House of Commons
Monday 18 May 2020
The House met at half-past Two 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 Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
Self-employment Income Support Scheme
The self-employment support scheme opened last week ahead of schedule and provides support worth up to £7,500 to millions of individuals. I am pleased to tell the House that, at the end of yesterday, there had been more than 2 million claims, with grants worth £6 billion in total being claimed for. Those people will have the money in their bank accounts within six working days of their claim, and of course, I will keep the scheme under review.
I thank the Chancellor for his response. Despite him saying that the self-employment scheme is one of the most generous in the world, tens of thousands are still missing out—new starters, pay-as-you-earn freelancers, those paid through dividends and those earning over £50,000. I have three simple questions for the Chancellor. Will the self-employed income support scheme be extended in line with the job retention scheme? Are there plans to lift the cap on profits? And will he please look again at supporting new starters?
We have discussed these things before, but I do not believe that removing the cap would be the right or socially just thing to do. The average income of those above the cap is £200,000, and 95% of those who are self-employed fall underneath the cap.
Covid-19: Economic Support
Our plan to support businesses and individuals is one of the most comprehensive in the world. We have provided tens of billions of pounds in cash grants, tax cuts and discounted loans for businesses; deferred taxes for those who are self-employed, employed and in business; a world-leading job retention scheme to keep as many people in employment as possible; income protection for the self-employed; and a strengthened safety net to protect the most vulnerable in our society.
Successful businesses in the tourism and hospitality industries before the lockdown will face a very different reality at the end of it, with overseas visitors gone for the foreseeable future and social distancing in place. These businesses need time to reinvent themselves for the new post-covid environment. What measures will the Chancellor introduce to enable much greater flexibility in the furlough scheme to support them as they prepare for this new reality?
It is precisely because of the time it takes for businesses to ramp up that last week, I announced an extension to the furlough scheme all the way through to October, to provide that runway for growth—in particular, for those who will open later in tourism and hospitality. As I said, we will introduce flexible furloughing in the extension period of that scheme.
Those on fixed-term contracts are in a particularly difficult situation where employers have placed them on furlough but are unwilling to extend it past their contract end date. One employer highlighted to me that that is because they are concerned that if they continue to furlough an employee without formally extending the contract, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will deem the furlough frivolous and seek reimbursement. Can the Chancellor confirm that employers can continue to furlough those whose fixed-term contracts have ended without any financial repercussion?
I am happy to look at the specific example mentioned. It is important for us—and to protect the taxpayer—that we are paying furlough payments to those who are genuinely in employment and have a formal employment contract, but I am happy to look at that example.
I welcome the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) back to the shadow Front Bench.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Despite the interventions that the Chancellor has announced, some of our major industrial companies find themselves locked out of the lending scheme for the largest firms—the covid corporate financing facility—because they are not classed as investment grade. These companies support hundreds of thousands of jobs, either directly or through their supply chains, and are often the main employers in the towns and cities where they operate. Will the Government show the same flexibility and urgency in getting finance to these companies, which make up the industrial backbone of Britain, as they have done through the loan scheme for small companies, so that we can retain as much economic capacity as possible through this crisis?
The right hon. Member is absolutely right: finance should flow to the industrial base of our country. The investment grade rating, which relates to the corporate financing facility that the Bank of England runs, is important. Because that money is accessed by companies without any additional credit check by the Government, it is right that an investment grade rating is used, to protect the taxpayer. We have taken a flexible and generous interpretation of that, providing companies with the ability to use their bank rating to get access. For those companies for which commercial paper is not the right approach—many of the industrial companies he mentioned—we have a larger coronavirus business interruption loan scheme programme, and I am in conversations with various industry stakeholders to ensure that that is appropriately sized to provide finance to every part of our industrial base.
Research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development today released today has found that participants in the furlough scheme would otherwise have made up to 35% of their workforce redundant, rising to half the workers in hospitality, where the uptake of the scheme is particularly high at about 80%. Hospitality and tourism were first out and will be last back. Many of these companies have no income and are building up debt, and may feel compelled to sack workers if they are asked to pay more by the Government at the end of July. How does the Chancellor intend to prevent this and to support this part of the economy in the months ahead?
It is precisely the retail, hospitality and leisure sector that has received the most direct fiscal support from the Government through cash grants of £10,000 or £25,000 and a business rate holiday for the entire year—well beyond the point of reopening. That represents significant support, and the extension of the furlough scheme through to October gives those companies enough of a runway to grow back into a safe space.
Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme
As I announced last week, the coronavirus job retention scheme has been extended by four months until the end of October.
New starters not registered with HMRC before 19 March and agency staff workers are some of those who currently find they are in limbo when it comes to accessing the job retention scheme. What more can the Chancellor do to help these workers now facing hardship?
When I announced the scheme, we said that those who were on real time information and had notified HMRC on 28 February would be eligible. That covers 29.5 million workers in this country. We found a way to extend that to 19 March—the day before the announcement was made. That protects the taxpayer against fraud and enables as many of those people to be included as possible. It brought another 230,000 people into the scheme. It is important to remember that this scheme now covers close to 30 million workers. As of the end of last week, 8 million people from about 1 million businesses are covered by the scheme and having their wages paid by the Government to protect their jobs and their future security.
We now head down to the south-west and the Chair of the Select Committee, Mel Stride.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The future fund will provide venture capital-backed businesses with vital support, but of course it excludes investments made through the enterprise investment scheme and the seed enterprise investment scheme. It is certainly the case that there is significant public subsidy within those two schemes. However, businesses supported by them still face the challenges of the virus and, where successful, still go on to generate significant numbers of jobs. Will my right hon. Friend therefore take a second look at the qualification requirements for the future fund to see whether EIS and SEIS might be accommodated in some way?
As my right hon. Friend will know well, EIS is a notified EU state aid, and that is what presents the challenge to providing EIS relief for convertible loan instruments into the future fund. That said, guidance was published today, and the fund will be open for applications on Wednesday. I have been crystal clear that should applications exceed the initial £250 million provided, I will be more than happy to expand the scheme. I think this will be a vital part of fuelling our recovery, because, as he said, these companies provide the growth of tomorrow and they deserve our support.
Labour supported the introduction of the furlough scheme, and we have consistently called for it to become more flexible. We recognise that it cannot persist forever. However, according to press reports, the Treasury is considering asking all employers to pay 40% of employee wages on the JRS from 1 August, which risks a massive spike in job losses.
As I think the shadow Chancellor has acknowledged previously, we are in deep consultation with both unions and business groups to ensure that we get the design right for the second part of this scheme. It is right both for the economy and, indeed, for the taxpayer to ask employers to make a contribution to paying the wages of their employees. They will have the benefit of flexibility in furloughing to help offset that. I cannot comment now on this, but I did say that details will be provided by the end of the month.
