House of Commons
Wednesday 13 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—
EU Office: Belfast
I have regular discussions with the Executive on the protocol and wider matters, and I look forward to having further productive discussions with Ministers before the end of the transition period.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. But given the dismissive attitude of some in his Government on this particular issue, how can we in Northern Ireland have any confidence that he will faithfully implement the Northern Ireland protocol? Given all that is happening right now, is it not surely time to begin to agree to a transition period extension so that we can finally get a proper agreement on Brexit, which is, in our view, impossible to do at this time?
There is no reason why the European Commission should be requiring a permanent presence in Belfast to monitor the implementation of the protocol. We are focused on our determination to ensure that we fulfil all of our obligations to deliver on the protocol. The best way we can give certainty and confidence for business is to follow through and deliver on our promise to make sure that we leave and have everything in place at the end of December this year.
Covid-19: Support for Businesses
The UK Government are backing businesses in Northern Ireland through UK-wide measures including the coronavirus job retention scheme and the self-employed income support scheme. In preparation for the end of the transition period, we are committed to implementing the protocol. That includes unfettered access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.
The Secretary of State will already be aware of the vital cross-border trade and employment dynamics that existed pre-covid between counties such as Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh and neighbouring County Donegal. What planning is taking place with the devolved Administration in Belfast and the Irish Government to ensure that the emergence from lockdown promotes an urgent regeneration of the crucial cross-border economy?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. We are very focused on the whole economy of Northern Ireland. In fact, one of the biggest and most financially well-supported growth deals in the whole of the United Kingdom is the one in Northern Ireland dealing with exactly these economic issues. I can assure him that I have regular meetings with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and also co-chair a fortnightly meeting with the Republic of Ireland’s Tánaiste, to be sure that we take, where appropriate and proper, a joined-up approach.
The Secretary of State will value the importance of lifeline ferry services, and the news of potentially 1,000 job losses at P&O is devastating. What assessment has he made regarding the impact of a reduction or loss of the P&O Cairnryan to Larne service, and what discussions has he had with P&O and the trade unions on safeguarding this vital link between Scotland and Northern Ireland?
I was pleased to be able to announce only a week or two ago the £17 million package that we put in place to protect the five ferry routes to ensure that we keep connectivity for Northern Ireland with the rest of the United Kingdom. I have had conversations with P&O and other ferry operators just in the past few days.
Just as in my constituency of Aylesbury, small businesses and the self-employed are a vital part of the economy in Northern Ireland. As we move to the next stage of the coronavirus crisis, how will my right hon. Friend ensure that they have all the guidance and support that they need to regain lost trade and to flourish once more?
My hon. Friend makes a really good and important point. Throughout the crisis, both I and the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), have been in regular contact with businesses across Northern Ireland to ensure that we understand the pressures that they are facing, and to make sure that we can work with the Northern Ireland Executive to continue to focus on the economic recovery in the form that they need. He is quite right: wherever we are in the United Kingdom, including in Great Yarmouth, we have to make sure that we are focused on the small businesses that are often the heartbeat of our communities. We are also determined to make sure that we do that in partnership with the Northern Ireland Executive.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Can I also send all our love and best wishes to my hon. Friend and predecessor, the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who continues to make a recovery from covid-19?
The Secretary of State will regret, as I do, the disrespectful way in which the devolved nations were cut out of the Prime Minister’s announcement on Sunday and the confusion that reigned across the UK as a result. Will he commit to ensuring that the Northern Ireland Executive are fully consulted and informed on the next phase of lockdown and future changes to messaging?
I would like to offer the hon. Lady a warm welcome to her new role. I look forward to working with her for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. If you will indulge me briefly, Mr Speaker, I want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who served in his post admirably for over two years and through three different Secretaries of State; I hope that the hon. Lady only deals with one Secretary of State in her time in office. I was hugely pleased to hear of his recovery, and I am glad that he has decided to continue to represent the people of Manchester as he recovers, as he has done over the last four decades.
We are working with the devolved authorities. They have Ministers sitting on all the committees that are discussing issues around how we deal with coronavirus, and all the devolved authorities were present and part of the decisions made at the Cobra meeting on Sunday, ahead of the Prime Minister’s announcement.
Thank you, Mr Speaker; that was a very quick promotion.
As the Secretary of State said, not only is co-ordination across the UK important, but the unique situation in Northern Ireland means that co-operation with the Republic of Ireland is equally important. Can he explain why those in Northern Ireland who hold an Irish passport, as is their right under the Good Friday agreement, are still unable to check their eligibility for the self-employed support scheme, and can he commit to urgently rectify that problem before the scheme starts to pay out?
Further to the question from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), it is also the case that Northern Ireland citizens who hold a Northern Ireland driving licence cannot use that document to verify their claim for support from the self-employed income support scheme. Clearly, that is entirely wrong. It means that self-employed people in my constituency are being disadvantaged and cannot make their claim or have it verified. Will the Secretary of State liaise with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Treasury to ensure that Northern Ireland driving licences are an acceptable document for the purposes of verification for the self-employed scheme?
Can the Secretary of State advise us what additional funding he is seeking to support the Northern Ireland economy, as we hopefully emerge from lockdown over the next few weeks and months? He will be aware of the situation with our economy, as with the economy across the United Kingdom. We are all anxious to know what additional support might be available from the Treasury for the recovery of our economy in Northern Ireland.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is hugely important that we are ready, as we come out of lockdown, to not just recover from the economic situation with coronavirus but then turbocharge the economy across the United Kingdom, and particularly in Northern Ireland to see the economy flourish and grow. We have given £1.2 billion to the Northern Ireland Executive through the Barnett consequentials. That is on top of the UK-wide schemes, such as the job retention scheme. The Treasury and the Chancellor continue to look at everything we need to do to support businesses, people and every part of the United Kingdom as we come through this, and to ensure that we come out of it in a way that will allow our economy to re-flourish and grow in the future.
With covid-19 consuming so much effort internationally, does the Secretary of State agree that the EU simply will not indulge further UK Government brinkmanship on transition? The resulting cliff edge will be a step too far for many Northern Irish businesses, so why are his Government pushing ahead with their reckless timetable, despite widespread support across the political divide for an extension?
I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s reference to widespread support. The position of the British public, restated in December last year, is very clear—they want to see things done, so that we as a country can move forward. It is in both our interests and the EU’s interests to be ready to move forward in January 2021. The best certainty we can give business, which we are focused on, is unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the rest of the UK, and we will do that through the Northern Ireland protocol.
Covid-19: Devolved Administrations
We are working closely with the devolved Administrations in our response to covid-19. As I have said, representatives from each Administration attend Cobra meetings, as well as the many detailed implementation groups that sit underneath the Cobra and Cabinet structure. The Tánaiste, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and I also meet regularly, and we hope to do so again later this week. We agree that continued close contact and co-operation will rightly remain essential in the weeks and months ahead.
The contact tracing app that the UK Government are developing is apparently different from the one that the Irish Government are advocating, which may create significant difficulties not only on the island of Ireland but in relation to travel to and from the rest of the UK via, for example, Welsh, Scottish and English ports. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government on the proposed app, and what would he advise people in Northern Ireland to do?
The app offers a huge opportunity to be an important part of our work as we come through covid-19 into exiting from this in a sensible and logical way and with awareness of how the virus has spread across the UK. It is important that people take part. I give a huge thank you to those who have been involved in work on the app.
I have been in conversations with the Irish Government —I spoke to the Tanaiste on this issue only a few days ago—as well as with the Northern Ireland Executive, to ensure that all our experts and chief medical officers are working together to ensure that we have a joined-up approach where practical, sensible and appropriate so that we get things working in a way that is good for the health of all the people of Ireland. I am focused on ensuring that the people of Northern Ireland get the best possible care.
Covid-19: The Union
. We are working, and will continue to work, closely with all the devolved Administrations, who are fully committed to suppressing the virus across the UK. Our response to covid-19 is a collective national effort. The Executive are following a science-led path, doing what is best for the people of Northern Ireland, recognising the overall approach that we are taking across the UK to fight this pandemic.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with most people in Dudley and with me that we are stronger as one United Kingdom in responding to coronavirus? Will he let the House know whether the devolved Administration has improved outcomes for people in ways that we can share across the United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The short answer is, yes. This is a good example of how the United Kingdom has been stronger than any single part of it, so we are stronger together as a family. As I have said, we will continue to work closely with all the devolved Administrations. I remain in close contact with both the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland to co-ordinate the response and share information and insights. That approach has been effective, allowing us to work together on issues of common concern, including the provision of personal protective equipment, while allowing plans to be tailored to ensure that they address the particular local situations that we all face.
Yes, and my hon. Friend’s language is spot on. We have all seen how the NHS has responded with heroism and agility. I thank all key workers across the United Kingdom for their professionalism and dedication to looking after people. We have seen fantastic co-operation between all political parties in Northern Ireland and across the UK, and the devolved Governments have worked together in a way that is good for all parts of the United Kingdom as we tackle this crisis.
Withdrawal Agreement: Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol
The Joint Committee met on 30 March and the Ireland/Northern Ireland Specialised Committee met on 30 April. The protocol has of course been part of those discussions. Our intention in implementing the protocol is to protect Northern Ireland’s place in our United Kingdom and cement the huge gains that we have all seen from the peace process. We believe that it will be necessary to support business and the wider population in understanding the protocol before it comes into effect.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. He knows—he confirmed earlier in these exchanges—that Northern Ireland businesses will continue to have unfettered access to the rest of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister has made a commitment that we will not check goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Can the Secretary of State set out a bit more detail for the House about the progress that has been made in implementing both those important commitments?
My right hon. Friend is right. I want to put this in the clearest possible terms: Northern Ireland businesses will have unfettered access to the market of the United Kingdom and across GB. This is something, as he rightly points out, that many of my Cabinet colleagues and I have not just commented on publicly but about which we feel strongly. We look forward to delivering on that before the end of the year —we will deliver on that promise.
I heard what the Secretary of State said about the one-way unfettered access, but in 33 weeks Northern Ireland businesses will have to comply with EU customs and regulatory rules and two VAT systems. When will the Government let those businesses know exactly what they need to do to comply with the protocol in order to keep trading?
We will ensure that businesses have plenty of time to be ready for January next year. One of the key parts of that is ensuring that we have unfettered access. We will not put borders down the Irish sea or anywhere else. Unfettered access is a hugely important part of respecting the Good Friday agreement, as well as the “New Decade, New Approach” deal. The best way for businesses to have fluidity of access to the market is to have unfettered access. That is what we are determined to deliver, and that is what we will do.
