all the ups and downs in all people’s incomes. That was something that stakeholder groups were keen to see at the beginning, it is something that we delivered, and I believe it provides the fairest way to treat everybody, on a level playing field, whatever their circumstances. A three-years averaging of earnings seems to me to be a reasonable approach to take.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need an economic strategy that balances getting some businesses support when they cannot reopen with encouraging others to go back to work, and that today we have got that balance right?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the plan that the Government and the Prime Minister have outlined does exactly what she says. For those who can go back to work now, they should do so in a safe way, as the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will talk about later. As the rest of our economy reopens, people will have the benefit of a furlough scheme that extends all the way to October and provides for part-time flexibility. The combination of all those things means that my hon. Friend’s local businesses and many others can take the time that they need to get firing on all cylinders again.
It is estimated that the economic impact of the pandemic will hit the west midlands the hardest. It was announced this week that a manufacturer and supplier to Jaguar Land Rover in Coventry South has gone into administration, putting 600 jobs at risk. Will the Government therefore step up efforts to protect manufacturing jobs, especially in the automotive industry, and invest in them to provide green sustainable jobs for the future?
I am very sorry to hear about the potential job losses in the hon. Member’s constituency. To me, every job lost during this period is heartbreaking, which is why I am doing my absolute utmost to provide the support that I can to protect as many as possible. I have said that clearly I cannot—and nor could any of us—save every single job or business, but the loans, the cash grants and the job retention scheme will all play a vital role in saving many millions of jobs and businesses, particularly in the automotive supply chain. The hon. Member is right that that is an important part of our economy, and it deserves our support to ensure that it can be a strong part of our recovery.
The generous and unprecedented schemes that my right hon. Friend has put in place are doing a tremendous job, protecting thousands of employees, small businesses and the self-employed in my constituency. Many in West Sussex work in aviation, so in addition to heartily welcoming today’s extension of the excellent job retention scheme, may I ask him at least to consider temporarily suspending air passenger duty as well as testing passengers on arrival as an alternative to the 14-day quarantine, to help this vital sector of the economy?
I thank my hon. Friend for his support and for the advice he has provided to me, with his extensive experience of business and of his constituency. He knows that I care deeply about the aviation sector. My right hon. Friends the Transport Secretary and the Foreign Secretary are considering the issues he raised. In particular, the Government have been clear that further detail on the quarantine measures will be outlined in due course, but I will pass on his suggestion.
In North East Fife, much of the economy is seasonal and workers, who had contracts often agreed months in advance, face no income and no access to existing support. Fundraising for some golf caddies in St Andrews is under way and, although I applaud local community efforts and their generosity, rather than have the seasonal workforce rely on charity, what support can the Chancellor offer them this year so that they can return next year?
Those who were in seasonal work can use an average of their earnings over a period for furlough payments, or indeed the same month on a year-over-year basis if that is a more generous way to calculate their eligibility. That is the most generous way to treat those in seasonal employment under the scheme and ensure that we reflect their earnings appropriately.
These measures are exactly what manufacturing firms in Dudley South have called for as they start to reopen. Will the Chancellor undertake to work with our excellent Mayor, Andy Street, to ensure that the needs of west midlands manufacturing and its employees are fully considered as they start the task of rebuilding our economy?
I can give my hon. Friend that reassurance. I look forward to speaking further to him and the excellent Mayor, Andy Street, as we all work together to drive the west midlands economy as part of the economic recovery plan. He, the Mayor and his businesses can play a leading role in that.
I am glad that the Chancellor has confounded recent worrying rumours regarding the job retention scheme that caused grave concern to my constituents. Will he liaise with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that workers are not forced back to work in dangerous conditions, bearing in mind that the Health and Safety Executive has issued no enforcement actions as yet and that employers may struggle to pay the 20% he asks for while ensuring employee safety?
My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary will be here shortly to provide a fuller answer to the hon. Lady’s question, but it is right that employees should not work in unsafe environments and we have put in place measures to ensure that that will not be the case, with updated guidance, risk assessments and increased resources for the Health and Safety Executive. The Business Secretary will update the House in more detail.
Mr Speaker, I hope you and your family are well.
About 19% of Calder Valley residents work in the manufacturing sector, and thousands of them are incredibly grateful for the Chancellor’s ingenuity around the furlough scheme. Will my right hon. Friend, on his birthday, confirm how today’s announcements on furlough will be a massive help to those manufacturers as they phase the return to work and deal with social distancing in the workplace?
Manufacturing organisations in particular were keen to have the flexibility to bring employees back in shifts on a part-time basis while being able to furlough them for the remainder of the time as manufacturers ramp up operations, so I am pleased that we could deliver that flexibility today for the second part of the scheme. I think that that will be valuable to manufacturers in my hon. Friend’s constituency and help them get back up to speed as quickly as possible in a way that they can afford as well.
Ranjith Chandrapala lived in Hanwell in my constituency, and he drove the 92 bus until three weeks ago, before he died of covid-19, leaving behind a loving family, including his daughter, Leshie. A week before Ranjith died, the Government announced a life assurance scheme for the families of health and care workers on the frontline during the covid-19 outbreak. Will the Chancellor commit to extending the scheme to other frontline workers and, in particular, to the families of bus drivers such as Ranjith?
My heart goes out to the family of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent for what they have suffered. They, like many others up and down the country, are losing loved ones who are serving on the frontline. They deserve nothing but our admiration, respect and gratitude. I know that my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary has put in place a scheme to help those families who have lost loved ones during this crisis.
Let us head up to Staffordshire to Aaron Bell.