I appreciate the Chancellor’s comments, but we really need clarity around whether he is considering evidence from other countries, which, in many cases, are calibrating changes to their salary backfill schemes with the lifting of the lockdown. Is he looking at that evidence, particularly on the potential impact of unemployment, or is he only looking at potentially the introduction of a uniform contribution from 1 August?
As I said, there will be details at the end of the month, but the hon. Lady can rest assured that I speak regularly with my counterparts in countries across the world to learn from their experience and will make sure that our scheme continues to be one of the most generous, comprehensive and effective anywhere in the world.
Covid-19: Local Authorities and Devolved Administrations
We have announced £3.2 billion of new funding for councils, alongside the £3.4 billion of further support with cash flow. I am in regular contact with Ministers in the relevant Department on further support.
I welcome the Treasury’s unprecedented package of support, including the provision of grants, which are benefiting many of the smallest businesses right across Bishop Auckland, but many small businesses in my constituency and others do not pay business rates because they are in shared spaces. What steps is the Treasury taking to make these grants more readily available?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, which is why we have allocated a further £617 million of support to local authorities for discretionary payments for cases such as the one that she highlights. Local authorities are free to focus those payments in line with local need.
District councils are the level of local government closest to residents, and I know that they very much appreciated the support that the Government have provided, but responding to the virus has incurred both additional expenditure and a loss of revenue—they have had less income from things such as car parking and leisure services. How can the Minister ensure that district councils are able not only to meet their short-term demands, but to ensure a long-term, sustainable future?
My hon. Friend is right to point to the particular pressures on lower-tier councils, which is why councils such as Rugby have benefited from more than £1 million of additional funding. Seventy per cent of district councils have received more than £1 million, which is why the profile for the second allocation of £1.6 billion was changed to recognise the points that he highlights.
I pay tribute to the Chancellor and to the Chief Secretary for their approach. They will appreciate that the sums involved are staggering, but obviously necessary at this time. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that this is an occasion where we appreciate the strength of the Union—the financial muscle to protect economies and communities in all parts of the UK? Has the Chancellor calculated whether individual nations could have acted independently and, if so, what impact has the collapse in the recent oil price had on that assessment?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why £7 billion has been allocated through the Barnett consequentials, including £2.1 billion of additional funding to the Welsh Government. That, of course, sits alongside the UK-wide measures, such as the furlough scheme or the self-employed income support scheme that the Chancellor has announced.
In Bristol, that current funding gap is £82.4 million as a result of the current crisis. Will the Treasury consider allowing local authorities to retain all surpluses against the business support grants so that they can be reinvested into local short-term interventions to get us through this crisis?
What we have seen through this crisis is an unprecedented level of support, including the £3.2 billion that has been announced and the further £600 million of support specifically targeted at the care home sector. That sits alongside earlier funding, including the estimated 4.3% real-terms increase that councils received this year.
Although the Government’s announcement of additional funding for local authorities in England is welcome, care staff, refuse collectors and social workers need to know that their work will continue to be funded once the current lockdown is over. My local council, Stockport, is facing a staggering shortfall of £25 million, with the cost of the coronavirus response standing at £41 million. Will the Minister offer those workers that assurance?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the importance of that sector. It is why the initial £1.6 billion funding announced in March was not ring-fenced. It sits alongside the £600 million announced last week. In addition, there is money to help with cash flow, including the £850 million targeted at adult social care, which was paid in one go in April.
Local Transport Infrastructure
My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) has, I know, been working hard to highlight the important pedestrian crossing issues in his constituency, and I am committed to working with him on that. He can benefit from the significant funding for cycling and walking included in the £2 billion announced recently.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that response, and I am pleased to hear that he will work with me in delivering a pedestrian bridge. May I seek further reassurance that he will meet me and the transport team, so that we can deliver this vital piece of local infrastructure, which will connect Silsden and Steeton in my constituency?
I am happy to continue to liaise with my hon. Friend on this important issue. He will know that, in addition to the £2 billion for walking and cycling, we also announced at the Budget £4.2 billion for long-term local transport. His authority, West Yorkshire Combined Authority, will be able to benefit from that.
I thank the Treasury team for their leadership throughout this crisis. As they look at ways to stimulate our economy, will they consider issuing a UK green gilt as a specific way to fund local transport infrastructure and to affirm this Government’s commitment to climate change?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Although at present we have no plans to do as he suggests, he will be well aware, from the green finance strategy, that the Government remain open to the introduction of new debt instruments, and I am happy to continue to discuss the issue with him.
Business Rates Relief
The Government have committed to undertake a fundamental review of business rates and published the terms of reference at the Budget. The review will be comprehensive and look at the effectiveness and operation of different reliefs and compliance with the tax. The call for evidence will be published in the coming months; stakeholders will be invited to contribute their views throughout the review, and I will welcome any thoughts or ideas my hon. Friend may wish to add.
I welcome the Government’s wholesome package of support for the business sector and the hospitality and tourism sector, showing that we are a Government for the many, not the few. Would the Minister meet me to discuss how we might close the loopholes that may be used by those who would opportunistically exploit current business rates?
If there are people who are illegitimately taking advantage of loopholes in the rates, I am of course happy to discuss that. I remind my hon. Friend that there may well be circumstances in which people are in fact complying with the rules. It is a fiddly area, and I want to be certain that we are going after the people we should be going after.
Covid-19: 2019 Loan Charge
My right hon. Friend will know that taxpayers with loan charge liabilities can already defer submission of their tax return until 30 September this year. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has always worked very hard to support taxpayers who may need to help to managed their disguised remuneration liabilities, and this is no exception. HMRC will continue to offer people the time they need to settle, and of course that also applies to those who are affected by issues related to coronavirus.
In September this year, we will be in the middle of the recession that we are about to face. Given the hundreds of billions of pounds that the Treasury has already committed to supporting business to get us out of this recession, it would take a relatively trivial amount to write off the damaging loan charge policy. Originally, the Treasury forecast that it would raise £3.2 billion from the policy, and less than £2.5 billion from employees. What does the Minister estimate he will now raise?
The Treasury will have published its estimate at the time the original tax information was published. I understand the passion that my right hon. Friend brings to the issue, but I would remind him that 99.8% of taxpayers do not engage in disguised remuneration schemes, and the fact that we are supporting people across the country in their jobs and their livelihoods is not, in and of itself, a reason to let people who owe tax off the tax that is due.
Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme
The Treasury is working closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to monitor the uptake and effectiveness of the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. The scheme has already helped thousands of businesses since its launch on 23 March and is continuing to ramp up. As of 10 May, almost 36,000 facilities with a value of over £6 billion have been approved through the CBILS. SMEs now have a choice of over 60 lenders offering finance under CBILS, and further announcements on numbers will happen later this week.