I recently published a written ministerial statement setting out the way forward on the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. We have begun engagement with the Northern Ireland parties, the Irish Government and other key stakeholders, with a firm focus on finding consensus on the detail of the proposals, which will allow us to move forward.
The Victims’ Commissioner said:
“The aim of addressing the legacy of the past must be to build a better future”.
Why did the Secretary of State, in that spirit, not consult with key organisations such as the Commission for Victims and Survivors before publishing his statement on 18 March? Does he agree that victims must be at the heart of the proposal, and that any proposals must have their full support?
Colleagues will appreciate that it was appropriate to lay the written ministerial statement before Parliament first. That is the process of how we work in this House, but I say to the hon. Lady that I have been engaging with victims groups, as has my Minister of State, and I will continue to do so. I have spoken directly to victims groups, which are an important part of the process. I gently say to the hon. Lady that the WMS very clearly references the importance of ensuring that we do the right thing for victims. They are absolutely at the heart of this, and it is important that they are.
Covid-19: Personal Protective Equipment
The UK Government and the Executive have committed to ensuring that those on the frontline in responding to covid-19 are provided with the critical PPE that they need to do their job safely. As part of our UK-wide approach, the Government have allocated around 5.5 million items of PPE to Northern Ireland, which in turn has sent 250,000 gowns to the rest of the UK.
Earlier this week, Moy Park, which is the largest manufacturing employer in Northern Ireland, sadly experienced the tragic covid-19-related death of a valuable worker, meat packer, Unite member and human being. Everyone should expect to return home safely after a day’s work. Given what the Minister just said, is he happy with the adequacy of the supply of PPE from the UK to Northern Ireland? Perhaps people in Northern Ireland are not. Also, when will resources be provided to ensure that all frontline workers in high-risk sectors, such as poultry and meat processing, will finally be safe at work?
First, let me say that every death from covid-19 is a tragedy for the individuals and their families, so let me pass on my condolences to the family involved in this particular case. Of course, PPE is an important part of the equation, as are proper social distancing guidelines, and it is important that businesses such as Moy Park follow the social distancing guidelines, as I am assured that they have been.
Like those in other parts of the UK, including my constituency, care homes in Northern Ireland have been overlooked, with PPE not sufficiently reaching them. What discussions has the Minister had with the Northern Ireland Executive on the distribution of PPE to ensure that our most vulnerable and frontline workers are protected in this crisis?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The Northern Ireland Executive has been distributing PPE to the care home sector. Part of the 5.5 million items of PPE that the UK Government have been making available to Northern Ireland has been deployed in that sector, but it is an absolute priority that we continue to get a grip on the issue of care homes. I know that that is a priority for the Executive as well as for the UK Government.
The recent events of covid-19 have underscored the fragility of international supply chains, certainly with regards to PPE, when international demand is very high. Would my hon. Friend undertake at the appropriate time to discuss with his counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Westminster the opportunity to grow this important area of our economy, thereby creating future jobs and enabling us to produce enough PPE in this country with a UK badge?
My hon. Friend, the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, makes an important point. Of course, it is vital that we work on the international procurement effort with the devolved Administrations, as we have been, but it is also essential that we maintain our domestic supply. I pay tribute to businesses in Northern Ireland, such as Denroy Plastics, which the Secretary of State spoke to yesterday, and O’Neills, which he visited just before the outbreak and which has switched over its production lines to producing vitally needed PPE and is making a huge contribution already.
Air Connectivity: Great Britain and Northern Ireland
The Government are committed to maintaining air connectivity between Great Britain and Northern Ireland during these unprecedented times. That is why we worked with the Executive to provide a £5.7 million financial support package to City of Derry and Belfast City Airports to ensure that services to and from London will continue.
Does the Minister agree that the Government’s £5.7 million investment in maintaining air passenger flights is an important step in ensuring that that vital support link is maintained so that, post covid, we continue to strengthen the economic links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This support package is key to safeguarding vital connectivity, providing links to Northern Ireland’s key economic zones. As he knows, Northern Ireland benefits enormously from the Union with Great Britain, which is Northern Ireland’s main market for sales and tourism. We want to further strengthen these ties to support the movement of medical supplies and key workers and to assist with Northern Ireland’s economic recovery from this crisis.
Given the integration between the Northern Ireland economy and the GB economy, air connectivity is vital to any recovery plan out of this health crisis, yet it has practically stopped at present. Will the Minister commit first to continue support for our airports, including Belfast International, secondly to work towards the abolition of air passenger duty, which adds substantially to costs, and thirdly to give every encouragement to present airlines and prospective carriers to open routes quickly again?
The hon. Gentleman makes some excellent points. It is vital that we continue to prioritise connectivity. As he knows, we stepped in where necessary to protect connectivity that might otherwise have been lost. Ministers agree that at this stage Belfast International is financially stable, but we will certainly keep that under review and continue to work closely with the Executive on all those issues.
The Government have, together with the Northern Ireland Executive, made available a financial package of up to £17 million to keep critical freight routes open between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This reflects the huge importance of these connections and ensures essential goods, such as food and medicines, will continue to flow.
The Belfast-Liverpool ferry is vital to businesses in Wrexham. Does my hon. Friend agree that free-flowing trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is of great benefit to the Union, which is why the Government’s success in keeping Northern Ireland part of the UK customs union is beneficial to us all?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. This package helps ensure that we keep freight capacity between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The funding will help to maintain the flow of critical goods across the Irish Sea and throughout the Union. And yes this underlines the importance of keeping Northern Ireland part of the UK customs union, so that goods needed in Northern Ireland and Great Britain can continue to flow freely.
The Government have acted swiftly to protect ferry services between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and I welcome the measures they have put in place. Many businesses here on Ynys Môn rely on goods coming to and from Northern Ireland and Liverpool. Will he continue to monitor the wider economic impact of services on north Wales, given its close proximity to Liverpool?
Each route is integral to the supply of critical goods within the United Kingdom. Public service obligations are an established mechanism for supporting routes and are being used here to temporarily support routes affected by covid-19. The Government continue to engage closely with operators and ports on the Irish sea and we will continue to listen and take appropriate steps at the right time to protect critical supply routes, wherever they are.
Absolutely, yes, and I think the exchange of PPE that was referred to in earlier answers to questions is a good example of that, where both GB has benefited from those connections to Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland has benefited from those connections to Great Britain.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Yesterday was International Nurses’ Day and I know that the whole House would want to thank the nurses, and also the care staff and key workers, for their tireless work in responding to the covid-19 pandemic. Sadly, 144 NHS workers’ and 131 social care workers’ deaths have been reported as involving covid-19. Our thoughts are with their families and friends. Yesterday, this House learnt of the tragic death of Belly Mujinga—the fact that she was abused for doing her job is utterly appalling. My thoughts, and I am sure the thoughts of the whole House, are with her family.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
Green investments generated the highest returns in the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. As we restart our economy, will my right hon. Friend commit to prioritising investment in low-carbon infrastructure, such as the electric vehicle charge point network and renewable energy production, which will also help the UK to meet its net zero target by 2050?
I join the Prime Minister in thanking our nurses and all those on the frontline, and send my condolences to all the families of those who have died of coronavirus, including Belly Mujinga, as the Prime Minister referenced—a ticket officer who we learned this week died from covid-19 in awful circumstances.
In his speech on Sunday, the Prime Minister said that we need to rapidly reverse the awful epidemic in our care homes, but earlier this year, and until 12 March, the Government’s own official advice was—and I am quoting from it:
“It remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home…will become infected.”
Yesterday’s Office for National Statistics figures showed that at least 40% of all deaths from covid-19 were in care homes. Does the Prime Minister accept that the Government were too slow to protect people in care homes?
No, Mr Speaker, and it was not true that the advice said that—and actually, we brought the lockdown in care homes ahead of the general lockdown, and what we have seen is a concerted action plan to tackle what has unquestionably been an appalling epidemic in care homes, and a huge exercise in testing is going on—a further £600 million, I can announce today, for infection control in care homes. Yes, it is absolutely true that the number of casualties has been too high, but I can tell the House, as I told the right hon. and learned Gentleman last week and, indeed, this week, that the number of outbreaks is down and the number of fatalities in care homes is now well down. There is much more to do, but we are making progress.
I am surprised that the Prime Minister queries the advice of his own Government up until 12 March. I do, of course, welcome any fall in the recorded numbers, and he is right to reference that, but he must still recognise that the numbers are still very high.
This week, The Daily Telegraph carried the following quote from a cardiologist:
“We discharged known, suspected, and unknown cases into care homes which were unprepared, with no formal warning that the patients were infected, no testing available, and no PPE to prevent transmission. We actively seeded this into the very population that was most vulnerable.”
Does the Prime Minister accept that the cardiologist is right?
I have the utmost respect for all our medical professionals, who are doing an extraordinary job in very difficult circumstances. I can tell the House that the number of discharges from hospitals into care homes actually went down in March and April, and we had a system of testing people going into care homes. That testing is now being ramped up across all 15,000 care homes in this country.
I want to probe a little further the figures that the Prime Minister has given us. The Office for National Statistics records the average number of deaths in care homes each month. For the past five years, the average for April has been just over 8,000. This year, the number of deaths in care homes in April was a staggering 26,000. That is three times the average and an additional 18,000 deaths. Using the Government’s figures, only 8,000 are recorded as covid deaths, leaving 10,000 additional and unexplained care home deaths this April. I know that the Government must have looked into that, so can the Prime Minister give us the Government’s view on those unexplained deaths?
The coronavirus is an appalling disease which afflicts some groups far more than others—I think the whole country understands that—in particular the elderly, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to draw attention, as I have said, to the tragedy that has been taking place in care homes. The ONS is responsible for producing its data, and the Government have also produced data which shows not only that there has been, as I say, a terrible epidemic in care homes, but that since the care homes action plan began we are seeing an appreciable and substantial reduction not just in the number of outbreaks, but in the number of deaths. I stress to the House and to the country that solving the problem in care homes is going to be absolutely critical—getting the R down not just in care homes, but across the country—to our ability to move forward as a nation with the stepped programme that I announced on Sunday. We must fix it, and we will.
The Prime Minister says that solving the problem in care homes is crucial, but that can happen only if the numbers are understood, so I was disappointed that he does not have an answer to the pretty obvious question: what are those 10,000 unexplained deaths?
The overall figure for those who have died from covid-19 given by the Government at yesterday’s press conference was 32,692—each one a tragedy. For many weeks, the Government have compared the UK number against other countries. Last week, I showed the Prime Minister his own slide showing that the UK now has the highest death total in Europe and the second highest in the world. A version of the slide has been shown at the No. 10 press conference every day since 30 March—that is seven weeks. Yesterday, the Government stopped publishing the international comparison, and the slide has gone. Why?