I thank the Chancellor for all the schemes that he has introduced so far. In particular, I welcome the extension of the job retention scheme today. I wonder whether he is willing to look at a couple of aspects of the other schemes. There are two schemes in particular that would benefit from the introduction of a taper as, currently, there are cliff edges in support for both business grants and the self-employed income support scheme. It means that, in the case of two people in broadly equivalent positions, one could be entitled to support and one not. Would he be willing at least to consider the idea of a taper with these schemes?
Introducing new measures to the schemes at this point would not be possible or desirable because it would just delay their operation. The problem with tapers is that there is still always an end point at the other end of the taper. With regard to the self-employment scheme, this covers 95% of all those who are self-employed, which is pretty comprehensive coverage. The 5% who are not covered have an average income of £200,000. Of course, there will be hard cases just the other side, but, on average, this is a group with relatively high earnings.
I thank the Treasury for a very comprehensive set of measures for businesses and employers across the country, including those in my constituency of Meon Valley. Will my right hon. Friend tell me when further guidance on the discretionary grant funding will be announced because some councils are not happy with using their discretion? I believe, though, that the Treasury has made it perfectly clear from the start that the list was not exhaustive and that councils should use their own discretion.
I thank my hon. Friend for her support. I think I am safe in saying that the guidance will be issued imminently. Of course there will be some broad guidelines on whom we think that support should be targeted at, but of course local authorities will have the ultimate discretion.
Returning to the north-west, let us hear from Andrew Gwynne.
Although I welcome the announcement on furlough, the Chancellor knows that the Government’s covid response would have completely stalled without local government, yet our councils are now financially on the brink. The extra funding does not cover all the costs, which is something that Ministers promised. Will he ensure that our councils are fully reimbursed for all covid-related costs and lost income and protect the sector that has protected us?
In a moment of nostalgia, let me say that the hon. Gentleman and I have a shared passion for local government and an admiration for the work that they do, and I know that he will remain an advocate of theirs. They have been provided with more than £3 billion of extra support. Of course, we are in constant dialogue with local government, whether in social care or others, to ensure that they get the financial resources that they need.
Let us go over to Derbyshire now to Nigel Mills.
I thank the Chancellor for his announcement today, which is exactly what Amber Valley businesses have been asking for. Is there any way he can allow them to bring back some employees part-time, earlier than his extension, so that they can perhaps reopen their businesses next month rather than having to wait until a later date?
That is a very fair question and one that I have looked at. There is an issue of operational complexity in designing the part-time aspect of the scheme in consultation with business and unions to ensure that we can enforce it properly. I think that the earliest that we can reasonably do it is in the extension period, as I mentioned. Of course, if there are ways for us to do that sooner, we will, but I would not want to commit to that today as it is a complicated thing to get right.
Yesterday I asked the Prime Minister about engagement with the devolved Governments in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. I would like to try again today, and I hope receive a more detailed response from the Chancellor. Can he please outline what specific conversations he had with the devolved Administrations about these changes and when those conversations took place?
My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury speaks regularly to his counterparts in the devolved Administrations, and we engage with them regularly. I am pleased to say that more than £8 billion[Official Report, 2 June 2020, Vol. 676, c. 4MC.] of Barnett consequentials has been provided to devolved Administrations across the UK as they have also responded to the virus, and that will continue to be the case. We will get through this as one nation, all together.
On resuming, the House entered into hybrid substantive proceedings (Order, 22 April).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member contributing virtually.]
Following the report of the Procedure Committee, and in advance of the first remote Division taking place later today, I have a statement to make about remote Divisions. A decision of the House arrived at by a remote Division has the same effect as a decision arrived at by more traditional means. I ask all Members to pay careful attention to what the Procedure Committee says about the integrity of the system. As the Committee states, any attempt to allow anyone who is not a Member to vote is likely to be a serious breach of privilege.
The Committee asked me to get a report on the number of Members not registered on the system. I can tell the House that all Members are automatically registered on MemberHub. I have received a report from the House Service that eight Members have not used MemberHub to vote in a remote voting test. I am satisfied that steps have been taken to enable them to vote should they wish to do so.
On each relevant day, when the business motion is agreed, I will announce my provisional determination on remote Divisions for that day. That provisional determination will be based on representations received by my office. Further representations can be made in the course of the day in question, and the final determination may change in consequence. It is integral to the success of hybrid proceedings that there is greater certainty about the timing and conduct of business than would normally be the case, and I do not expect changes to my determination to be a regular occurrence.
Finally, I want to assure Members that I will keep the system under review. I will carefully consider feedback from Members and information supplied to me by the Parliamentary Digital Service and House Service in accordance with relevant recommendations of the Procedure Committee. Further guidance on the matters in this statement has been published.
Business of the House (12 May)
The following arrangements shall apply to today’s business:
Business Timings Remote division designation Statement: Covid-19 and Business Up to 45 minutes None Statement: Covid-19 Guidance for Transport Users and Operators Up to 45 minutes None General debate: Covid-19 (Day 2) Up to 45 minutes; suspension; up to 90 minutes Remote division Hybrid proceedings (extension of temporary orders) Up to 30 minutes Remote division Business of the House (Private Members’ Bills) No debate None Committee of Privileges No debate None Adjournment (Whitsun) No debate (Standing Order No. 25) None
Remote division designation
Statement: Covid-19 and Business
Up to 45 minutes
Statement: Covid-19 Guidance for Transport Users and Operators
Up to 45 minutes
General debate: Covid-19 (Day 2)
Up to 45 minutes; suspension; up to 90 minutes
Hybrid proceedings (extension of temporary orders)
Up to 30 minutes
Business of the House (Private Members’ Bills)
Committee of Privileges
No debate (Standing Order No. 25)
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.—(Maggie Throup.)
The Speaker declared the Question to be agreed to (Order (4), 22 April).