Despite that, the uptake of the coronavirus business interruption loan has been disappointing, leading to the bounce-back loans. Could we have much more accurate reporting on this, much more like the health statistics and perhaps also by region, so we can see what is actually happening?
We are looking very carefully at the figures and we publish them on a weekly basis. I am having conversations with banks on a regular basis, and we are having a roundtable this week to monitor progress. We will look to make further interventions should that be necessary, but absolutely it is important that the loans get out quickly, as they have been designed to do.
Business Rates: Small Companies
The Government have recently allocated up to an additional £617 million to local authorities to enable them to give grants to businesses excluded from existing schemes. That will enable many thousands of businesses in the situation described by the hon. Member to receive cash grants.
We go over to the wonderful county of Lancashire and Cat Smith.
Will the Minister ask local authorities to report on the extent to which landlords are passing on the grants to tenants, because it is not just in Lancaster and Fleetwood that we are seeing widespread evidence that that is not occurring?
The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point. We are monitoring the effectiveness of all these schemes, and the way that local authorities are using their discretion in giving out those grants, but this is a matter that we will continue to examine carefully.
Covid-19: Regional Economies
The Government are closely monitoring the impact of covid-19 on local communities across the UK. We are engaging with local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and mayoral combined authorities, and remain committed to levelling up opportunity all over the UK.
The public transport infrastructure will be essential to Greater Manchester’s economic recovery, and funding has been provided to help Manchester Metrolink, but it is insufficient and the situation will be exacerbated because social distancing will mean that it can carry fewer passengers for the foreseeable future. Will the Treasury commit to fully funding Metrolink so that it can help to get the city region back on its feet?
I have been in conversation with the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, and the Treasury is well aware of this issue. At the moment, we have provided £630 million for councils. We have provided some funding to Metrolink and we will continue to explore the issue further.
My hon. Friend is right that hydrogen could play an important role in our transition to net zero, which is why we are investing up to £121 million to support a range of projects to explore and develop the potential of low-carbon hydrogen technology.
Does my hon. Friend agree that incentivising low-carbon technologies such as hydrogen and carbon capture and storage will aid us in our recovery, help the Government to reach their net zero targets, and level up across all regions of the UK?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Budget 2020 announced at least £800 million to develop carbon capture and storage infrastructure, and my hon. Friend will of course know that Teesside is one of four sites under consideration for support through that funding.
The Secretary of State was asked—
Covid-19: Repatriation of British Nationals
We estimate that more than 1.3 million people have returned to the UK via commercial routes, the majority through our work to keep the vital routes open.
It is hugely welcome that 1.3 million people have been brought home by commercial airlines. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he continues to work with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ensure that support and guidance is available for those people who are struggling—there are many of them—to find commercial routes home?
Yes, I can absolutely provide my hon. Friend with that reassurance. The UK has close links with Nigeria and elsewhere, and I am pleased that we have been able to support charter flights, thereby enabling around 1,700 British travellers to return home since 18 April.
I thank my right hon. Friend for helping, with other Departments, to bring so many of my constituents home safely. Can he tell me, in my role as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria, what the situation is there with regard to the availability of aircraft? How many more repatriation trips are we looking to make?
My hon. Friend’s great work as a trade envoy is known throughout the House. Some commercial routes are still available, we are keeping the international travel advice under constant review, and we are still, on a daily basis, organising charter flights to bring the remaining overseas British nationals home. I think there are around 20,000 still to repatriate.
Covid-19: Aviation Sector Workers
We are speaking regularly to companies across the aviation sector to encourage them to draw on the Government’s various different packages of cross-economy financial support.
With Gatwick on my doorstep, a lot of my constituents work in the aviation sector. Will the Secretary of State outline what support he is giving to airlines to make sure that they are employing people and continuing employment where they can? What support will he give to aviation workers who will need to transition into other forms of employment?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we are making available a huge amount of support, including things such as the coronavirus large-business scheme—in other words, the coronavirus job-retention furloughing scheme—and various other business-interruption schemes, but it is true to say that airlines and the aviation sector in general are facing a particularly hard time. They were first into this crisis and we think there will be quite a long tail to their coming out of it. I am therefore working closely with my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Work and Pensions to support workers who lose their jobs as well.
The Scottish Government have given full business rates relief to the aviation sector; by contrast, the UK Government promised sectoral support for aviation before reneging. Last week, Willie Walsh floundered before the Transport Committee when trying to justify the cull of 12,000 British Airways employees—including many from BA CityFlyer, which is based at Edinburgh—despite having access to €10 billion of liquidity, the vast majority of which was generated by British Airways profits. What are the Government actually doing to prevent tens or even hundreds of thousands of job losses in the sector?
Not only do we have the Bank of England scheme, which enables companies that would not ordinarily have the ability to raise money through a paper route; we also have the business interruption loan scheme for different-sized businesses, the time to pay flexibility, financial supports to employees and the VAT deferrals. We also have a special process in place, available only to the aviation sector, so that when it runs out of those other options, it can talk to us about it. That request needs to be made formally in writing to me. I then discuss it with the Treasury, and many aviation-oriented businesses are in the process of doing that.
British aviation is in freefall. BA, Ryanair, Virgin Atlantic and now the Emirates are set to lay off tens of thousands of staff. The job retention scheme is becoming the job restructuring scheme. We cannot allow that. With the added difficulty and confusion of the Government’s travel quarantine measures, will the Secretary of State urgently bring forward an aviation support package for the sector, matching Labour’s commitment?
It is a very welcome change, actually, because ordinarily I stand at this Dispatch Box and from my opposite numbers hear a lot of attacks on the aviation sector. I absolutely will bring forward enormous amounts of support to aviation businesses, including all those schemes I just mentioned. There are 43,500 furloughed staff right now from the airlines alone and another 2,600 from airports. I am acutely aware of the job losses and proposed job losses, about which we are very concerned, which is why we have the additional scheme, the Birch process, with the Treasury. Although I cannot go into details of individual cases, for reasons of confidentiality, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that work is very much ongoing.
Covid-19: Transport Sector
The Government have announced financial support measures worth £350 billion and are working with the sector to overcome specific challenges.
We have heard about the challenges of the aviation industry, including the threat of 12,000 BA redundancies, but the entire transport industry is worried. Haulage is seeing volumes dropping and revenues plummeting, the coaching sector faces imminent ruin, and holiday companies have no idea if the Government will stand by them and their customers. What specific action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure we actually have a transport industry left when all this is over?
The answer is a multi-billion pound programme that rescued our railways; £400 million used to keep our bus services going; and a multi-million pound plan for critical freight routes, which enabled us to keep 16 routes available, with 17 different contracts in place, ensuring vital food and supplies to this country.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the aviation industry is a sector in need of support. Will he consider airbridges so that those entering the UK from countries where the infection rate is below one would not be subject to quarantine? This would boost confidence in aviation travel and target safety where it is most needed.