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows very well, the UK has been going through an unprecedented, once-in-a-century epidemic. He seeks to make comparisons with other countries that I am advised are premature, because the correct and final way of making these comparisons will be when we have all the excess death totals for all the relevant countries. We do not yet have that data. Now, I am not going to try to pretend to the House that the figures, when they are finally confirmed, are anything other than stark and deeply, deeply horrifying. This has been an appalling epidemic.
What I can tell the House is that we are getting those numbers down: the number of deaths is coming down; the number of hospital admissions is coming down. Thanks to the hard work of the British people in reducing the R and reducing the number of fatalities, we are now in a position to make some small, modest steps to begin to come out of some of the very restrictive measures that we have had. I think that people do understand what we are trying to do as a country. As for the international comparisons that the right hon. and learned Gentleman seeks to draw now, he will have to contain his impatience.
Well, I am baffled. It is not me seeking to draw the comparisons; these are the Government’s slides, which have been used for seven weeks to reassure the public. The problem with the Prime Minister’s answer is that it is pretty obvious that for seven weeks—when we did not have the highest number in Europe—the slides were used for comparison purposes, and as soon as we hit that unenviable place, they have been dropped. Last week the Prime Minister quoted, in defence, Professor Spiegelhalter. This is what Professor Spiegelhalter said at the weekend, and we need to think about it:
“we should…use other countries to try and learn why our numbers are high”.
Dropping the comparisons means dropping the learning, and that is the real risk.
Let me now ask the Prime Minister about the changes coming into effect today. A real concern for many people is childcare. I want to quote a mother of a young child. I apologise that the quotation is a little lengthy, but it reflects the queries that all Members of this House will have been getting. She says this: “As Boris said in his speech, people are encouraged to go back to work, meaning my partner, as he works in construction. My partner has explained to his boss this can’t happen because we’ve got no childcare. He also rang the nursery, but they’re not open. I work as well, but my boss is having none of it. I hope I can get some advice. Me and my partner have been so stressed all day.” What advice would the Prime Minister give her?
On the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s earlier point about not learning from other countries—nothing could be further from the truth. We are watching intently what is happening in other countries, and it is very notable that in some other countries where relaxations have been introduced, there are signs of the R going up again. That is a very clear warning to us not to proceed too fast or too recklessly. I hope that the country does understand that.
On the specific point, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman rightly raises, about people’s anxieties about going back to work when they do not have adequate childcare, I think that I was very clear—both with him and with the House earlier in the week—that in so far as people may not be able to go back to work because they do not have the childcare that they need, their employers must be understanding. As I said, it is clearly an impediment and a barrier to people’s ability to go back to work if they do not have childcare. I would be very happy to look at the specific case that he raises to see if there is anything more that we can do to shed light on the matter.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for indicating that he will look into that particular case. It is, I think, one of very many.
The Prime Minister is asking the country to support decisions that will affect millions of lives. I recognise that these are not easy decisions; they are very difficult, balanced decisions that the Prime Minister and the Government have to make, and, after the confusion of the last few days, gaining public confidence in them is crucial. The Prime Minister says that his decisions were
“driven by the science, the data and public health”,
so, to give the public confidence in the decisions, can the Prime Minister commit to publishing the scientific advice on which they were based?
All Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advice is published in due course, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows. Let me be absolutely clear with the House that SAGE, our scientists and our medical officers have been involved in every stage of preparing this strategy. I remind the House that what we are doing is entirely conditional and provisional. The UK has made a huge amount of progress.
The people of this country have worked incredibly hard to get the R down, and we cannot now go back to square one. We cannot risk a second outbreak, and we will do everything to avoid that.
Actually, when people look at what we are advocating as the way forward, the stepped process that we have set out, I think they can see exactly what we are trying to do as a country, and they can see that everybody is still required to obey the social distancing rules. The common sense of the British people got us through that first phase of this disease: I am absolutely confident that they will get us through the next as well.
I thank my right hon. Friend for what he does to champion the environment and the cause of reducing CO2 emissions. Alas, we have had to postpone the COP26 summit that was to have taken place, as he knows, in Glasgow at the end of this year. But our enthusiasm and determination to get to net zero by 2050 remain undiminished.
May I begin by thanking all our nurses for their efforts in keeping us safe and looking after us, and applaud yesterday’s International Nurses Day?
Last week, the Prime Minister, in response to my questioning, noted the ability of the Governments of all four nations to come together and to deliver a very clear message for our people. Events on Sunday could not have been more disastrous from this Government. The Prime Minister has made confusion costly, devolved Administrations have been shut out, there is widespread confusion among the public, and the Government have shown a total disregard for workers’ safety. Many, sadly, have seen the images of London buses being packed this morning. Will the Prime Minister accept that the clear message in Scotland is to stay home to protect the NHS and to save lives?
Indeed, the message throughout the country is, of course, that you should stay at home if you can, unless the specific circumstances that we have outlined apply. But I must say that I do not accept the leader of the SNP’s characterisation of the co-operation that we have had across all four nations. In my experience, it has been intense and it has been has been going on for days and days and weeks and weeks, and actually if we look at the totality of the measures that we are taking as a country, there is much more that unites us than divides us. We will go forward together.
The reality is that the Prime Minister has failed to deliver a clear message, and he did not address the point about London buses being packed this morning. The Prime Minister is threatening progress made against the spread of this virus by the general public who are following the advice to stay at home. The Prime Minister is putting workers’ safety at risk by calling on those who cannot work at home to go to their jobs without any guidance on health and safety.
Only last Monday, the Health Secretary launched the test and trace app trial. On Sunday, the Prime Minister appeared to leapfrog any success with that by announcing easing of restrictions. Before any lockdown easing and to avoid undermining the progress made so far, the Prime Minister must make sure that there are sufficient levels of testing available, and the ability to test, trace and isolate is fully in operation. Why is the Prime Minister throwing weeks of progress against the virus into jeopardy, undermining the work of our outstanding NHS?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a point about London buses that is quite right, and I do not want to see crowding on mass-transit public transport in our capital or anywhere else. We are working actively with Transport for London to ensure that we have more capacity and discourage people from going to work during the peak, and that the operators, particularly TfL, lay on more tube trains in particular when they are necessary throughout the day. A huge amount of work is being done. We also want to see proper marshalling at stations to prevent crowded trains.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about test, track and trace, that is going to be a huge operation for the entire country. He should pay tribute to the work of all those hundreds of thousands of people who are now responsible for massively escalating our test, track and tracing operation. We now test more than virtually any other country in Europe. The rate of acceleration—the rate of increase—has been very sharp indeed, and we will go up to 200,000 by the end of the month. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the success of the programme is absolutely vital if we are to be able to move on to the second and third steps of our road map.
As my right hon. Friend knows, it is this Government’s ambition to end rough sleeping by 2024. It is great to see the progress that has been made even in this very difficult time—as he says, 90% of rough sleepers are now in accommodation or have been offered accommodation. We will be investing considerable sums to make sure that we build the housing and address the social issues to tackle that problem for good.
I thank the Government for listening to representations from the Liberal Democrats and others on protecting jobs by extending the scheme yesterday. Will the Government now do the same for the self-employed? People such as cleaners, childminders, taxi drivers and hairdressers have all seen their incomes devastated and are only now able to apply for help for the past three months, but millions of these families now have no help in the future. Surely self-employed people must have their support extended, too.
I admire the right hon. Gentleman’s brilliant attempt to take the credit from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for his extension of the coronavirus job retention scheme, which has been one of the most extraordinary features of this country’s—our collective—response to the crisis. The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the position of the self-employed; we are making sure that they get payments, over three months, of up to £7,500 as well.
I thank my hon. Friend very much, and I agree with him, but whatever the defects of the Labour Government in Wales, my experience is that we have been working very well together across all the four nations and will continue to do so. My honest view is that all those who talk about confusion or mixed messages are grossly overstating the position. The common sense of the British people is shining through this argument. They can see where we want to go and where we need to go.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. He actually nabbed me behind the Speaker’s Chair after he last put it to me. I can tell him that we estimate that 1.3 million British nationals have now been returned. I know that he would like the RAF to be more involved, but I can also tell him that we have put £75 million into a charter arrangement, and a whole range of airlines have signed up to it. We are doing everything that we can to bring people back as fast as we can.
As ever, I hear what my hon. Friend says about the Electoral Commission. What I can say is that, for the people who were investigated, I hope that all those who spent so much time, energy and effort drawing attention to their supposed guilt will now spend as much time and energy and ink and air time drawing attention to their genuine innocence.
I am sorry that the wonderful festival at Hay-on-Wye has had to be postponed this year. I thank my hon. Friend for what she is doing to promote it, and I congratulate the organisers on their typical Welsh ingenuity in making the festival online, turning it into Hay-on-Wifi.
As I have said, one of the most remarkable things about this crisis has been the way that the whole country has come together to deal with it. There has been a spirit of unity and sharing that we have not seen for a very long time. I do not think that a lot of people in this country want to see the Brexit argument reopened. They want to see it settled, they want to see it done, and that is what this Government intend to do.
I have a picture at home of myself and William Hague aboard the Llangollen steam railway, I am proud to say. I congratulate the group on what they are doing to raise funds. I have no doubt that they have a glorious future ahead with my hon. Friend’s support.
In Burton and Uttoxeter, and across the country, we have seen the incredible dedication of our NHS workers in dealing with covid-19—dedication that has tragically cost some their lives. What steps is the Prime Minister taking to ensure that the NHS is adhering to Public Health England calls to risk-assess black, Asian and minority ethnic staff on the frontline and where possible to make appropriate arrangements to move them to non-patient facing roles?
I thank my hon. Friend. I think I understood very clearly what she was saying. It is obvious from the data that coronavirus, as I said earlier, is falling disproportionately on certain groups, and not just the elderly. We need to examine exactly what is happening. We need to protect all the most vulnerable groups, and we will take steps to ensure that NHS staff and others are properly protected, advised and screened.
I think the best and shortest answer I can give to the hon. Lady is that we totally understand the situation with aviation. Clearly, inadvertently this year the planet will greatly reduce its carbon dioxide emissions, and she is absolutely right that we need to entrench those gains. I do not want to see us going back to an era of the same type of emissions as we have had in the past. Aviation, like every other sector, must keep its carbon lower. We are certainly working on technological solutions to ensure that we can do that.
Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in paying fulsome tribute to all the staff at Stepping Hill Hospital, particularly those caring for patients with covid-19? Does he recognise that many people have not been attending hospital as usual? How will he be assisting hospitals, such as Stepping Hill, in ensuring that my constituents can access healthcare as usual?