Two items of business today are designated for remote Division. My provisional determination is that the remote Division will take place on the Question, That this House has considered Covid-19, and that the motion relating to Hybrid Proceedings (Extension of Temporary Orders) will not be the subject of a remote Division. I now call the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to make a statement, and he should speak for no more than 10 minutes.
I would like to update the House on the Government’s new covid-19-secure workplace guidance. On 23 March, the Government announced lockdown measures and required certain businesses and venues to close. Our message to workers was that if you can work from home, you should work from home, and millions did. At the same time, the Government provided guidance on how those who could not do their work from home could continue to operate as safely as possible in workplaces that were not required to be closed. I want to thank the many workers in distribution centres, supermarkets, transport, construction and manufacturing across the country who have been playing their part in keeping Britain moving. I hope that the whole House recognises the constructive spirit in which employers have worked with their workers to follow this guidance.
The Prime Minister yesterday set out steps to beat the virus and restart the economy, so that we can protect jobs, restore people’s livelihoods and fund the country’s vital public services. To support this, we have published new covid-19-secure guidelines, available to UK employers across eight settings that are allowed to be open, from outdoor environments and construction sites to factories and takeaways. This also includes guidance for shops that we believe may be in a position to begin a phased reopening, at the earliest, from 1 June. The Government have consulted approximately 250 stakeholders in preparing the guidance. It has been developed with input from firms, unions, industry bodies and the devolved Administrations. We have worked with Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive to develop best practice on the safest ways of working across the economy.
As we return to work, the Government want to give employers and workers confidence that their workplaces will be safe for them to return to, because we recognise that this is an anxious time for many. We recognise that workers want to know that their employer has taken every step to ensure a safe workplace, and we recognise that employers who take steps to keep workers safe want to know that they are doing the right thing. I believe that we have reached a consensus in doing that, and I am encouraged that businesses, representative groups, workers and trade unions can get behind this guidance.
The guidance has five key points at its heart. First, people should work from home if they can. Employers should continue to take all reasonable steps to help people work from home. For those who cannot work from home and whose workplace has not been told to close, our message is clear: they should go to work. Staff should speak to their employer about when their workplace will open.
Secondly, social distancing should be maintained in the workplace wherever possible. Employers should redesign workspaces to maintain 2-metre distances between people, stagger start times, create one-way walk-throughs, open more entrances and exits, or change seating layouts in break rooms. Thirdly, where people cannot be 2 metres apart, the transmission risk should be managed. Employers should ensure that every step is taken to reduce the risk when people cannot maintain 2-metre distancing. This can include putting up barriers or screens in shared spaces, creating fixed teams of partnering to minimise the number of people in contact with one another, or keeping the activity time involved as short as possible.
Fourthly, cleaning processes should be reinforced in line with the guidance. Employers should frequently clean work areas and equipment between uses to reduce transmission, provide hand sanitiser and washing stations, and pay attention to high-contact objects like workstations, door handles and keyboards.
Fifthly, a covid-19 risk assessment must be carried out, in consultation with workers or trade unions. In line with the current health and safety law, all employers must carry out a covid-19 risk assessment. They should identify risks that covid-19 creates and use the guidance published to take measures to mitigate these risks. Employers should share the results of their risk assessment with their workforce. A downloadable notice is included in the documents that employers should display in their workplaces to show their employees, customers and other visitors that they have followed the guidance. They should also consider publishing the results on their website, and we expect all employers with over 50 workers to do so.
The aim of this approach is for employers to create a collaborative working environment, building confidence and trust between employers and workers. I think the House will recognise that this is already the case across the UK, because the UK has a proud record as a leader in health and safety in the workplace. Our guidance operates within current health and safety, employment and equalities legislation, which is some of the strongest in the world, and we will continue with this approach. We will work closely with the Health and Safety Executive, which has the resources it needs to meet current demand, but of course we want to ensure that this remains the case during the covid-19 pandemic as people return to work. So the Government are making up to an extra £14 million available for the HSE, equivalent to a 10% increase in its budget. This extra money will provide resource for additional call centre staff, inspectors and equipment if needed. In many cases, this will meet the demands of employers and employees who would like further information on how to ensure that workplaces are safe. For the extremely small minority of businesses that do not follow the rules, the HSE and local authorities will not hesitate in using their powers, including enforcement notices, to secure improvements.
The measures I have set out in respect of social distancing and cleaning are the best ways to manage the risk of transmitting covid-19. Based on the scientific evidence, the use of PPE in the workplace is not recommended by the Government except in clinical settings and a handful of other roles stipulated by Public Health England. Of course, if a worker currently uses PPE to protect against other hazards, such a dust in an industrial setting, they must continue to use it. Workers have the option to use face coverings, which are simple cloth coverings. There are some circumstances in which wearing a face covering may be marginally beneficial as a precautionary measure. The evidence suggests that wearing a face covering does not protect you but may protect others if you are infected but have not developed symptoms. Wearing a face covering is not required by law in the workplace. If workers do choose to wear one, they should follow the workplace guidance on how to use it.
We have been guided by the scientific advice in establishing this position. Today, we provide a framework for how employers can keep workers safe in the workplace. This additional support and clarity, combined with more resource for the HSE, can give employers and workers the confidence they need to return to work safely. As we reopen new sectors of the economy, we will continue our collaborative approach when providing guidance for additional workplaces, meaning that we can provide a clear and safe route back to work for millions. I commend this statement to the House.
I call Edward Miliband, with a time limit of five minutes.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and add my thanks to all the workers and businesses that have kept our country going during these past few weeks? I say to him that we do not underestimate the challenges of lifting lockdown in certain parts of the economy. We agree that it is in all our interests for it to happen if it can be done safely, and that there are difficult decisions confronting Government, businesses and workers, who have to adapt to these unprecedented circumstances. I also want to welcome a number of steps forward in the guidance published last night, which he has talked about in his statement. They do represent progress from previous proposals, and I also welcome the tone of his statement.