In answer to a previous question, I should say that final details of the quarantine scheme will be released soon and come in early next month. We should indeed consider further improvements—for example, airbridges enabling people from other countries that have achieved lower levels of coronavirus infection to come to the country, but those are active discussions that go beyond what will initially be a blanket situation.
I call Minister Andrew Stephenson to answer the substantive question tabled by Kevin Hollinrake. Minister—my word!—Minister Andrew Stephenson.
English Regional Transport Infrastructure
It is a great joy to join you from sunny Pendle, Mr Speaker.
We are investing in transport infrastructure to level up the United Kingdom, with £500 million to reverse the Beeching cuts and £5 billion extra support for buses and cycling.
Some of us do not have those hair problems, Mr Speaker.
Will the Minister confirm his commitment to investment right across the north—not just the big projects, such as northern powerhouse rail, from the east coast through the west coast, but the smaller but no less important projects, such as the dualling of the A64 in my constituency?
I am happy to provide my hon. Friend with that reassurance. The integrated rail plan is looking at various transport investments in the north, and we very much intend that still to report by the end of this year. On the dualling of the A64, I can assure him that that is now officially in the road investment strategy 3 pipeline, and it will be investigated carefully as we prepare to make decisions for the next strategy.
It is so good to see so many cities and towns now putting in place infrastructure to support active travel, particularly cycling, but not everyone can work or cycle to work, not everyone has a car and no one wants the new normal to be cars clogging up the streets and despoiling the clean air. Why are the Government not working with city regions and other councils on a safety-led scaling up of passenger transport, why did they not talk to local leaders about public transport before urging a return to work and why is there a support package for Transport for London but not for other major cities?
We are working closely with all the metro Mayors and the devolved mayoral combined authorities to get this policy right. It is incorrect to say that we have provided support only for Transport for London. As was talked about in Treasury questions, we have already provided significant support for things such as the Manchester Metrolink and other schemes. It is right to say, though, that we need to ensure that inclusive travel is at the forefront of this, and there is a huge amount of work under way in the Department to ensure that disabled people particularly, are able to return safely to work and use the public transport network that so many depend on.
Covid-19: Public Transport Workers and Key Worker Rail Users
I pay tribute to all public transport drivers and workers, who have been working incredibly hard to ensure that those on the frontline can get to work. New safer transport guidance was published on 12 May, and we are working closely with transport operators across the sector on its implementation.
Last week’s figures from the Office for National Statistics show that public transport drivers have one of the highest covid-19-related death rates compared with other professions. With the Government encouraging people to go back to work and many workers having no choice but to use public transport, what extra measures have the Government taken to protect drivers and other public transport workers?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The safety of public transport workers is of course paramount for the Government, and we have been working with operators to ensure that additional measures are put in place. These include risk assessments, looking at who should be at work, social distancing and face coverings, workforce planning, queue and passenger flow management, and the way that emergency incidents are dealt with, in addition to cleaning ventilation, communications and other forms of training.
Order. I am afraid we cannot hear Clive Lewis.
I thank the Minister for his answer. To protect public transport workers’ safety, they need job security. The Government’s funding arrangement runs out with the Metro and Nexus on 9 June, so it is fine that risk assessments are taking place, but we need the trains to run. Can the Government tell me when the arrangements will be made with the Metro and Nexus to allow our crucial Metro system to carry on running?
We continue to work with the metro Mayors to look at these issues, and we work closely, in conjunction with Treasury Ministers, to ensure that the funding necessary is provided and that we can support public transport networks right across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.
We now come to Jim McMahon. I congratulate him on his new job.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. May I start by paying tribute to our frontline transport workers, and may I offer my condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives through covid-19?
The latest advice from the Government now explicitly rules out providing personal protective equipment, such as face masks, to drivers, instead reserving them for health and social care workers. The response on this is that the health advice apparently does not support it. If the evidence says that masks will not save them, gloves will not save them and banning the handling of cash will not save them, that begs the question: what will save them, given that transport workers, including bus drivers, are more likely to die from covid-19 than the general population? Can that evidence be provided to the House of Commons Library so that it can be properly looked at and investigated? We cannot allow transport workers on the frontline, working to keep our country moving, to face a greater risk than the general population.
I start by welcoming the shadow Secretary of State to his position. It continues to be Public Health England advice that face masks are not necessary outside clinical settings or where Health and Safety Executive employer risk assessments suggest that it would be necessary to protect against non-covid-19 risks. However, workers should refer to the guidance, which I mentioned, when considering whether wearing a face covering would be appropriate and they should consider using a face covering when social distancing is not possible.
LNER: Grimsby to London Service
Recent analysis by LNER indicates that such a service could be viable and the Department is exploring this further.
We now go, with audio only, to Sir Edward.
Mr Speaker, I am sorry that you do not have a picture because the broadband in rural Lincolnshire is so bad. That is why it is even more important that we get our through train from Grimsby and Cleethorpes down to London, which we have been promised again and again. It is a huge catchment area. All the Government have to do is to kick-start this project. Given that they are spending £100 billion on HS2, if they just give us £1 million, LNER will give us the through train. Will the Government fulfil their promises and kick-start the through train to London from Grimsby and Cleethorpes?
My right hon. Friend has lobbied me on this several times already. I know that the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), is looking very closely at what my right hon. Friend says, and hopefully he may have some good news in due course.
Covid-19: Financial Loss to Rail Passengers
We have extended refunds to all ticket types and made claiming refunds easier to ensure that passengers do not lose out financially.
What discussions has the Minister had with rail operators such as Southeastern over season ticket holders who have just a couple of months left on their season ticket, and who, because of the virus, have been unable to travel but are ineligible for a refund? These commuters have suffered quite considerably and it would be welcome news if some assistance were available for them.
The Government have been talking to train operators throughout this whole process, as my hon. Friend would expect, but we do not have plans to extend season tickets. Season ticket holders are already entitled to request a refund in accordance with the National Rail conditions of travel. Over 100,000 season ticket holders have already claimed refunds totalling £150 million in the current covid travel restriction period.
Mr Speaker, you may hear my toddler chuntering away in the background.
It is crucial that people who are doing the right thing and avoiding public transport are not left out of pocket. Will my hon. Friend therefore confirm that passengers in Morley and Outwood who have purchased their advance tickets—as well as those with season tickets, which he has already mentioned—will be able to receive a refund without any charge for any unused travel during the outbreak?