I thank my hon. Friend. One of the most important features of the way this country responded to the epidemic was that we did protect the NHS. We maintained capacity in the NHS throughout. Nobody went without a ventilator. There was space in intensive care units throughout the crisis, but we have a situation now, as he rightly says, where too many people are not going to hospital or the doctor to seek the treatment they need and deserve. I certainly encourage people with conditions that need medical treatment to go and get that treatment now. That will help us to reduce deaths this year and throughout the crisis.
Covid-19: School Reopening
Mr Speaker, I am grateful to you for granting this urgent question. We had requested to make a statement this week, but Members will understand that there are restrictions on the number of statements, so I am grateful to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for the opportunity to answer questions today.
It is over seven weeks since we asked schools, colleges and childcare settings to close to all but vulnerable children and those of critical workers. This has been a huge ask of teachers and parents, but the greatest impact of all has fallen on children themselves. I am immensely grateful for the response of all those working in education, childcare and children’s social care, but we all know that the best place for children to be educated and to learn is in school, and it has always been my intention to get more of them back there as soon as the scientific advice allowed.
As the Prime Minister has confirmed, we are now past the peak of the virus, and he has set out a roadmap for the next phases of our recovery. If progress continues to be made, we expect that, from 1 June at the earliest, we will be able to begin a phased return to school, college and childcare for children in key transition years, alongside our priority groups. Primary schools will be asked to welcome back reception, year 1 and year 6 children in smaller class sizes. Nurseries and other early years providers, including childminders, will be able to begin welcoming back children of all ages. Secondary schools and colleges will be asked to provide face-to-face support for years 10 and 12, who are due to take key exams in the next year.
On Monday, my Department published initial guidance for settings on how to begin to prepare, and we will work with the sector leaders to develop this further in the coming weeks. This guidance sets out protective measures to minimise the risk of infection, including restricting class sizes and limiting mixing between groups. Crucially, all children and staff will have access to testing if they develop symptoms of coronavirus. This will enable a track-and-trace approach to be taken to any confirmed cases.
We continue to follow the best medical and scientific advice, and we believe that this phased return is the most sensible course of action to take. I know that it will be challenging, but I know that nursery school and college staff will do everything in their power to start welcoming our children back to continue their education.
We need to get our children back to school at the earliest opportunity. Every day that schools remain shut, the disadvantage gap widens and vulnerable children risk falling through the cracks. However, we should reopen schools only when we know it is safe. Given that we still do not know about transmissibility between children, can the Secretary of State reassure us that these decisions are based solely on public health? To what extent has getting parents back to work been the main driver?
What of teacher safety? The chief medical officer has said that there still needs to be a debate on that issue, so does the Secretary of State not think it irresponsible to publish plans and suggest timetables without disclosing all the scientific advice? Will he commit to publishing it today? Why were not all major teaching unions consulted on the specifics of the decision to make sure that it is workable? The guidance says that risk assessments should be carried out before schools open, and I welcome that. Will these be made public, as with businesses? When can we expect further guidance on travel?
If a school leader decides it is not safe to reopen, will the Secretary of State respect that? He says that reasonable endeavours must be made to deliver the curriculum. Will he now set out his expectations of that, given how varied it has been among schools so far? Can he clarify what “some face-to-face” contact for years 10 and 12 actually means? Will he guarantee that every child in all year groups who needs access to devices or the internet will get it, and when will we know about future exams?
Finally, it is obvious to anyone that children in reception and year 1 cannot socially distance. The Secretary of State says that the safety of children and staff is “our utmost priority”, so can he tell us, in plain English, what does he think “safe” actually means?
I thank the hon. Lady for her questions; I am glad that she recognises the importance of ensuring that children are back getting their education in schools at the earliest possible moment. When we have medical and scientific advice saying that it is the right time to start bringing schools back in a phased and controlled manner, it seems only the right thing to do, and only the responsible thing to do, for many of the reasons that she has highlighted. In terms of pulling our guidance together, we have worked closely with all the teaching unions and headteachers’ unions and with the sector. Every week we have had the opportunity to meet them, and I have ensured that my officials have made time to sit down with them and talk about their issues and concerns. This is what has informed and developed the guidance that we have shared with schools.
In terms of the hierarchy of controls that we have developed to ensure that the risk of transmission of coronavirus is minimised within schools, we understood that the advice we needed to seek was not within the Department for Education but within Public Health England, and we have also been working with the scientific and medical advisers, who have been informing what the Government do every step of the way. That is why, when we created the hierarchy of controls about creating safe bubbles for children, teachers and support staff to work in, it was informed by them.
So why are we bringing schools back? The reason that we are bringing schools back is that we know that children benefit from being educated by their brilliant teachers in front of them. We recognise that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are the ones who will suffer most if we do not bring schools back when we are able to do so. I am more than happy to share all the advice that we have received from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. SAGE regularly publishes its advice and when it is ready to do so, it will be sharing it again. We have also asked the scientific advisers to give briefings for the sector to ensure that it understands that the decisions that we are making to bring back children are based on the best interests of the children, including by ensuring that they do not miss out on something that is so precious: their education.
I strongly welcome the approach that the Secretary of State is taking in getting children back to school in a phased way. I understand that schools will not officially be open in the summer, but given that close to 90% of vulnerable children are not in education, and that figures from the Sutton Trust suggest that at least 50% of pupils did not communicate with their teachers in the first week of April, will my right hon. Friend support the opening of summer schools over the holidays, to be staffed by volunteers, graduates and an army of retired teachers, to provide catch-up tuition to those children who have been left behind?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we need to do everything we can to help children who will not have the benefit of returning to school before the summer holidays, and to support them, to give them that extra boost to ensure that they are learning all the things that they want to learn. He is right to highlight the many thousands of volunteers who want to reach out to help our children to have the knowledge they will need to succeed in the future. We are looking closely at such schemes, and working with schools and with the sector to see how we can make them available. I very much value my right hon. Friend’s advice, insight and thoughts on this, and we are looking at how we can mobilise the schemes.
We all desperately want schools to reopen for the sake of children’s education and wellbeing, but the Secretary of State must appreciate that the guidance provided so far does not yet give the clear assurances over safety that are needed. Anxious shielding families, worried grandparents, teaching staff in fear—sadly, this sums up the theme of the past 48 hours. I hope that, to allay these concerns, he can address the following issues today.
Will the Secretary of State consider changing the focus of the plan so that, instead of asking schools to scramble to implement an unrealistic plan by a specific date, we ask them to plan to meet certain conditions that, when met, would signal that it was safe to open—a subtle but important distinction? Does he acknowledge that, due to the availability of staff and space, splitting classes while simultaneously providing remote learning is incredibly difficult, and will he work with schools to develop a realistic plan for social distancing? Has he modelled the impact of reopening schools on the infection rates, and will he publish that? Will he acknowledge that for younger year groups, social distancing will be virtually impossible and that the current guidance, sadly, gives the impression that those pupils and staff should just accept being exposed? With this in mind, will he rethink the position on PPE?
Finally, most schools break up for summer in mid-July; if the ambition is to get pupils back for a month, that means the whole school would need to be back less than two weeks after the priority years, so how does the Secretary of State expect schools to implement social distancing for the whole school when many heads say this is just impossible? If they do not, then what is the point of schools planning strict health and safety measures for two weeks only to abandon them? The Secretary of State repeatedly states that schools will open only when it is safe, and he referred to the scientific advice, which requires a return in a controlled manner; I do not see much of a controlled manner at the moment, so please will the Secretary of State work with the sector to get this right?
Of course. The hon. Lady points out the importance of working with the sector, and that is what we will do at every step of the way, and that is what we have been doing. We recognise the importance of supporting the sector to make sure that, as children return to schools in a controlled and phased manner, we offer schools the maximum amount of support, recognise that every school is individual and unique in how we support them, and give them elements of flexibility so that they can make the transition from just providing an education setting for vulnerable children and children of critical workers. Expanding that in the limited way that we are proposing will require some elements of flexibility; schools and the sector will need that, and we will work with them to achieve it.
I have always been clear that we will give the sector as much notice as possible, and we have said that if we are allowed, as seems likely, we would like to see schools opening from 1 June, giving them as much forward notice as possible in order for them to get ready. We think that is a responsible and sensible approach to a phased return. I slightly fear that if we were to ask the hon. Lady to pin down the date it would end up being about what would be the year rather than what would be the actual start date. But we do want to work with her; we want to work with the whole sector to make sure that this is a phased, sensible and controlled return to schools, because those who suffer most from schools not being open are the children who are so desperate to attend.
The guidance on the return of schools in the primary sector is very clear. May I ask my right hon. Friend to be very clear about the guidance for the secondary sector? For example, what does “face-to-face support” mean? Precisely which year groups will be able to return, and will that be on a voluntary basis, and does he agree that we need to provide maximum support for those taking GCSE and A-level exams both this year and next?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on the importance of supporting youngsters and children who are going to be facing GCSEs next year, as well as A-levels, BTECs and other qualifications in years 10 and 12. We are working with the sector, because we want all children in those year groups to have the opportunity to go into school and to speak with their teachers. We want their teachers to be able to make an assessment of the learning and support they will need over the following weeks as we approach the summer holidays, and to set the work at the right level so that children can benefit from learning through the six weeks of the summer holidays as well as in the weeks approaching the summer holidays. It is important to get those transition years back into schools, even if not for a full timetable, as that will be a first step in the right direction.
Although young children seem to be less susceptible to covid-19, Professor Graham Medley told the Select Committee on Science and Technology:
“It is still not clear what the role of children is in transmission.”
So what new evidence does the Secretary of State have on the ability of children to transmit, and will he publish it? When the Scottish Government recently published detailed proposals for reopening schools, with a mixture of home and school learning, his colleague the First Secretary of State said that that would cause hospitals to be overwhelmed, so why is England considering this reckless full reopening of primary schools?
Finally, if the ambition is to bring all primary year groups back before the summer holidays, with a maximum of 15 pupils per class, where are the extra teachers going to come from? As most schools do not have rooms lying empty, where are the additional classrooms coming from? Will he reassure teachers and school staff that they will not be expected to make or provide their own personal protective equipment?
Let me take the opportunity to thank the Scottish Deputy First Minister for the close work and collaboration there has been between us over the past few months, as we have had to deal with this pandemic right across the United Kingdom. The hon. Lady would be asking searching questions of me if, when I am given the scientific and medical advice that it is the right time to be opening up schools, I were not taking up that opportunity. Understandably, SAGE does publish its advice. I have no doubt that it will be publishing the advice it has offered us on what we are doing, and obviously we would be more than happy to make that as freely available as possible.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that our approach to reopening schools is very much in line with that of other European countries? Members might expect a former Sports Minister to ask this, but I have not seen much about how we can ensure that schools can conduct their physical education duties, so will he be issuing specific guidance to ensure that schools can still put on PE classes, in a safe way?