However, I also say to the Secretary of State that what really matters to workers and businesses in these highly sensitive and difficult matters is proceeding in an orderly and judicious way. The confusion and mixed messages of the past 48 hours have been ill-advised and avoidable. Let me ask him six specific questions. First, on the impact of the Government’s change of emphasis on going back to work in phase 1, Ministers say that the reproduction rate of the disease—the R number—is currently between 0.5 and 0.9. How many extra people does he expect to go back to work as a result of the Government’s change of emphasis? What is the scientific advice about the impact on the R number?
Secondly, we are being told that in our daily lives, outside our places of work, that we must not come within 2 metres of those from other households, for reasons I understand. I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State said, but for workplaces the overview document he has published asks for an observance of 2-metre distancing only “wherever possible”. If it is not possible, the only requirement is that employers should “look into” various mitigation measures. I understand that in some workplaces 2-metre distancing may not be possible, but can he explain why there is no requirement for mitigation if social distancing cannot be observed?
Thirdly, on enforcement, the challenge is, as the Secretary of State said, not the vast majority of employers, who want to do the right thing, but the small minority who do not. I welcome £14 million more for the HSE budget, but it is a drop in the ocean compared with the £100 million of cuts over the past decade. Given the challenges of enforcement, will he discuss with the trade unions how their tens of thousands of health and safety reps could player a bigger and, I believe, constructive role in ensuring covid-19 compliance, including in non-unionised work- places?
Fourthly, can the Business Secretary now provide an answer for parents who are being asked to go back to work tomorrow but are not deemed “essential” workers and therefore have nobody to look after their children, because they cannot send them to school or nursery? What are parents in those circumstances supposed to do?
Fifthly, can the Secretary of State clarify the position on the 2.5 million workers who are deemed clinically extremely vulnerable and are advised to shield at home until at least the end of June?
Currently, they have no automatic right to be furloughed and many have felt pressured to keep working. As workplaces reopen, the pressure will become greater. To protect their health and provide clarity, would it not make sense to place an obligation on employers to furlough these individuals if they cannot work from home?
The chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said at the press conference last night that the reopening of workplaces was dependent on whether they can be made safe for work. Can the Secretary of State confirm that workplaces that are not safe should not reopen tomorrow and that, by law, workers who have a reasonable belief that they will be in danger do not have to be at work?
Finally, the Secretary of State will know that it is the highest paid workers who will generally carry on being able to work from home and lower paid workers who are being asked to go back to work. We also know from yesterday’s figures from the Office for National Statistics that, among men, construction workers have so far been more than twice as likely to die from covid-19 as the average member of the population. I know the Secretary of State will agree that working people are being asked to go back to work to help us all. Whatever the economic pressures, their health must be protected. They deserve to be safe. That is what the Government must take every action to ensure.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I also thank him for the very constructive discussions that we have had, particularly last Friday, on a range of issues. He wrote to me yesterday on the issue of safer working and I hope he has received my response. I also want to thank him for the acknowledgement that what we have put out represents progress. I think there is consensus across businesses and trade unions for what we have sought to provide.
The right hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues, which I will try to address. His first question was about the R number and the numbers of people potentially going back to work. We have been very clear that we want to ensure that people are safe in the workplace and, at the end of the day, that we are saving lives. That is why we produced the guidance, which has been put together with the HSE and Public Health England. We are also very clear that people who can work from home should continue to work from home.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the fact that there was some confusion. The Prime Minister made reference to the manufacturing sector and the construction sector; those sectors are already open. Millions of people are already going to work and their employers are doing everything they can to keep them safe.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about how employees can feel safe in the workplace. We have had this discussion previously. We know for a fact that many employers are already open, and they are working incredibly constructively with their trade unions. When I held my stakeholder calls as part of preparing the guidance, that was abundantly clear.
He talked about enforcement. I am pleased that he welcomes the extra money for the HSE; we need to make sure that we provide support if it is needed. I want to be very clear that the HSE is able to do spot checks and to be proactive. We ultimately want to make sure that if employees feel unsafe in a work environment, they are able to get in touch with the HSE or with their local authority.
He asked about parents and made a very reasonable point about schools. The Prime Minister set out the timetable for that. Again, it is a question of employers and employees working flexibly together. That is already happening in the workplace. I would say to all employers that they should look to see what they can do to support their workers to continue to work from home if that is at all possible.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman raised a point about reopening, whether it is safe to open workplaces, and what to do about workplaces that are not safe. He is absolutely right. People should not have to feel that they are going into an unsafe work environment; frankly, from my experience, that is not what employers want either. We absolutely need our workers to feel safe. If they feel unsafe, they can get in touch with the HSE and with local authorities. I would say to all employers to please do absolutely everything you can, because it is in all our interests that the economy gets going again.
Across Keighley, we have some fantastic manufacturing, engineering and technology-based businesses, whose employees are doing their utmost to ensure that the new guidance is adhered to. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is crucial, as we move to the next phase of tackling this virus, that the needs of businesses—especially small businesses, which are the beating heart of Keighley—are taken into account? Can he confirm that the recently issued guidance applies to them, so that they are best placed to kick-start productivity and reignite their service offering?
My hon. Friend is a strong voice for Keighley businesses. Of course this guidance applies to all businesses. The Federation of Small Businesses, which has been part of helping us to prepare the guidance, has welcomed it, particularly for small companies. My hon. Friend should continue the engagement he is doing with businesses, encourage them to look at the guidance and encourage them to get back to work.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Given that the Prime Minister previously attacked what he called the “health and safety fetish” as “madness”, and in 2009 said public warnings were “for the extremely stupid”, the fact that this Government are stressing the need for health and safety must be welcomed. However, it is important to give the utmost clarity.