We have worked with the rail industry to temporarily extend refunds to all ticket types. These changes reflect the exceptional circumstances and the Government’s advice to avoid unnecessary travel. Anytime off-peak and super off-peak tickets can be refunded as usual, and since 17 March all admin fees have been waived. Advance tickets purchased before 23 March for travel from that date onwards are eligible for a fee-free refund, whether the train is cancelled or not. Unused carnet tickets can be refunded or extended depending on the train operator, and season tickets, including station car park season tickets, are already refundable, so we have not changed that policy. A £10 admin fee remains for season ticket refunds.
Well, you have made your husband very happy.
Rail Services: West Sussex
I am sorry, Mr Speaker—I was worried about my husband for a moment there. Problem or opportunity, whichever way you take it.
The Government are investing around £48 billion in maintaining and upgrading the rail network between 2019 to 2024, focused on increasing reliability and punctuality for passengers, including in West Sussex.
I thank my hon. Friend for his reply and for the significant extra investment that the Government are making in rail transport. As we seek to regrow the economy, may I ask him to consider the investment project known as the Arundel chord, which would enable trains to turn east near Arundel and travel directly to Horsham, significantly improving the resilience of rail services for my constituents in Arundel and South Downs?
Network Rail has recently concluded a study of services in the West Sussex area, produced in consultation with local authorities and stakeholders. While the Arundel chord might have value as a diversionary route, its capacity would be limited and it would cause a negative impact on existing Arun Valley and West Coastway services. However, the study has suggested numerous beneficial changes involving train services and infrastructure, which my Department will take forward with Network Rail and which will benefit all my hon. Friend’s constituents.
Rural Mobility and Supported Bus Services Funds
The Government are providing significant funding for the bus industry at this time. Our covid-19 funding package for England’s buses totals £397 million. As part of this, local authorities have access to a £30 million supported bus services fund. To date, 46 bids have been received. No bids have yet been received for the rural mobility fund because the deadline is 4 June.
Of course, hydrogen-powered buses have a much longer range, making them more suitable for rural routes and rural areas, and we have some of the leading hydrogen-powered bus manufacturers in the world. The Government have introduced the all-electric bus town scheme. Where is the equivalent for hydrogen?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we are focusing on new all-electric bus towns, which is an exciting part of the money that the Prime Minister has announced to support buses up and down the country, but it is not right to say that we are not focusing on hydrogen buses. We have actually allocated £4.36 million to hydrogen buses and supporting infrastructure.
The Government have recently published the safer transport guidance for operators, which is very welcome indeed, but I wonder whether the Minister could set out what steps are being taken to ensure the financial viability of bus services while maintaining social distancing.
I can tell my hon. Friend that we are working urgently to provide further support to bus operators so that they can run service provision as people return to work and at the same time observe social distancing.
Covid-19: Active Travel (Local Authorities)
On 9 May, the Government announced a £2 billion package of support for active travel. This includes £250 million of funding this financial year to support people to take up cycling and to enable local authorities to make their roads and pavements safer.
I welcome the £250 million funding so that cycling and walking improvements can be rapidly installed ahead of the expected tidal wave of traffic as people go back to work, but when will the Government finally publish their long-awaited revised design guidance on cycle-friendly infrastructure and the evidence that they commissioned back in 2018 on the amount of funding needed to meet their targets to double cycling and increase walking by 2025?
I recognise that the hon. Lady is a really keen cyclist. We want to boost cycling across the country. The schemes that she refers to are being worked at, and we can provide further details of those in due course.
Covid-19: Food Delivery Drivers
Ministers have been in discussion with Cabinet colleagues about measures to protect the welfare of delivery drivers, including those carrying food.
At a time in this crisis when many of us are very dependent on home delivery, there is growing evidence that children as young as 16 on a provisional licence are wobbling on to the road, holding a mobile phone with Google Maps on it in one hand, to make deliveries. That is a very dangerous situation. Is the Minister not aware of the large number of reports of young people being killed and seriously injured because they are not qualified to drive and are doing a very dangerous task?
Of course the Government would be concerned by the incidents that the hon. Gentleman mentions. Ensuring the safety of drivers making deliveries is of paramount importance, and the Government do not want anyone to feel unsafe or unsure about whether they have the necessary equipment to work safely. That is why detailed guidance has been issued to all transport workers, in conjunction with our colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
The Department and I are working with airlines, airports and unions to understand the full impact that covid-19 is having on the sector and its workers.
Many of my constituents are long-serving members of British Airways staff, yet they face redundancy or being stripped of their terms and conditions, despite BA furloughing some 23,000 staff. Does the Minister think that is responsible behaviour by Britain’s flag carrier? What pressure is she bringing to bear on the company? Will she guarantee that any bail-out will come with stringent and binding conditions on reducing carbon emissions?
I understand that it is a worrying time for airline staff and their families. I have been speaking regularly with companies across the sector to encourage them to draw down on the unprecedented support package. Terms and conditions of employment are for negotiation between the employee and the employer, but we in the Department stand ready to support any workers affected.
Gosport Ferry Service
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my officials and I are working with the company and the councils, alongside the extensive financial packages announced by the Chancellor.
I thank the Minister for her reply. I know that when the Secretary of State met council leaders last week he spoke positively about the Government providing a package of support to secure the future of the ferry service. I look forward to the Department achieving that. The continuation of the Gosport ferry after this crisis is vital to the connectivity of communities along the south coast, but so too is tackling the climate crisis. As the fourth most congested city in the UK, Portsmouth faces some of the worst air pollution outside London. The Pompey Street Space campaign aims to give pedestrians and cyclists priority, widen narrow pavements and create commuter cycle routes to allow people to travel safely. What steps will the Department take to—
Order. We are going over to the Minister to answer.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, although I missed his last point. Absolutely, the Gosport ferry provides an important service for the local community to navigate their way around the peninsula. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met the council leaders. We have spoken to the organisation, and my officials are working with the councils to find a suitable support package for the operator in order to maintain that service.
UK Aviation Sector
We are working across Government and closely with the sector on establishing a clear vision and objectives for the recovery of the sector.
The day prior to the announcement of BA CityFlyer redundancies at Edinburgh airport, Willie Walsh gave evidence to the Transport Committee in which he did not mention that once. It is inconceivable that he was not aware of the announcement. Does the Minister share my frustration that that lack of transparency simply prevents Parliament from performing effective scrutiny?
The aviation sector is so important for the UK economy, which is why it has been able to draw down on an unprecedented support package. The Department and I have set up a restart and recovery unit to work with industry, including unions, ground handlers, airlines and airports, in order to come up strong measures to aid the recovery and restart of the aviation sector.
We now come to the statement by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. In order to allow more Back Benchers to participate during the limited time available, I have asked the Secretary of State to keep his initial statement to eight minutes, with matching reductions for other Front Benchers.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on coronavirus. This is the most serious public health emergency in 100 years, but through the combined efforts of the whole nation, we have got through the peak. Let us not forget what, together, has been achieved. We flattened the curve, and now the number of people in hospital with coronavirus is half what it was at the peak. We protected the NHS, and the number of patients in critical care is down by two thirds. Mercifully, the number of deaths across all settings is falling.