My hon. Friend is right about the importance of PE for all children, whether they are at school or at home. We have been seeing some brilliant examples of children really being engaged in physical activity. We have issued guidance on how PE can be conducted, such as the safe use of equipment and having non-contact sports at this initial stage. We are keen to work with the sector to see how we can engage all young people in as much physical activity as possible.
We know from the National Association of Head Teachers that headteachers have not been consulted on the proposed date of return, so when the Secretary of State says that the Government are working with the sector, that is partially but not completely true. Having 12 to 15 children socially distanced in a classroom is largely unrealistic. We know that children are more likely than adults to be asymptomatic if they contract covid-19, so what public health and medical evidence does he have that children will not spread the virus to other children, teachers, teaching assistants, and cleaning, catering and caring staff when they return to schools? Will he publish that evidence?
As I have repeatedly said—I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was listening to my earlier responses—SAGE does publish its evidence and the advice that we get, so, of course, that is in the public domain. At every stage, every week, I have been meeting union leaders, as well as other sector leaders, be it Ofsted or the Confederation of School Trusts, and I will continue to do so. We have shared our thinking widely on what we are hoping to do. We recognise that this is a challenging situation for everyone and that there are a lot of concerns. We want to work with all organisations, whether they be representative bodies of schools or unions, in order to get the best guidance to the workforce and to children and parents.
The vast majority of schools in North West Durham have remained open for the most vulnerable children. Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking the staff of those schools for their selfless actions throughout the global coronavirus pandemic? For the future, will my right hon. Friend reassure parents, teachers and the House that, despite the claims of some, the safety of pupils is the Government’s top priority? Will he confirm that in reaching that decision, he consulted the unions and school leaders, and that any children going back to school will be fully eligible for testing and tracing, as teachers are already?
I very much join my hon. Friend in thanking those teachers and support staff who have done so much to keep schools open all the way through this period. It is important to remember that schools have remained open all the through the coronavirus pandemic.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about testing. We already have priority testing for all teachers and those who work in schools, if they have symptoms of coronavirus. That priority testing will be extended to all children who attend school if they are displaying symptoms, as well as to their families. We recognise how important test and trace is in beating this pandemic.
First, my thanks to all the school staff in the City of Durham and across the country for their dedication throughout the pandemic. Education unions are clear: there can be no compromise on health and safety. The proposals are ill thought out and reckless. At best, they will create a sterile learning environment for young children, who will not understand why they are unable to interact with their friends. At worst, the proposals will set off a chain of new infections going back into the households of working people. How can it be right that without any scientific evidence, school staff and pupils have to accept lower safety standards than we expect queuing at Tesco?
The only consideration behind this decision is what is in the best interests and for the welfare of children and those who work in schools. We all recognise the importance of children being able to return to schools. Sometimes, scaremongering—making people fear—is unfair and an unwelcome pressure on families, children and teachers alike.
I commend the approach of minimising and mitigating the risk of the virus. Simultaneously, as well as the educational harm, I recognise the significantly negative health and wellbeing effects for children the longer they are away from school. Will the Secretary of State assure me that within the clear guidelines, headteachers will be afforded maximum flexibility to make this work for each school’s unique circumstances?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The impact on children is not just educational, from not being in school, but a health and welfare one. He is equally right about the need to ensure that schools have the flexibility to be able to work within the guidelines to make the proposals work for staff and for children.
In the Government guidance for educational and childcare settings, the section on “What the latest science tells us” states that
“children…have less severe symptoms than adults”
“are less likely to become unwell if infected with coronavirus”.
Is there is a danger that children might be infected but asymptomatic, in school and posing a serious risk to the health and safety of school staff, other children and their families?
I welcome the Secretary of State’s agreement to publish the scientific advice, but he must have heard loud and clear that heads, teachers, support staff and parents are really worried. How will he win their confidence that it is time for schools to reopen?
At the heart of every step we take on schools returning is the safety and security of those who are in schools, whether it is a child, teacher, teaching assistant or any other support staff. That is why we are doing a phased return. We are ensuring that we take small steps forward and minimise the risk to all those who are attending schools and working within them.
I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s approach. Denmark reopened its primary schools on 15 April, and it has not seen a huge surge in infection. In fact, the country is moving to a new phase where it is reopening restaurants. Is he aware that yesterday, the BBC spoke to Dorte Lange, the vice-president of the Danish Union of Teachers, who was very positive about her country’s experience? Does he agree that our own teaching unions should speak to and engage with their Danish counterparts, to learn from their experience, so that when we get to the beginning of June, we can reopen our schools safely and successfully?
My hon. Friend raises an important point about the international benchmarks that we can look towards. In reaching conclusions on how to bring about a phased return of schools, we looked at how it had been done in countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and many others. We will see a mirroring of the approach taken in Denmark here in the United Kingdom. That is the right approach, because we have not seen a negative impact as a result of schools starting to return in Denmark. That confirms that our approach is the right approach, and I certainly hope that trade unions in this country will speak to trade unions in Denmark.
My constituents repeatedly express frustration to me that the UK Government’s press conferences and briefings to the media do not make clear the distinction in policy on this between England and Wales, which is causing confusion and anxiety. Will the Secretary of State make it clear for the UK media and Welsh teachers and parents that the decision to reopen schools is for the Welsh Government, that schools will not reopen in Wales on 1 June and that they rightly will not do so until it is safe for children and teachers?
We would not have made this decision to do a phased return to school if the scientific and medical advice had not been explicit that this is the right time to do it. We have stated that 1 June is the earliest date. If the situation changes, and if the scientific or medical advice change, obviously we will change the programme of that phased return. But we want to give schools, parents and children the opportunity and time to adjust and get ready to return to school.
The Prime Minister’s recent promise that England’s schools would be covid-secure prompted Chris Whitty, his chief medical officer, to say that there needs to be a “proper debate” about teachers’ safety as schools reopen. When will that proper debate take place, and what steps will be taken to ensure the safety of teachers and their pupils?
We recognised right from the start the importance of ensuring the safety of all those in schools—not just children, but those who are teaching and supporting the education of children. That is why we put forward a whole set of guidance about how to minimise risk by reducing the number of children in classrooms, minimising contact between children and staggering the times that schools open. I would be happy to share our thinking with the Scottish Government, so that when they wish schools to return, they can hopefully benefit from the work we have been doing.
This does present some additional challenges, especially with the consideration of the 11-plus in September. I know that it is a concern of my hon. Friend, and I have received representations from Conservative Members in Kent about their concerns. We will be looking at working with local authorities that have grammar school systems in their areas as to how best we can ensure that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are not disadvantaged as they look at taking the 11-plus in future.
We all, including me and my constituents, want our schools to reopen and our children’s education to continue, but Government guidance around the reopening of schools raises more questions than it answers. As a parent of two young children, I can attest to the difficulty of explaining social distancing, let alone getting the kids to practise it, and that is why so many parents fear sending their children to school. Will the Secretary of State revisit the guidance and commit to working with education unions and others to create a working plan for reopening our schools when the science indicates that it is safe to do so, and when doing so has the confidence of all those affected?
We will continue to work with the whole sector to ensure that any changes or modifications that are required, in working with children and teachers in schools, are rapidly adopted. We recognise the importance of creating a safe bubble for children and teachers to operate in, which is why we have put out extensive guidance on how this is done. We have very much worked with Public Health England and the scientific community as to how to approach, in the best possible way, the return of schools, because children benefit from being in schools and they are losing out as a result of not being in schools.
Covid-19: Housing Market
Moving home can be a life-changing moment for many among us. For young families spreading their wings after a new arrival, for young people leaving their parents’ home for the first time, or for working people changing towns or cities to start a new job, moving home means planting your roots, laying your foundations. A home is more than four walls and a roof—it is a sanctuary, a form of protection, and a link to your community.
We know that people’s homes are at the heart of their own personal stories, and throughout the course of this emergency, we have, by necessity, put many of those stories on hold, to protect our communities and to save lives. When the essential “Stay at home” message was announced, we changed the rules so that people could move home only if they thought it was “reasonably necessary”. For many people, this has put life on hold, with this most relevant and essential industry in a state of suspended animation. Over 450,000 sales have been stuck in the system, unable to be progressed—not to mention the substantial number of rentals that have not gone ahead. Every month, 300,000 tenancies come up for renewal, a proportion of which result in people moving home. The pressure to move has, for some, become acute, with profound legal, financial and health implications.
We made that decision in order to keep the country safe, but as we move into the next phase of our covid response and embark on our path to reopen, restart and renew the economy, we recognise the need to let people get back to living their lives. That is why today I am announcing a comprehensive, clear, and coherent plan to reopen the housing market and to restart the construction industry. With immediate effect, we are lifting the temporary freeze on home-moving, meaning that, as long as they are not shielding or self-isolating, anyone can move, any time and for any reason.
The industry is broad, and has many moving parts, so we want to be clear: each of the building blocks of the buying and selling process is now back in business, as long as it can be done safely. Here, then, is our plan for the reopening, restarting, and renewing of the housing market and the construction industry: estate agent offices can now reopen, removal companies can get moving again, surveyors, conveyancers and valuers can go back to work, and show homes on sites can reopen.
It is crucial that these changes happen safely and that we continue to tread with caution, to control the virus and to protect the public. This means that as these businesses reopen they will need to adapt their practices—for instance, with virtual viewings where possible and cleaning thoroughly after viewings and when moving. I have published detailed guidance, informed by public health advice, to explain how this can be achieved, building on the existing safer working guidance, with all parties observing hygiene measures and social distancing guidelines.
For each of the other elements that make up the wider construction industry—a sector that employs more than 2 million people—the same applies. If people are self-isolating or have coronavirus, they should of course not be moving or going back to work. All parties involved in home buying and selling should prioritise agreeing amicable arrangements to change move dates for individuals in this group.
This is the most radical restarting of an industry in the first phase of our national recovery road map. It was not an easy decision to make. With few, if any, transactions, there is no visibility and no precedent with which to accurately judge the state of the housing market, but I do know that in every economic recovery in modern British history the housing market has been key, so let me be clear to all who work in the sector, have started a business in it, have invested in it, or rely upon it: I am doing everything I can to help the industry bounce back.
A healthy housing market means more than buying and selling houses; it requires building them too, but covid-19 has had a profound impact on housebuilding, with activity on sites down by around 90% since this time last year. I am delighted to see so many construction companies back at work already, and I am pleased to be supporting their efforts by today announcing the launch of a safe working charter with the Home Builders Federation. Those working on site should feel confident that their essential jobs are also safe jobs.