I know that is what the Secretary of State will like to think he has done, but his advice is addressed to UK employers. Will he acknowledge, in the spirit of clarity, that his advice is for England only? The advice in the other nations of the UK remains to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives. Lives are at stake. We must have complete clarity. Shops in Scotland are not scheduled for phased reopening from 1 June. Will he make that clear? His five-point plan does not apply at this time in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Will he make that clear?
We welcome the measures announced today to transition the furlough scheme, because business and people would be harmed by a cold restart without protection. However, before any reductions in furlough or rates of support start, we first need to fill the gaps for those left behind: those who had a contract or letter of employment by 29 March but whose employers have not logged into Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, those agency workers who are not included, staff whose pay is combined with commission, and the forgotten but vital summer seasonal workers. Will the Secretary of State make the case for those workers, or are they still to be left behind?
Finally, the Secretary of State has made great play—I quote from his statement—of
“Building a consensus and confidence when moving forward”.
Will he take that message back to the Cabinet and the Prime Minister, and extend it to the leaders of the devolved nations? His Government have consistently updated Fleet Street before this House, and even before the First Ministers of the devolved nations.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions and his remarks. First, he talked about the Health and Safety Executive. We are of course providing more support. It is able at this stage to progress with the funding and support it has from the Government, but we have provided an extra £14 million in case it needs it. The UK has a proud record as a world leader on health and safety in the workplace. If he compares our statistics with those in many other countries in Europe, for example, he will see that we have a very good record.
The hon. Gentleman asked who this guidance is for. This guidance is to help all employers in the United Kingdom—employers, employees and the self-employed. I also say to him—[Interruption.] He is shaking his head, but let me come to the point that he wants me to make. In terms of the 250 stakeholders we engaged with, 70% of those businesses operate across the UK. However, in the guidance, we make it very clear that public health is devolved in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and we talk about the guidance being considered alongside local public health and safety requirements and legislation.
My final point is about consensus. We have been driven, throughout this process, through consensus. I have had very good discussions with my counterparts in the devolved nations, and we will continue to do that. The Prime Minister has been doing that, and we will continue to do that as a Government. At the end of the day, we all have to come together to get out of this and get our economy to bounce back.
As welcome as this advice is, many workers will not be able to return to work and will remain at home on 80% of their pay. In my right hon. Friend’s role as consumer rights Minister, can he say something about the financial burdens being put on my constituents and on workers across the country by rip-off travel companies that are refusing to refund constituents for their holidays or flights? Be it Hoseasons, Virgin, British Airways, Ryanair or Tui, my constituents are getting ripped off, so will he run a campaign publicly to inform consumers about their rights to refunds?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. May I first thank him for the great work he is doing in the ambulance service as a community first responder, which I know is making a real difference in his community? He talks about consumer rights. The law is very clear, and it is there to protect consumers. Refunds should be issued within 14 days. However, he also knows that the sectors he is talking about are facing their own challenges. I am continuing to have discussions on this issue with my counterparts in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. He will also know that the Competition and Markets Authority has set up a covid-19 taskforce for consumers seeking refunds, and we continue to have a dialogue with it.
I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement. The whole House will know that businesses will want to do the right thing in implementing the covid-19-secure guidelines, but we also know that many businesses, especially SMEs, have struggled to buy the required kit on the open market and that many workers feel under pressure to go to work when they do not feel safe to do so. Can the Secretary of State confirm what support the Government will give to businesses to ensure that they have access to the covid-19-secure codes they need for their workplaces and set out how workers will be supported, perhaps by ACAS, in dealing with potential workplace disputes linked to this issue?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election as Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, and I look forward to further interactions in the future. He raises a point about the support available for businesses. The Chancellor spoke earlier, and he set out an extension to the job retention scheme. He has also made available loans and grants, so there is a lot of support out there. On the point about ACAS, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Where employees feel that they have an issue they are not able to resolve, they absolutely should go to ACAS.
I am sure we all welcome the reduction in the prevalence of the virus in the general population, but we also know that we are not going to beat this thing in weeks; it will take us months. Therefore, will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on everyone—individuals and businesses alike—to stay alert and to follow the rules, so that we can keep the very important R rate down?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The message is very clear on staying alert. It is about keeping the R rate down. That is the only way in which we can proceed—with baby steps, rather than giant strides—and make sure that we are keeping safe and preserving lives, but at the same time doing all we can to open up the economy further.
Aviation is one of the industries worst hit by this crisis, and it will be some time still before those affected are able to return to work. The Government have also announced new quarantine measures, but with no detail about how they are going to work. In the north-east, we rely on Newcastle International airport as key to our regional economic growth, and we need certainty from Government on the way forward. The extension of the job retention scheme to October is welcome, but will the Government work urgently with aviation to plan a way through the quarantine measures and provide further support, such as business rates relief, for this crucial sector?
The hon. Lady of course raises an important point. First, may I thank her for acknowledging the welcome extension that the Chancellor has set out for the job retention scheme? She will also know that the Government have put in place a range of other measures to support businesses large and small. There is a corporate finance facility and the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme run through the British Business Bank. When it comes to the aviation sector, we are of course continuing to have discussions with it, as we do with other sectors, but I would say to her that the primary intention is to provide a broad set of support that everyone across the economy can get access to.