This Mental Health Awareness Week is an important reminder that we need to look after ourselves, as well as each other. If someone needs support with their mental health, the NHS is there for them. This is particularly important for frontline staff, and we have supported all NHS trusts to develop 24/7 mental health helplines.
Our plan throughout this crisis has been to slow the spread and protect the NHS. Thanks to the resolve of the British people, the plan is working, and we are now in the second phase of this fight. I will update the House on the next steps that we are taking as part of that plan. First, we are protecting the nation’s care homes, with a further £600 million available directly to care homes in England. We have prioritised testing for care homes throughout, we made sure that every care home has a named NHS clinical lead and we are requiring local authorities to conduct daily reviews of the situation on the ground, so that every care home gets the support it needs each and every day. All this amounts to an unprecedented level of scrutiny and support for the social care system, and a level of integration with the NHS that is long overdue.
Secondly, the four UK chief medical officers have today updated the case definition to include a new symptom. Throughout this pandemic, we have said that someone who develops a new continuous cough or fever should immediately self-isolate. From today, we are including anosmia—losing one’s sense of smell, or experiencing a change in the normal sense of smell or taste—which can be a symptom of coronavirus, even where the other symptoms are not present. So from today, anyone who develops a continuous cough or fever or anosmia should immediately self-isolate for at least seven days, in line with the guidelines. Members of their household should self-isolate for 14 days. By updating the case definition in line with the latest science, we can more easily recognise the presence of the virus and more effectively fight it.
Thirdly, we are expanding eligibility for testing further than ever before. Over the past six weeks, this country has taken a small, specialised diagnostics industry and scaled it at breathtaking pace into a global champion. Yesterday, we conducted 100,678 tests. Every day, we create more capacity, which means that more people can be tested and the virus has fewer places to hide.
Today, I can announce to the House that everyone aged five and over with symptoms is now eligible for a test. That applies right across the UK, in all four nations, from now. Anyone with a new continuous cough, a high temperature or a loss of, or change in, their sense of taste or smell can book a test by visiting nhs.uk/coronavirus. Anyone who is eligible for a test but does not have internet access can call 119 in England and Wales or, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, 0300 303 2713. We will continue to prioritise access to tests for NHS and social care, patients, residents and staff, and as testing ramps up towards our new goal of a total capacity of 200,000 tests a day, ever more people will have the confidence and certainty that comes with an accurate test result.
Fourthly, I want to update the House on building our army of contact tracers. I can confirm that we have recruited more than 21,000 contact tracers in England. That includes 7,500 healthcare professionals who will provide our call handlers with expert clinical advice. They will help to manually trace the contacts of anyone who has had a positive test, and advise them on whether they need to isolate. They have rigorous training, with detailed procedures designed by our experts at Public Health England. They have stepped up to serve their country in its hour of need and I thank them in advance for the life-saving work that they are about to do.
The work of those 21,000 people will be supported by the NHS covid-19 app, which we are piloting on the Isle of Wight at the moment and will then roll out across the rest of the country. Taken together, that means that we now have the elements that we need to roll out our national test and trace service: the testing capacity, the tracing capability and the technology.
Building that system is incredibly important, but so too are the basics. We need everyone to self-isolate if they or someone in their household has symptoms. We need everyone to keep washing their hands and following the social distancing rules. We need everyone to stay alert, because this is a national effort and everyone has a part to play. The goal is to protect life and allow us, carefully and cautiously, to get back to doing more of the things that make life worth living. That is our goal and we are making progress towards it. I commend this statement to the House.
I call the shadow Secretary of State for Health, Jonathan Ashworth, who has four minutes.
On symptoms, the right hon. Gentleman will know that many healthcare specialists were making these warnings eight weeks ago, so can he explain why there has been a time lag in updating the case definition?
I note what the right hon. Gentleman said about social care, but he will be aware that more than 12,500 people have sadly died in care homes because of covid-19. Last week, he said that he had put a protective ring around care homes from February, but yesterday a care home provider wrote in The Sunday Times:
“Elderly people weren’t a priority”
They also wrote:
“The government was asleep at the wheel.”
Is the reality not that there was no early lockdown of care homes when needed, and there was no testing of people transferred from hospital to care homes until mid-April, seeding the virus? Personal protective equipment was requisitioned from care home staff and given to the NHS because of wider shortages. There was guidance suggesting that infection was unlikely, and that guidance was still in place when there was community transmission.
We still do not have full testing of all residents and care home staff 12 weeks later. No wonder Age UK has said that this is “too little, too late”. I note that the right hon. Gentleman said that testing will be expanded. Can he bring forward the date by which all care home residents and staff will be routinely tested? The document last week says that it will be by 6 June. Why can the date not be sooner?
Has this crisis not shown that our care sector is staffed by exceptional, dedicated people, and that migrant care workers are not low skilled but immensely able? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Home Office should acknowledge that, and praise such potential workers, not penalise them?
I welcome the wider roll-out of testing. The right hon. Gentleman did not mention the antibody test. Could he update the House on that front? It has also been reported today that 20% of hospital patients got covid while in for another illness. Two weeks ago, he suggested to me in the House that he planned to roll out screening of all healthcare workers, whether symptomatic or not. Can he update us on that front?
On tracing, I have long argued that the safe way to transition out of the lockdown is by having a test, trace and isolation strategy in place, but it depends on a quick turnaround of test results. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us the current median time for test results to be received by someone when carried out by the Deloitte and other private sector testing facilities, and how soon do directors of public health and GPs receive those results?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that I believe he should be making better use of local public health services. None the less, he is pressing ahead with the national call centre delivered by Serco. Can he tell us by what date that tracing service will be operational? Will it be operational by 1 June?
The right hon. Gentleman did not talk about isolation as one of his key elements of the test-trace strategy. Many poorer people will not be able to self-isolate. Will he look at providing facilities for such people, such as empty hotel rooms so they can quarantine? Will those in insecure work be guaranteed sick pay if they are asked to isolate for seven or 14 days?
On the R number, will the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that every easing of restriction, such as asking children to return to school, is accompanied by a Government statement on the expected impact on the R number and the underlying prevalence of infection? If R rises to be greater than one in a region or local area, how will the Government respond?
As the right hon. Gentleman says, this is Mental Health Awareness Week. We are very fearful of a growing burden of mental health issues, especially in children, as a result of the lockdown. What extra investment is he putting into mental health services, particularly children’s health services? NHS staff, who are threatened not only by exposure to the virus, but the trauma, emotional distress and burnout associated with working on the frontline, need support as well. They need PPE, they need fair pay, they need mental health support. Those care workers who are caring for us need us to care for them and we should thank them again in Mental Health Awareness Week.