I am taking further steps to support safe housebuilding by allowing more flexible working hours on construction sites, where appropriate and with local checks and balances. I am allowing sites to apply to extend their working hours, again with immediate effect. Varied start and finish times will make it easier for sites to observe social distancing, will take pressure off public transport, particularly in our core cities, and will keep Britain building.
The planning system, too, must be able to operate safely and efficiently during this time, which means, as with many other sectors, making more use of digital technology. I want the Planning Inspectorate to be at the forefront of this work—it is good to see the inspectorate now undertaking its first virtual hearings. I am asking it to make all hearings virtual within weeks. We are going to get the planning system going again and bring it into the digital age at the same time.
As we look to the future, we must remember that the prospects of Britain’s housing market is key to our economy: when this sector succeeds, we all succeed. This is what shapes our vision for the housing market: more homes, safer homes, homes of higher quality, more beautiful homes, homes of all types and tenures, for all people, rooted in and at the heart of their communities. Today, we reopen, restart and we renew the housing market and the construction industry to protect lives, save jobs and refresh and renew our economy.
Thank you Mr Speaker, and I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his statement.
The Government said that they would do “whatever it takes” to get the country through the covid crisis and protect the most vulnerable. The Opposition want the Government to succeed. Lives, livelihoods and homes are on the line. In a spirit of constructive co-operation, we have scrutinised plans carefully and offered suggestions and challenges when appropriate, to try to help to bring down infections and the numbers of people who are infected or who are tragically dying, and to help people manage financially. Sometimes the Government have heeded our calls, sometimes not. I would like them to consider these.
Today’s announcement provides welcome news for some—and of course we all want new homes to be built —but it leaves more unanswered housing questions, which urgently need Government attention to keep people safe at work and at home, as we do not have community testing, a cure or a vaccine and there are still problems with personal protective equipment. What protection will there be for people who rent, if a landlord or an estate agent wants to show a prospective buyer or new tenant around? What will the Government do to help those trapped by the cladding and leasehold scandals at this time? What discussions have the Government had with the trade unions? There was no mention of that in the statement. What advice do the Government have for anyone who feels that their workplace or construction site is not safe?
This crisis has taught us that if anyone is struggling, we are all affected. The announcement focused on those who want to move home, but it ignored those who are at risk of being forced to do so. The Secretary of State talked about show homes, but not about people with no home. We have shown that when we work together we can virtually eliminate street homelessness in days. There must be no going back, but people in emergency accommodation face that. Will the Government work with councils and homelessness organisations on the issue of how to provide and pay for a “housing first” approach, so that we can end street homelessness for good this year?
The Secretary of State said that he knew that homes were sanctuaries, but there is no plan for what happens when the temporary ban on evictions ends. We need to prevent people from falling into arrears, so will the Government heed Labour’s calls to fill gaps in the financial support schemes? Will he guarantee that the local housing allowance will stay at 30% of market rent? Will he consider raising it further until the crisis eases?
People who are struggling with their rent are worried about what will happen when the ban lifts. The Government say that they are
“working with the Master of the Rolls to widen the existing ‘pre-action protocol’ on possession proceedings for Social Landlords, to include private renters and to strengthen its remit”.
That is not enough, so will the Secretary of State consider Labour’s proposal to halt section 8 evictions on the grounds of arrears caused by the lockdown?
In March, Ministers said that they would provide
“whatever funding is needed for councils to get through this and come out the other side”.
That pledge has been repeated by the Secretary of State. This week, however, he told the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee that councils should not
“labour under a false impression”
that all costs would be reimbursed. Which is it? Will the Secretary of State honour his original commitment to councils?
The Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall), appeared to require local authorities to provide accommodation for people with no recourse to public funds but without funding, leading to confusion and people being left out. Will the Secretary of State ensure that there is specific funding for housing people with no recourse to public funds?
Councils cannot borrow for revenue spending or run deficits. If they cannot balance the books they have to stop spending. They are currently £10 billion short—a fifth of council spending. They could close every library, leisure centre and children’s centre, turn off all the streetlights, and lock the gates to parks, and they would still be billions of pounds short. They would have to make cuts to social care and public health at this time. Will the Secretary of State ensure that councils are fully recompensed for housing and other costs in this crisis?
Finally, during the crisis we have all become aware of people in overcrowded, unsafe homes, who are unable to self-isolate and worried about the rent. We know how bad it is for mental and physical health when families have no outside space. The Secretary of State says that he wants “more homes, safer homes, and higher quality, more beautiful homes”, but he does not say how he will ensure that they are higher quality, or safe, or beautiful. He could have decided to invest in high-quality, safe, beautiful, socially owned, zero-carbon, truly affordable housing. That would capture the national spirit and turn it into building our future.
Instead, the Government have focused on private house sales and even today asked councils to allow developers to defer section 106, the community infra- structure levy, which is likely to reduce the numbers of new social and affordable homes. Will the Secretary of State please work with the Treasury, housing associations, local authorities and the building industry to invest in high-quality, truly affordable social housing?
Our broken housing system has been brutally exposed. Key workers we applaud each week live in poor housing. They have been left behind too long. We must not go back to business as usual. We must solve the housing crisis for all our heroes and for our country.
I welcome the hon. Lady to her new role and look forward to working with her constructively in the weeks and months ahead. I am pleased that she supports the overwhelming direction of our statement today, and recognises the importance of the housing industry and construction in this country. She asked a number of questions and I will endeavour to answer as many as I can.
On the important question about building safety, I have been clear from the onset of the crisis that that work should continue. That was, in fact, opposed by many on the Opposition Benches, who said it was too risky, but it was the right decision to encourage ACM cladding and other essential building safety works to continue. I am pleased to say that it is now gradually starting to begin again. I welcome Mayors such as the Mayor of London, the Mayor of Greater Manchester and the Mayor of Birmingham coming together to support that in our combined pledge.
On rough sleeping, I pay tribute to everybody who has been involved in the tremendous national effort so far, bringing 90% of the people sleeping rough on our streets at the onset of the crisis into safer accommodation. Now, we are in the next phase of that challenge. I do not underestimate how difficult that will be, protecting those individuals while they remain in that accommodation during the lockdown and then preparing for them to move into more suitable long-term arrangements with the wraparound care that they need and deserve. That will be a true national effort involving charities, councils and businesses across the country.
With respect to renters, today’s announcement is very much about renters. Every month, 300,000 tenancies come up for renewal. Many of those individuals need or want to move house. Today will enable them to do just that and to do it safely, which is the most important consideration.
On the guidance I have published today, it sets out that physical viewings of homes, whether for sale or for rent, can go ahead, but those will need to be done in accordance with social distancing guidelines. In most cases, that will mean that the tenant or the homeowner will not be present in the property. They will be in the garden or will have gone out for their daily exercise. If they are in the home for whatever reason, they will be in a different room and ensuring that they are 2 metres apart from the individuals who are looking around the property. That is the right thing to do.
On the concern about people being evicted from their properties, as the hon. Lady knows we have changed the law to have a moratorium on evictions, so that no possession proceeding can continue. That will go up until June, at which point I, as Secretary of State, have the ability to extend that if we need to. We will be taking that decision very carefully. We will also be proceeding with the pre-action protocol, working with the Master of the Rolls to ensure that that provides an added degree of protection for those individuals. I do not support the Labour proposal, which is to encourage people not to pay rent and to build up potentially unmanageable degrees of debt, so that in six, nine or 12 months’ time, their credit rating would be shredded and they would be in a very difficult financial position. We are developing a much more credible plan to protect renters and to help to shield them through this crisis.
Finally, with respect to councils’ finances, I said we would stand behind councils and give them the funding that they need, and we are doing exactly that. Today, the Prime Minister has announced an extra £600 million, bringing the total investment in our councils to £3.8 billion in just two months.
The Secretary of State is right to talk about people living their lives. Most of the people going to new homes will be going to leasehold ones.
When will he, and we, act to ban the sale of leasehold and pre-sold houses? When can he announce actions for justice for leaseholders and lease renters who are stuck with excessive ground rents?
Can he advise residential landlords and smart developers that the financial games are over, and that the leasehold knowledge campaign and the all-party group on leasehold and commonhold reform are going to make sure that there is justice for leaseholders?
I am grateful to the Father of the House for that question. I pay tribute, once again, to his campaigning over many years against rip-off practices in the leasehold sector. We are committed to bringing an end to those practices, to legislating to bring ground rents down to a peppercorn, and to ensuring that no new homes are built as leasehold properties except in the most exceptional of circumstances. We will shortly be bringing forward draft legislation for scrutiny. I am pleased that, in general, such practices have declined enormously as a result of the Government’s firm stance and that of campaigners, including many Members across the House. I want to see that continue.
I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement—although I think I read most of it in the morning papers. I want to focus on the part announcing a “clear, coherent” plan. This is an issue that many of us have found, whether with his statement or the statement before it on education. The position in Scotland remains unchanged: people should protect the NHS, stay at home and save lives. This Government often announce big decisions without making it clear that they do not apply to people in Scotland. We in Scotland will take the decision about when to lift the lockdown based on science and when it is right to do so, so I would appreciate it if the UK Government would be more explicit in making it clear that this is for England only.
There are elements of this that I am puzzled by, particularly some of the restrictions that are being eased, because we are saying to people that they cannot see both their parents at the same time, but they can welcome two complete strangers into their home. It also does not make sense that kids cannot go out and have a kickabout with their friends in the next garden, but removal men can come into the house, potentially passing on the virus. Those are just two examples of how this does not necessarily stack up. From a messaging point of view, we have gone from saying on Saturday, “Stay at home, protect the NHS, and save lives,” to saying four days later, “You can traipse around any random stranger’s house.” Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to make it clear to people in Scotland that the message remains the same: “You should stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives”?
I made it clear repeatedly in my statement that these arrangements apply to England. The Scottish Government will have to come to their own decision and be held accountable for it. With respect to social distancing, the guidelines are extremely clear, so I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman and others did not purposefully mislead in that respect. Removal men and women, agents and those visiting other people’s homes need to respect the social distancing guidelines, which means staying 2 metres apart and using protective equipment where appropriate, as we set out in the guidance. For residents, that means being out of the home, in the garden or in another room at the time of the viewing, so that they do not come into contact with those visiting the property. That approach has been fully signed off by Public Health England and all the medical and scientific experts.