As the Business Secretary will be aware, these are challenging times for commercial landlords, a group that includes many charities. They have increased costs at the moment, which have been compounded by a fall in their fundraising, and at the same time are facing increased challenges with the collection of rent from their commercial tenants. I am not asking my right hon. Friend about the package of support for charities, but what is the Government’s message to commercial landlords who have tenants in receipt of rate relief and various linked grants as a result but who cannot collect rent or even a contribution of the rent due?
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the challenges facing commercial and other landlords. I recognise that many landlords are working closely with their tenants and following best practice, and we are closely monitoring the three-month moratorium on rents. As I said, the CLBIL and CBIL schemes are available for landlords, and people are taking advantage of them in some numbers.
How do the Government intend to ensure that the shielded group of people and their household members do not face an impossible choice between returning to work and breaching public health advice? Will the Secretary of State advise employers to use the job retention scheme for this group when needed?
Our guidance makes reference to employers having to consider those who are particularly vulnerable and in those sorts of categories—expectant mothers and so on—and we want them to make sure those people are being taken care of and catered for. None of the equalities legislation has changed; at the end of the day, this is guidance, but overlaid by the current regulatory regime in place across the country.
Businesses in Eddisbury planning on reopening will want to get covid-secure as soon as possible but also as safely as possible, too, especially where, as we just heard, they might interact with the most vulnerable. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that when developing this guidance the vulnerable customers and staff who might come into contact with those businesses are fully taken into account?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Yes, the guidance has been prepared with those individuals in mind. As I have said, we obviously require employers to adhere to existing equalities legislation and are also asking in the guidance for employers to monitor the wellbeing of their employees, particularly those who may be working from home, and to take into account the protection of those who may be at higher risk.
The discussion around return to work is very welcome, but in areas such as Cambridge with above-average rateable values, many quite small but vital businesses, such as pubs and restaurants, are really struggling just above the £50k threshold. Much loved cafés such as The Copper Kettle and Benets in King’s Parade and businesses such as the innovative Rainbow Rocket climbing centre all face that problem, so could the Secretary of State remind us how that £50k threshold was arrived at and what would have been the costs and benefits of a different threshold? Would he now consider a higher threshold, particularly for areas with above-average rateable values?
I understand that the hospitality, leisure and retail sectors face a particular challenge right now. The Prime Minister has set out a road map for how we might get to opening them, but we have to keep a tight grip on the R factor. The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a one-year rates holiday for businesses of all sizes in the sectors he is talking about. I hope that businesses will also take advantage of the loan schemes, particularly the Bounce Back scheme.
Coming out of lockdown, it will be critical to encourage the public to support local small and medium-sized businesses, to help to revitalise the economy not only here in Bosworth but across the country. Will the Secretary of State consider a positive advertising campaign to get the public to back their local businesses?
My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. As he knows, we are already running digital campaigns across Government at this particularly vital time. Of course I agree that this is an opportunity for us to back local businesses in the heart of our communities.
Protecting jobs and businesses is important, but the Chancellor’s announcement on the covid job retention scheme—[Inaudible.]
Order. I am terribly sorry, Patricia; there seems to be a fault on the audio. We will see if we can correct it and come back to you. In the meantime, I call Maria Miller.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for all he has done to help to safeguard jobs during the pandemic. May I ask him to look particularly at the problems still facing some pregnant women who have been contacting organisations such as Working Families and Maternity Action? Will he confirm to businesses that all pregnant women are currently classed as vulnerable, and that if they are unable to work as a result they should be suspended on paid leave or furloughed? Will he consider clarifying the guidance, to help those employers who want to do the right thing?
My right hon. Friend is a champion for the rights of women—indeed, of all individuals—and she raises an important point about pregnant women. The Government guidance is clear that pregnant women can be furloughed, provided that they meet normal eligibility requirements. I would go further and say, as it does in the guidance, that expectant mothers are, as always, entitled to suspension on full pay if a suitable rule cannot be found within the workplace.
The 14-day quarantine will have a real impact on aviation and tourism. It seems that it will be possible for people to fly into the Republic of Ireland, then cross into Northern Ireland and then to the UK mainland. Indeed, they will also be able to fly into France and take the ferry across to the mainland. This underlines the problems that we have. What impact assessment has been carried out in reference to the connectivity between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland in terms of business and tourism and the impact on airports and airlines? Will the 14-day quarantine be temporary?
The hon. Gentleman, who speaks with huge passion for his community and his area, raises an important issue about quarantine. He will understand the reason that we are looking to do this, and more details will be set out in due course, but I would say to him that businesses that previously felt that people had to be physically in the same place for meetings are now finding new ways of conducting business. Indeed, there are millions of people who are continuing to work from home, even during the pandemic.
Small and medium-sized enterprises working within the construction and home improvement sectors—plumbers, electricians, window fitters—will welcome the guidance that they can undertake work in customers’ houses subject to sensible precautions. Is it my right hon. Friend’s advice that now is the time for our trades to get back to work, to help the economy to bounce back?
My hon. Friend has made his point crystal clear. He has talked about a set of workers who are the very backbone of the small business community across all our constituencies. He will also know that the Federation of Master Builders has warmly welcomed the guidance. Yes, absolutely, we want people to get back to work, but to get back to work safely.
We are going to try Patricia Gibson one more time.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Protecting jobs and businesses is important, but the Chancellor’s announcement on the jobs retention scheme—[Inaudible.] Although the scheme has been extended to October, the Government’s contribution to the scheme is to be cut. Can the Secretary of State explain why he thinks it is fair that 200,000 workers have been entirely excluded from the scheme just—[Inaudible.]
Secretary of State, were you able to get anything that you could give a response to?
I was not able to catch much of what the hon. Lady said, but she will know that the Chancellor just set out his statement. I will commit that if she writes to me or the Chancellor we will, I am sure, provide her with some answers.