I now call Secretary Matt Hancock for a concise reply.
I will keep it concise, Mr Speaker—your instruction.
The hon. Gentleman is right to ask detailed questions about care homes, because making sure that we have that ring of protection around care homes is important. Of course, the majority of care homes have not had an outbreak at all. We should thank those running care homes for the incredible hard work and infection control they put in place, meaning that in 62% of all care homes there has not been an outbreak. Where there has been an outbreak, there has been rigorous infection control and a huge amount of work has gone into that. We have, as he said, now got testing for all. That started with testing throughout for people who had the first symptoms in a care home. Now, it is for all staff and all residents, whether symptomatic or not.
There was no large-scale removal of people from hospital into care homes towards the start of the crisis, as has been implied by some. In fact, the number of people moving from hospital into care homes has fallen throughout the crisis and those movements have been done with care. But I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the crisis has shown that there are many lessons for reform in the social care sector, not least the much closer integrated working with the NHS that we have seen in these crisis days.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the roll out of contact tracing. We now have the people in place. The app is successfully being piloted, and we are ready and preparing for rolling out that system.
The hon. Gentleman asked for the median time for a test to get back. The median time is, as far as I understand it, under 48 hours. He made a rather uncharacteristic dig at private sector businesses which are helping us to deliver that. None of the testing capability—not a single test—would be possible without the private sector. His attempt to divide people between private and public sector is entirely wrong. I think he should remember that that bit of the Labour party left the shadow Cabinet a couple of months ago. I thought good sense had returned.
The hon. Gentleman asked about local public health services. It is incredibly important that local public health services are involved. We have brought in Tom Riordan, chief executive of Leeds City Council and a brilliant public servant, to lead the work on engagement with local public health services, which the hon. Gentleman rightly—I totally agree with him—says are an incredibly important part of getting this right.
We of course keep R under review. We keep watching it and we keep surveying to find out what it is. We have said that, if it rises above one and we see an outbreak in an area, we will be perfectly prepared to take action in that area. Indeed, if it goes dangerously high nationally, we would be prepared, as we were before, to take the necessary action.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman talked about the importance of mental health services across the board. The support is there in the NHS for all NHS staff—in fact, it is there across the board. One of the interesting things in this crisis is that paediatric mental health services have discovered that many services are better received, especially by children, via computer than face to face. In some cases, therefore, the service is better provided at a distance, over a screen, than face to face, but he is absolutely right to highlight the importance of mental health services in this crisis and beyond.
We now go across to the Chair of the Select Committee on Health, who I understand is audio only.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I would like to ask the Secretary of State for three pieces of data, all of which are essential for this strategy. First, what level of new daily infections do we need to be down to before contact tracing happens for all new infections? Secondly, how many daily tests will the test and trace system need? Thirdly, if we are going to introduce weekly testing for all NHS and care-home frontline staff, when will our testing capacity be sufficient to deliver that on top of test and trace?
With 21,000 contact tracers now employed, we think that that is capacity for the current level of new cases that have been demonstrated by the Office for National Statistics surveys, but I am perfectly prepared to hire more to make sure that we have spare capacity within contact tracing.
On the number of tests needed daily to service test and trace, it depends on exactly how many new cases there are. It depends on the relationship between the symptoms and the number of positive cases. There are many more people with symptoms than there are positive coronavirus cases, but the number is falling because we are moving away—well away now—from the flu season, and at this time of year the number of positive symptoms, including coughs and fever, tends to fall, because other non-coronavirus communicable diseases such as flu are falling. There is not a specific answer to that question, because it changes over time. On weekly tests, we are looking to put together a plan to ensure that we cut in-hospital transmission, which will include appropriate, regular testing of the right staff in the NHS. I shall write to my right hon. Friend with more details as and when that policy is fully announceable.
We have a technical problem with Dr Philippa Whitford, whom we will return to shortly. We will go to Sir Desmond Swayne.
The regional dental hubs offer little more than extractions —but I want to keep my teeth. When will dentists be able to treat their own patients?
My right hon. Friend rightly points out that we have urgent dental hubs, so anyone who needs urgent dentistry can get a dentist’s appointment through their GP. Many people have asked how, in an emergency, they can see a dentist. Dentistry is there and available—it is an important message for all our constituents. However, we are also working on the restart of dentistry more broadly. I understand the challenges, especially for those who want to see their own dentist and for dental practices. With NHS contracts, we continue to keep the funds flowing, but of course many dentists rely on their private income as well, and we support the mixed market in dentistry. What we need to do is get dentistry up and running when we can, but it has to be safe.
I am pleased to say that we have reconnected with the SNP spokesperson, Dr Philippa Whitford, who has 90 seconds.
I welcome that eligibility for testing is being widened to all symptomatic cases as the first step towards a test, trace and isolate approach, but does the Secretary of State agree that the system should have been in place before lockdown was eased? Without it, how can he know that the crowded public transport systems that we saw last week are not already leading to a rise in infections? The Secretary of State prides himself on having ramped up testing, but we know that many thousands of those are just in the post, so will he clarify whether those tests are counted again when they are actually carried out?
The Royal College of GPs has highlighted the difficulty in getting test results back from the Deloitte regional test centres. As it is contact tracing and isolation that stop the spread of the virus, how will the Secretary of State speed up results and ensure that they are fed back to GPs and public health teams, who are critical to detecting and controlling local outbreaks? The UK still has more than six times the number of new cases per day than when the lockdown was brought in. Does he not think that that is still too high to be sending people back to work and school?
We have been working very closely with the SNP Scottish Government on testing, so I am slightly surprised at some of the questions from the SNP spokeswoman. Of course the tests are not double-counted. There has been a ramp up in testing capacity. I am very glad to see in Scotland that testing capacity is now starting to rise—in the latest figures, it was up to around 5,000. I work very closely with my SNP opposite number on making sure that everybody has the very best capacity. The contact tracing system was also stopped in Scotland. The reason was that the number of cases right across the UK became very high. We needed social distancing to bring that number down. Now that that number is coming down right across the UK, contact tracing is once again effective. That is the reason we are bringing it in now, and I am pleased that we have hired 21,000 contact tracers in England to ensure that we can get it going. Therefore we are on track for the current proposed 1 June changes. That date is dependent on making sure that everything is right, and that it is safe to make the changes then.
The Minister has just confirmed that there will be thousands of contact tracers who are not medically trained, but who will be handling highly sensitive patient information and issuing clinical advice given to them. Will he bring forward primary legislation to govern the collection and any potential misuse of data, whether that is via an app, by qualified health professionals or by the non-medical call handlers, so that members of the public can have confidence that all strands of his data collection plans are effective and safe?