I thank my right hon. Friend for today’s welcome announcement that estate agents in Stafford can now reopen and that viewings can resume. Many of my constituents were in the house-buying process when covid-19 hit and will very much welcome this certainty. What steps will be taken to ensure that my constituents can undertake viewings safely and that estate agents can be sure that they are in line with the new Government guidance?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I am sure that thousands of people in Stafford, and across the country, will have been in a state of limbo and unable to move home. This announcement today will make a big difference to their lives and to the local economy in Staffordshire. The guidelines are clear, as I have already said, that people need to respect social distancing when in others’ properties. We are encouraging virtual viewings, which can be more sophisticated and may come at a cost, or can be as simple as the agent or homeowner producing a video on their smartphone and making it available to anyone interested in the property before they visit. With respect to show homes, we are strongly encouraging people to attend by appointment only to avoid unnecessary speculative visits.
I welcome much of what the Government have proposed, particularly the help for private tenants. However, we should recognise that many tenants’ rent arrears will grow over time, causing problems not merely for them, but for small private landlords. Will the Secretary of State consider a scheme like the Spanish Government’s, which offers low-interest loans to tenants to help them to pay the rent and the landlords to receive it? As for the market for new housing, if demand for new homes falls, will he consider increasing grants to housing associations and councils so that they can help the construction industry keep going by building more social homes for rent?
With respect to supporting the industry, today is too soon to judge with confidence the state of the housing market because there have been so few transactions in recent weeks. However, we stand ready to work with the industry and to help to guide it through what will undoubtedly be an extremely challenging period. We have announced some measures today—for example, enabling councils to defer CIL and section 106 payments. That does not mean that there will be an impact on social infrastructure or affordable homes in the longer term, but it does mean that small and medium-sized enterprise builders in particular can have a bit of breathing space in the weeks and months ahead, which is a critical lesson learned from the last downturn in the market.
We are thinking carefully about what more we can do to protect renters. Of course, there are other Government schemes, such as the furlough scheme, which is now paying a proportion of millions of working people’s wages and helping to support them through this difficult period. The moratorium on evictions prevents possession proceedings in court at the present time, but we will need to think carefully about what to do when that comes to an end in June.
My right hon. Friend knows that the construction industry is core to our economy’s success. Will he outline what steps the Government are taking to ensure that that important sector has the flexibility that it needs to operate safely and restart?
Across the country, millions of people are employed in the construction industry. It is absolutely essential that we get them back to work, but we have to do so safely. Today’s charter, working with the house builders, will set out ways in which we believe that that can be done. Many of the country’s house builders have been working with us in recent weeks to put in place the protocols and site working practices that will be needed to protect those working people.
Today’s written ministerial statement, extending the work of sites, will also play its part. It will enable sites to stay open during the summer months, potentially to 9 pm in residential areas, and longer than that in areas where there are no neighbouring properties. This is to help the industry to catch up if it wants to and, above all, to help it to put in place the social distancing rules that it will need to operate sites safely and reduce pressure on public transport. I hope that all of us across the country, and our councils, will support that and ensure that it is implemented smoothly.
May I press the Secretary of State on the issue of the cliff edge facing many in the privately rented sector? What action will the Government take to avoid mass homelessness as the moratorium on evictions lifts and we emerge from the covid-19 crisis?
As I have already said, we have legislated to have a moratorium on evictions, which comes up for review in June. At that point, the Secretary of State has the power to extend it if necessary. We will take that judgment on the basis of the market at that time and the evidence we see in respect of how many individuals might be coming before the courts with eviction proceedings. We will consider what further steps might be necessary at the time.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. In order to provide the reassurance and clarity that my constituents in West Oxfordshire would like, will he confirm that although people can move whenever they like and removal firms are able to help, the Government do still ask and require that such activity is carried out safely?
It is extremely important that removal firms across the country, many of which are small and medium-sized businesses, get back to work, and we have worked with them to produce guidelines that we believe will enable them to do so safely. We may do more work in the weeks and months ahead to learn from that. These businesses play a critical role in the industry.
At the beginning of this crisis, the Secretary of State said “Everyone in”, and that he would fund councils to end homelessness. Since then, it has been suggested that that might not apply to those with no recourse to public funds. That is nonsense: the virus could not care less about someone’s migration status. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to clarify that when he said everybody he meant absolutely everybody, and that he will be providing funding to make sure this happens?
I am extremely grateful for the work of local councils and charities in places such as Nottingham: they did an amazing job in bringing at least 90% of those individuals who were sleeping rough at the onset of the crisis into safer accommodation. In some parts of the country, the numbers of rough sleepers have now fallen to as low as one, two or three individuals. We believe that the success rate could even be as much as 98% so far, but the challenge is by no means complete and there is more work to do. We have said that the Government’s policy on no recourse to public funds has not changed, but councils do have flexibility, as they know, to support those individuals when there is a risk to life and serious concern. They should behave humanely and compassionately.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point that we cannot emphasise enough today. There will be individuals who are not advised to move home, except in the most unusual circumstances. The people we have asked to shield—those people who have extremely high levels of vulnerability to the virus, as identified by the chief medical officer—should continue to do so. They should stay at home and have as little face-to-face contact as possible. Now would not be the right time for them to move house. If they absolutely have to, they should take medical advice before doing so.
This morning, I saw the Secretary of State’s social media posts on the easing of restrictions; every comment and reply from members of the public that I saw highlighted contradictions and inconsistencies. On top of that, a shocking YouGov poll found that only 30% of respondents believed that the UK Government’s instructions to stay alert were clear. That suggests that the Government have a major problem with communication. Does the Secretary of State think that the Government’s recent communications have been clear? Will he confirm, yet again, that this easing applies only in England?
This is one of the most comprehensive, coherent and clear plans for any sector of the economy. We have worked with every part of the industry, from the removal companies, estate agents and letting agents to the surveyors, conveyancers and builders—you name it—to put in place the guidance that is needed, and it has all been published today on gov.uk. It has been hugely welcomed by people across the industry and the millions of people in England who want to move house and get on with their lives, as well as the 2.3 million people whose jobs depend on this critical industry.
My right hon. Friend was dead right to say in his statement that we need to build homes before we can buy and sell them. What can he do to unlock the market in Hampshire, where a stand-off between Natural England and local authorities over nitrates in the Solent—a subject which the Secretary of State knows about—has had planners, developers, architects and investors tied in knots since long before covid-19? Perversely, it is encouraging greenfield development over brownfield.
My hon. Friend and I have discussed this issue at length on a number of occasions, and he has been assiduous in campaigning to break this deadlock. It is extremely unfortunate that before the coronavirus crisis house building in the Solent area was essentially paused because of the issue he described. I have been working with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Natural England to bring forward guidelines and to bring the parties together, because too many people’s livelihoods depend on this and we need to move forward. I hope that those guidelines are now available and will ensure that we continue to work with his local council and others to get the industry moving in the Solent area.
On resuming, the House entered into hybrid substantive proceedings (Order, 22 April).
Before we start the business today, I should like to make a statement. Before I call the Leader of the House, I want to make some points that arise from the announcement last night about the likely duration of hybrid proceedings. My priority, and the priority of all I am sure, is to ensure that those on the estate are safe while business is facilitated. I am working with the parties and the Commission to ensure that this duty of care is taken seriously. Nothing in the announcement of the Leader of the House changes the position on social distancing in and around the Chamber and throughout the parliamentary estate—I think that we are all agreed that only changes to the guidance from Public Health England can actually do that. I may suspend sittings between items of business to allow safe access to, and exit from, the Chamber. I am also quite prepared to suspend a sitting if I believe that the safe number of hon. Members in the Chamber risks being exceeded. If physical Divisions replace remote Divisions, they will take much longer than usual—probably around 30 minutes and possibly up to an hour—to ensure that social distancing can be observed. Business is now resumed.
Business of the House (13 May)
The following arrangements shall apply to today’s business:
Business Timings Remote division designation Business statement Up to 20 minutes None Agriculture Bill: Consideration Up to one hour and 55 minutes; suspension; up to one hour and 15 minutes from the resumption following the suspension Remote division Agriculture Bill: Third Reading Up to two hours and 15 minutes from the resumption following the suspension Remote division Committee on Standards No debate None Committee of Privileges No debate None
Remote division designation
Up to 20 minutes
Agriculture Bill: Consideration
Up to one hour and 55 minutes; suspension; up to one hour and 15 minutes from the resumption following the suspension
Agriculture Bill: Third Reading
Up to two hours and 15 minutes from the resumption following the suspension
Committee on Standards
Committee of Privileges
At the conclusion of proceedings on Consideration of the Agriculture Bill the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to bring those proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with Standing Order No. 83E (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on consideration and up to and including third reading).
At the conclusion of the time allocated to the debate on the Third Reading of the Agriculture Bill the Speaker shall put the Question, That the Bill be now read the third time.—(James Morris.)
The Speaker declared the Question to be agreed to (Order (4), 22 April).
Business of the House
Thank you for your statement, Mr Speaker. It is obviously important that the House maintains social distancing in accordance with the guidelines.
The business for the week commencing 18 May will include:
Monday 18 May—Second Reading of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill.
Tuesday 19 May—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Human Tissue (Permitted Material: Exceptions) (England) Regulations 2020, followed by motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 (Consequential Modification) Order 2020, followed by motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution relating to the Finance Bill.
Wednesday 20 May—Second Reading of the Trade Bill, followed by motion relating to the membership of the Liaison Committee.
Thursday 21 May—The House will not be sitting.
Friday 22 May—The House will not be sitting.
I thank the Leader of the House for next week’s business and you, Mr Speaker, for your statement. I must admit I was alarmed to hear the Leader of the House say yesterday that Parliament was going to return physically. He said yesterday that we could not ask people to return if we did not also return, but he fails to understand that we are working—we continue to work. Our casework has increased massively. We might not be in the Chamber but we are still dealing with our constituents, as we always are when we are not here.
The House must lead the way in protecting the health and wellbeing of everyone who works in Parliament by following public health advice to the letter. House staff have done an incredible job, as the Leader of the House knows, setting up a hybrid virtual Parliament that ensures scrutiny of the Government while limiting the number of staff and Members who have to be physically present on the estate. Can he please explain why Parliament would contradict the Government’s own health advice by returning to business as usual in early June and allowing only physical attendance, and contradict the Government’s advice that those who can work from home should do so?
Will the Leader of the House confirm what assessment has been done to ensure that Parliament’s move to physical-only attendance can be done in a way that fully complies with social distancing guidelines? What advice has he received from Public Health England? Will he share it with all the parties? Has it been discussed with you, Mr Speaker, the House authorities and the usual channels? Will he confirm that all the business next week will make use of the hybrid virtual Parliament?
Is this a preview of the Government’s future policy? If so, as a matter of urgency, can the Leader of the House arrange for the Government to make a full statement on Monday on their guidance for society as a whole for returning to work safely? He will know that probably one of the best things to do is to ask each workplace to undertake a risk assessment so that staff and employees come back in a phased return.