I am sorry, Patricia, but we did have real audio and video problems there.
Many businesses in my constituency offering health services, such as dentists and physiotherapists, have been excluded from other forms of Government support yet are offering absolutely vital services that we will need when the shut- down ends. Does the Minister have any specific guidance for businesses such as these?
I would not say that businesses have been excluded. Indeed, if we look at the range of what is available in terms of loan schemes it covers the smallest businesses right to the very largest. We are seeing significant take-up particularly of the Bounce Back loan scheme. I made an announcement about the top-up to the local business grant fund scheme that we already have—almost £9 billion has gone out. This is a discretionary fund that is being set up to support businesses as well.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he is looking at how certain tourism and leisure facilities might open safely as and when the covid alert level is low in all parts of the UK?
I know that my hon. Friend is a champion for businesses in his constituency and he will be concerned for them. The Prime Minister has set out a timeline, but, as he has said, we also have to be cautious about how we proceed. We are currently looking at hospitality opening at some point in July, but that is entirely dependent on making sure that we keep the R factor down. In the meantime, as my hon. Friend knows and has heard from the Chancellor, additional support is being provided.
The future of many small businesses in my constituency of Bedford and Kempston hangs in the balance because owners have been unable to access the Government grants as their business rate classification does not qualify them for it. Local authorities have some discretion, but will the Government issue clearer guidance and have a speedier declassification process to ensure that legitimate businesses do not fall through the net and go to the wall?
We have put in place the sort of measures that we have precisely because we want to support as many businesses as possible. We want people to be ready, and to be retained in the workplace so that when we get past this pandemic we can bounce back. In an earlier answer, I talked about a discretionary fund to support businesses that local authorities will administer. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me, I will be happy to provide further details.
I know that my right hon. Friend will join me in thanking all businesses in Hyndburn and Haslingden for their work in responding swiftly and efficiently to the lockdown. Many of them have adapted their services to support those who need it. Can he assure me that the businesses and workers in Hyndburn and Haslingden will be both supported and utilised in the recovery process and that their safety will be paramount in the decisions made?
I thank my hon. Friend for everything she is doing to support businesses in her own constituency of Hyndburn and Haslingden. I have already set out a whole range of measures of support that the Government are providing, and I know that she will welcome what the Chancellor said at the Dispatch Box earlier about further support for the furlough scheme.
On Sunday, the Prime Minister announced plans for workers to return to work if they were not able to work from home, giving businesses less than 12 hours to put any plans in place. The guidance issued by the Government on Monday places all the obligations on employers—for example, for social distancing and cleaning. Will the Secretary of State check to see whether these guidelines are being followed by employers? The £14 million uplift to the HSE is welcome, but this does not compensate for the £100 million budget cut and the two thirds reduction in staffing over the past decade. Will the Secretary of State commit to put the needs of working people first, properly resource the HSE to increase the number of inspectors, work with unions and not allow businesses to reopen until their safety measures have been approved and verified?
The hon. Lady raised a number of points. Let me address two of them. She asked about the HSE funding. I am pleased that she welcomes the extra £14 million. Over the years, the HSE has absolutely maintained its regulatory activities. It has invested in updating IT systems and other infrastructure, and has reduced reliance on taxpayer funding through growth in its commercial activities. Absolutely everyone in this House and across the country wants us to keep people safe in the workplace, and every employer I have spoken to wants that to happen. That is why we have produced guidance through a process of consensus, and we will continue to monitor that.
Across my constituency, we have an incredible business community that is supported by groups such as the Watford chamber of commerce. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that employers build confidence with their workers and customers, and that all businesses should aim to publish their risk assessments online wherever possible to reduce concerns, showcase their transparency and keep workers safe?
I thank my hon. Friend and the Watford chamber of commerce for everything they are doing to support local businesses. He will know that the British Chambers of Commerce has worked with us and welcomed the guidance. I agree that we should be encouraging all employers to make available the results of their risk assessment, and we have made it very clear that we expect all employers with more than 50 workers to publish the results of their risk assessment on their website.
We are going to do the last two questions and then we have to move on to the next statement. I apologise to Members who were unable to get in.
As secretary to the all-party parliamentary group on beauty, aesthetics and wellbeing, I know that this £6 billion sector is crucial to our economy, with many businesses on our UK high streets. By nature, it is a very hands-on industry, so can the Secretary of State assure me that clear guidelines on PPE will be issued well ahead of these businesses reopening, so as to protect both staff and consumers?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point on behalf of a sector that he is working to represent. We will continue to work collaboratively to come up with further guidance on sectors and industries that are not currently open.
I thank the Secretary of State for allowing garden centres to reopen from tomorrow; that is very welcome in West Worcestershire. As he thinks about allowing more of the retail sector to open, is he considering relaxing the rules to allow a levelling up of our high street to the same sort of opening hours as we have on the internet?
I, too, welcome the fact that garden centres will be open from tomorrow. It will be an opportunity for us to continue to restart our economy. My hon. Friend makes an important point. I will continue to keep the situation under review.
With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the new transport guidance for passengers and operators that has been published by my Department today.
Coronavirus has cast a shadow over the lives of everyone in this country. As we all know too well, for some it has caused unimaginable heartache. For millions more of our fellow citizens, this crisis has meant an enormous sacrifice in the national effort to beat this disease. The Government are immensely grateful to the British people for the profound changes that they have made to their lives over the last few weeks.
I also extend my thanks to transport workers and the wider freight sector for their immense efforts to keep Britain on the move during this crisis. We will always remember the way in which the industry has served the country during the most challenging of times. Public transport operators have ensured that all those frontline staff have been able to get to work and fight the virus, while freight firms have delivered vital goods and kept super- market shelves stacked.
However, it is now time to consider how together we emerge from this crisis. On Sunday, the Prime Minister set out the first careful steps for reopening society and a roadmap for the weeks and the months ahead. Undoubtedly, transport is going to play a very central role in that recovery. It will be the key to restarting our economy and in time will enable us to renew and strengthen those precious ties that are so deeply valued by us all.
As I said last week, our nation’s emergence from this crisis will not be a single leap to freedom. It will be a gradual process. We cannot jeopardise the progress achieved over the past few weeks by our shared sacrifices. We therefore remain clear that those who can work from home should continue to do so. However, as those who cannot start to return to their jobs, the safety of the public and of transport workers must be paramount. That is why the Department for Transport has today published two new pieces of guidance for passengers and for operators.
These documents aim to give passengers the confidence to travel, and they seek to give operators the information they need to provide safer services and workplaces for passengers and for staff. We encourage operators to consider the particular needs of their customers and workers as they translate these documents into action.
The first document is aimed at passengers. I will summarise some of the main points contained in the advice. First, as I mentioned, we continue to ask people to go to work only if they cannot do their jobs from home. That is because even as transport begins to revert to a full service, the 2-metre distancing rule will leave effective capacity for only one in 10 passengers overall. It is therefore crucial that we protect our network by minimising the pressures placed on it and ensure that it is ready to serve those who most need it.
As a result, we are actively asking those who need to make journeys to their place of work or other essential trips to walk or to cycle wherever possible. In order to help us do more of that, last week I announced an unprecedented £2 billion investment to put walking and cycling right at the heart of our transport policy. The first stage is worth £250 million and will include a series of swift emergency measures, including pop-up bike lanes, wider pavements and cycling and bus-only corridors. That money should help protect our public transport network in the weeks and months ahead. It is my hope that they will eventually allow us to harness the vast health, social and environmental benefits that active forms of travel can provide. If people cannot walk, but have access to a car—I appreciate that I will be the only Transport Secretary to have said this for very many years—we urge them to use the car before they consider public transport, avoiding where possible any busy times of day.
I do, however, recognise that for some people using transport is a necessity. In this case, passengers should follow the guidance we have set out today in order to keep themselves safe. It recommends that travellers must maintain social distancing by staying 2 metres apart wherever possible to prevent the virus. We also advise that as a precautionary measure, particularly where that is not possible, people wear face coverings when using public transport. That could help protect other travellers from coronavirus where someone has perhaps unwittingly or unknowingly developed the illness, but they are not showing any symptoms. We urge passengers to avoid the rush hour and replan their visits, to use contactless payments where at all possible and to wash their hands before and after their journeys.
In addition, the guidance also reminds us that at this most challenging of times, it is more vital than ever that we think about the needs of others. Our transport operators and their staff are doing an incredible job to keep everyone safe. Please follow their advice. In stations and bus interchanges, be patient and considerate with fellow passengers and staff. In particular, we should remember the needs of disabled passengers, those with hearing and sight impairments and older travellers, too.
As I mentioned, we are also publishing a second document, guidance for transport operators, today. Those organisations really are at the forefront of the national recovery effort. They know the insides and out of the needs of their customers and their workers, and they understand like no one else their industry’s specific needs. That is why I have no doubt that the operators are best placed to implement the safety processes that work best for their businesses, their employees and their customers. The guidance we are publishing today advises operators across all forms of private and public transport on the measures they can take to improve safety. The steps include ensuring stations, services and equipment are regularly cleaned, and that passenger flows are clearly communicated to try to avoid crowding to try to keep everyone on the network, passengers and staff, two metres apart wherever possible.
The guidance will develop over time, in line with our increasing understanding of how coronavirus is spread and how it is contained. In addition, it is likely that there will be no one-size-fits-all approach to implementation. It will need to be tailored and localised, based on plans of local specific transport needs. In preparation for that process, yesterday I wrote to local authorities to set out how we can work together to prepare transport networks at a local level for restart and ensure public safety.
The documents I publish today will help ready our transport system to support our country as we seek to control the virus and restart the economy. We will inevitably encounter obstacles along the way as we embark on the next stage of our national fightback against the virus. There is no doubt that we need to continue to work together to overcome those challenges. On that note, I would like to express my gratitude to our partners in the devolved Administrations, the local authorities, the Mayors, trade unions and transport operators for their work over the past few weeks. I look forward to continued collaboration in future, because co-operation will be key to setting the country on the road to recovery.
If everyone plays their part, and if we continue to stay alert, we can control the virus and save lives. If we all follow the guidance on making essential journeys, I believe that together we can harness the power of transport to build a new and revitalised nation. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement. I also thank him for the way in which he has maintained communication and shown a willingness to work together in the national interest.
I know that everyone in this House and at home will join me in sending our thanks to all transport workers across the country. As with all our frontline workers, they are the very best of us. It is so important that we give a voice to those workers. Even today, the official advice is found wanting and it will lead to confusion. The scenes we saw yesterday on public transport were unsurprising when the Government ordered a return to work with 12 hours’ notice but without the guidance being in place on how people can be kept safe. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State why his announcement was not made before the Prime Minister’s statement on Sunday?
Secondly, the Government have produced guidance for bus passengers and operators, but it leaves too much to chance and fails to protect frontline workers. It risks a postcode lottery on standards and protection, and there is far too much “should”, “could”, “not always possible” and “as much as you can”, rather than clear, directive guidance. For bus drivers, for instance, the guidance is that PPE should not be used, but instead reserved for health and care staff. That is despite shocking figures released by the Office for National Statistics that show professional drivers, including those operating taxis, private hire vehicles, buses and goods vehicles, have some of the highest covid-19 fatality rates in the country. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State for the evidence b