Let us remind ourselves that no one asked to stay at home. It is what the Government asked us to do in response to a pandemic, and everyone has listened and understood the message, which is why people must be kept safe. I am sorry to say that the Leader of the House has further confused the message: “stay at home”, “stay alert”—to what? —“work from home”, “come to work”, “come in on Monday”, “come in on Wednesday”. It’s like a Commons hokey-cokey. We can all pull together but only if the Government provide us with answers and do not contradict their own advice.
I am sure the Leader of the House will ensure there is a statement from the Health Secretary on testing in care homes, given that the number of deaths has now risen to over 40,000. It seems that no one knows whether the Department of Health and Social Care, the Care Quality Commission or Public Health England is in charge of testing. Who is in charge of testing? Test, trace and isolate—we need to get the first bit right. Some of my constituents have said they have not even got their test results after eight to nine weeks. Can we have an urgent statement on the crisis in testing and care homes?
Our councils have done what they have been asked to do to protect local communities, yet we hear from the Treasury that they may have to make further cuts—that the Treasury is not going to bail them out any more—but councils have been asked to keep their communities safe, so please can we have a statement to ensure they will not be financially penalised if they have done what they have been asked to do?
The Leader of the House has mentioned the Liaison Committee motion, which is up for debate next week. It seems that there is no compliance with equal opportunities. Are the Government really saying that only men we want can apply? Of the paid Committee Chairs, 26 are men, seven are women and none are from a black or ethnic minority background. Why do we not just let the Chairs of Committees decide, as they have always done?
At Foreign Office questions, there was no update on Nazanin, Anoush and Kylie—who is mentally in a difficult place. They need clemency, and it is International Day of Living Together in Peace on Saturday, so could we have an update?
Finally, I too want to thank our brilliant nurses—it was their day yesterday—many from around the world and some of whom have lost their lives looking after us. Some 70% of nurses who have died were from the BME community, as were 94% of doctors who have died. I hope the Government review will report soon. We send our heartfelt thanks to their families: they gave their lives for us.
May I completely concur with the right hon. Lady in what she says about those who are working for us and who have lost their lives during this terrible outbreak of the coronavirus, and the public service that is given by so many so courageously in going about their daily work?
I want to answer what the right hon. Lady says about Parliament, because what she says is important and fundamental to us as a democracy. The Government’s advice is clear: work from home if you can. As you have made clear, Mr Speaker, many members of the House staff will be able to continue to work from home, even with the House of Commons operating in physical form. Indeed, very few additional Clerks will need to be present on the premises, Members’ staff will be able to continue to work from home, and the overwhelming majority of the House community will be able to continue to work from home—the exception being Members of Parliament themselves. Why is that? It is because the Government’s advice is that if you need to go to work, you must go to work.
We see in this Parliament—in this House today—the ineffectiveness of scrutiny in comparison to when the House is operating in the normal way. We have no flexibility of questions. The questions are all listed in advance, with no ability for people to bob, to come in and to join in the debate; no cross-cutting of debate; and no ability to advance arguments or take them forward. We simply have a series of prepared statements made one after another. That is not the House of Commons doing its proper duty and playing its proper role of scrutiny of the Government.
Then there is the other side of it: where are the Bill Committees? How are Bills progressing? What is happening to the legislative agenda that the Government were elected on in December? Or do we just ignore our constituents, ignore the voters and not get on with a proper democratic parliamentary system? The idea that our democratic system is not an essential one—is not the lifeblood of our nation and is not how the Government are held to account at a time of crisis—is one that is surprising. It is extraordinary that it should be held by Opposition Members; that they should not wish to be here, challenging the Government and holding them to account; and that they wish to hide behind a veneer of virtual Parliament, so that legislation is not progressed with. We have heard it from the Scottish shadow spokesman, when he says that a virtual Parliament is a second-rate Parliament. He wants us all to be second rate, whereas I want us all to be first rate—to get back to being a proper Parliament because democracy is essential. What we do is essential. Holding the Government to account is essential and delivering on manifesto promises is also essential, and that is what I hope we shall be able to do after we come back from the Whitsun recess, in line with what is happening in other parts of the country.
The intention is for schools to go back: how can we say to our schoolchildren, “You’re safe going back”—some of them—but we are not? How can we hide away while schoolchildren are going back? Is that the right message to give to our constituents? Are we a people set apart, a special class who are exempt from what the rest of the country is doing? No, we are not. We are the leaders of our nation, and we have a responsibility. That responsibility falls on us to come back, but we can observe social distancing. We can look at the Chamber as it is set out. We can look at the Division Lobbies that have been arranged by you, Mr Speaker, to make sure that the Clerks are safe and that Members are safe. That is the right way for us to proceed, so that there is proper democratic scrutiny and legislation may be brought forward in accordance with the mandate that the British people gave us. Stay at home, work from home if you can. We in reality cannot and that is why we ought to be coming back.
Let me move on to some of the other points made by the right hon. Lady, in particular the situation of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, which is a matter of concern to the whole House. I assure her that the Government are in contact with Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family and will continue to make decisions in line with what we believe will produce the best outcomes. Without providing every detail of what the consular authorities are doing, obviously, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s temporary release is a welcome step, but we remain extremely concerned about her welfare and that of all our dual nationals detained in Iran. We continue to raise all their cases at the most senior levels. We will continue to urge Iran to ensure that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe receives any necessary medical care and that her treatment so far has clearly been unacceptable, including the lack of due process in the proceedings against her. It is important that Iran is held to account, and we urge the Iranian authorities to release her and allow her to come home.
Can we have a general debate on tourism and the movement of people? Due to the changes in guidance on unlimited travel to take exercise and enjoy open spaces, residents—particularly in tourism hotspots, where there are limited facilities open—have valid concerns about putting additional pressure on facilities and local hospitals. Like many MPs, I have had communications from constituents who are concerned about public health and putting their health at risk. I believe we need to revisit our distancing measures to ascertain how far people should be able to travel to take exercise and enjoy open public spaces. Can we have a debate on that issue, to ensure that we get some clarity?
I absolutely understand the vital role that the tourism industry plays in my hon. Friend’s particularly attractive constituency and his concerns that many people will want to go there. The Government’s guidance on second homes remains clear. Restrictions on travelling to exercise have eased, but it is not permitted to travel to a second home or to remain overnight in a holiday destination. As we ease restrictions, everyone must continue to follow the rules. As the recently published Command Paper states, the Government will announce easing measures for different parts of the country in line with the scientific advice. The Government’s objective is to return to our way of life as soon as possible, but it is vital that we do not waste the sacrifices that have already been made, and I understand why that is a particular concern to my hon. Friend.
I should first make it clear that yesterday, when I questioned the wisdom of going ahead with next week’s recess, I was in no way suggesting that the staff of the House should not get the leave to which they are entitled. I was simply wondering whether, given the current emergency, it might be possible to do that without closing the business of the Chamber completely. If we are to go ahead with the recess, I would seek an assurance from the Leader of the House that there will be no dramatic changes in Government policy while the House is unable to question Ministers, and that if such a change is required, the House will be recalled to consider it.
The Leader of the House is extolling the fantasy that on 2 June, we can go back to the way things were without special procedures being in place. If he genuinely believes that, I have some specific questions. How can 650 Members of Parliament possibly work safely in a building of this size and lay-out? What should happen to those who are shielding and have received a letter from the chief medical officer? What should happen to Members who belong to one of the identified vulnerable groups? What procedures will apply in the light of a Member becoming symptomatic or being diagnosed as having the virus as a result of returning to this place? Should Members in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ignore the advice of their respective Governments to work from home?
In my view, to try to force Members to return to this Parliament in person without those questions being answered is unbelievably reckless, and it will place Members, staff and the wider public at risk. It will also disenfranchise many. I asked the Leader of the House some weeks ago what exactly requires the physical presence of MPs in the Chamber and what aspects of our job cannot be done remotely. I have yet to receive an answer. Is it therefore the case that his decisions are motivated not by necessity but by personal preference?
Yesterday, as the hon. Gentleman crackled through the ether, he was hard to hear, and it was hard to be clear what he was saying. His complaint was that we in the Chamber had an unfair advantage over those who were remote. Today, it is unfair that we should be here in person at all, because we should all be as disadvantaged as he is by being here remotely. That is explanation in itself of why we need to come back: the Chamber does not operate properly when it is done on a remote basis.
On the numbers, the hon. Gentleman suggests that the acres of space at the Palace of Westminster are not large enough for 10%, if not less, of the people who work here on a daily basis. The Chamber is marked out for social distancing. We can get 50 people into this Chamber, which, it has to be said, is often as many as are here for an ordinary debate. It is only on high days and holidays and Prime Minister’s questions that the Chamber is bursting at the seams.
As you so rightly said in your statement, Mr Speaker, there is no change to the social distancing advice. There is no change to the advice to Members’ staff to continue to work from home. The numbers coming into this estate are a fraction of what they normally are, because we have no tours, we have no commercial banqueting and we do not have the thousands—sometimes, tens of thousands—of people who come in every day. We are just requiring MPs to do their job, because, as the hon. Gentleman eloquently pointed out in his electronic communication, their job cannot be done properly from a remote distance.
The Backbench Business Committee has a number of outstanding older applications, but we also have significant demand for debates in Backbench business time on many different aspects of the Government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic. However, Members will want to hold those debates in an environment that is safe for House staff, their own necessary staff and themselves, with the logistics of getting there from all points of the compass safely and efficiently having been considered in a comprehensive and safety-conscious way.
The R rate—the reinfection rate—nationally is between 0.5 and 0.9. However, here in Gateshead, it is between 0.8 and 1.1, so we are not out of the woods. Verified cases in Gateshead are 478.5 per 100,000; in the right hon. Member’s constituency, they are less than a third of that. We are all in very different situations. We want to come back—but when it is safe to do so.
I am always grateful to the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, and I understand it is difficult for his Committee at the moment, with no time available for his debates. However, the Standing Orders do provide a certain number of days each Session, and over the fullness of the Session the Government will obviously look to provide those.
As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, there are differences across the country, and that is why the Government are looking to have regional alterations, as necessary, to ensure that everybody is protected and kept safe. However, that requires people to follow the Government’s guidance and to remain alert.
I congratulate the Leader of the House on his speech at the beginning, which he would undoubtedly have made from the Back Benches and not just from the Front Benches. We do need to be back in this House, because we cannot do the job remotely. I cannot complain about the Government not communicating properly, because it is not possible when I am working virtually. Could the Leader of the House therefore ensure that we get back as physically as possible as soon as possible, and could we have a written statement next week? And one other thing: will the Leader of the House confirm that, in future, all new Government policy will be announced in this House first?