I have looked at this proposal and it is clear that primary legislation is not needed, because the Data Protection Act will do the job.
I thank the Secretary of State for his unstinting dedication to protecting the health of our nation during this crisis. First, will he update the House on when the roll-out for antibody tests will be revealed, so that we can start to get back to normality? Secondly, in last Friday’s statement, he spoke about the reform of health and social care. When will the Government bring forward a lasting care funding solution to stop people in constituencies such as Romford from being forced to sell their family homes to fund long-term care?
I think the whole country celebrated when there was the announcement last week that antibody testing that fits the bill and does the job had been approved by our Porton Down labs. We are in the closing stages of commercial negotiations to ensure that those tests are widely available, and I will let my hon. Friend know just as soon as I can when that roll-out will be, but I do not want to prejudice the commercial negotiations, which I am sure he will understand.
On the second point, I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that this crisis has demonstrated just how important social care reform is, just how important social care is and how we must maintain the benefits and improvements in delivery and working practice that happened because of the crisis and happened through the heat of the crisis. We must maintain and strengthen that close working relationship. The financial changes that we put through have proved very effective at bringing the two systems closer together, but there is much, much more to do.
A recent survey by Unison North West found that eight out of 10 care workers would not receive full pay if they were ill, self-isolating or shielding because of covid-19, receiving at most £95 per week statutory sick pay, with workers putting their lives on the line to look after us. Will the Government provide increased funding and direction to ensure that all care workers receive full pay when absent due to covid-19?
In addition, given the current failings of our fractured—
I call the Secretary of State.
That is an incredibly important question, and one of the purposes of the £600 million extra that we are putting into the social care system and that will go direct to the frontline—local authorities are not allowed to use it for other purposes—is to ensure that when social care staff need to be away from work for infection control purposes, they are not penalised for doing so.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and my right hon. Friend in welcoming approval of an antibody test for use in the UK. I understand my right hon. Friend cannot elaborate on the timetable for its introduction, but can he tell us whether he is preparing for individuals to be able to input the results of an antibody test into the NHS covid app to help demonstrate their immunity and improve our understanding of the prevalence of this wretched virus?
It is not through the covid app, but we have a process for people inputting whether they think they have had the virus. As and when we manage to land an agreement on antibody testing the proposition my right hon. Friend makes is a very good one. After all, at the moment the science is not clear as to the level of immunity and the risk that we pose of transmitting to others if we have antibodies, as many of us who have had the virus hope that we have, but as the science becomes clearer, so we will also be able to be clearer with our guidance to people who have a degree of immunity on what they can do.
Two weeks ago, 1.8 million people in this country who are currently shielding were told that they would have to shield for an extra two weeks until 30 June. Can the Secretary of State confirm what protection there will be for them and their families, so that they do not face the threat of redundancy or sanction for not going to work or not going to school in order to follow that medical advice?
We have put in place extensive protections for people who are shielded, and those protections will of course continue to apply until 30 June. Shielding is not something that we do lightly, because we understand the very significant impact it has on those concerned and their families, but it is necessary in a pandemic like this.
Lincolnshire is fortunate to have good supplies of PPE, a relatively low infection rate and excellent capacity in our hospitals at this time. Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking our NHS staff across Lincolnshire, who have been intensely dedicated to treating covid-19 patients, but who are also increasingly aware of the needs of non-covid patients?
Yes, I will. The NHS restart is incredibly important in Lincolnshire and across the country. I know Lincolnshire well, and it is very important that we restart other services that have had to be paused for understandable reasons. Not only is Lincolnshire the home to many dedicated health and social care staff—I pay tribute to all those who work in the NHS in Lincolnshire—but my grandmother was a nurse at the Pilgrim Hospital in Boston and our great deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, is himself a resident of Lincolnshire. Lincolnshire has many great things to offer in the sphere of health, and we must ensure that that is about not just covid but health services across the board.
The Office for National Statistics has reported that covid-19 mortality rates in the most deprived areas of England are twice those in the least deprived. Once again, this virus has reminded us of the extreme health and social inequalities in our society; although it can affect anyone, from any background, those from the poorest communities have the highest risk of severe illness and death. Here in the north-east, we have some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country, as well as the highest rates of infection. What do the Government intend to do to reduce health inequalities, both during the covid-19 lockdown and as part of our recovery from the impact of the virus?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right; this is an incredibly important subject, both, as she says, during the crisis and thereafter. We have a study under way, which Public Health England is conducting, on the impact of all sorts of different conditions on the likelihood that covid-19 will hit someone hard. It is true that there is a link to levels of deprivation, in the same way as one of the strongest factors, other than age, is obesity—that needs to be investigated. We have also seen a bigger impact on people from minority ethnic backgrounds. All these things need to be studied. Levelling up and closing that health inequality gap is an incredibly important part of the Government’s agenda for recovering from this terrible disease.
As my right hon. Friend has said, due to the hard work of the entire health and social care system we can now look beyond this crisis. As we do that, may I ask him to say more today, and in the coming days, about how we intend to balance the need to address a substantial backlog of more routine and elective work, which, as he says, has been understandably pushed aside by covid-19, with the need to make sure that NHS staff, who have been through an extremely stressful period, have the time to recover?
That is one of the many balances we will have to strike in the months and years to come as we recover from covid-19. There are, immediately, three things we are doing on that. The first is that we have brought in more staff, especially retired staff, and we want to keep them. They have been absolutely brilliant and a huge help to the NHS during the crisis. The second is providing more support to staff. I mentioned the mental health support, but this involves all sorts of other, wider support to staff right across health and social care. The third thing is making sure that we rebuild the NHS, gaining from the improvements that have been made in the eye of this storm, because there have been improvements to ways of working. Huge strides forward have been taken on the use of technology, and we have found areas where that has made a very big positive impact. Although there are, of course, parts of this crisis response that we want to roll back, there are other parts we want to pick up and take forward.
My constituent Rebecca’s mother tragically died from coronavirus while working as a nurse in a Rotherham care home. The care home did not have access to the personal protective equipment she needed to keep safe. Rebecca wants to know: how will the PPE available to health and care professionals who have died in service be recorded and considered? Will accepting the £60,000 death-in-service payment prevent her family from making a negligence claim? And who signed off on the Government’s strategy of sending untested patients to care homes?
As I have said, in care homes we put in place infection control procedures as much as was possible at the start of this crisis, and there was not an increase in the number of people going back to care homes. But my heart goes out to the family of the hon. Lady’s constituent, who died working in social care, joining, I am afraid to say, many others who gave service during this crisis and died as a result of it. I am very happy to look specifically into her constituent’s case. We do look into the death of any health or social care worker and make sure we get to the bottom of all the lessons that can be learned, and I am very happy personally to do that in the case of the constituent that the hon. Lady has rightly raised.
Care homes in Ashfield such as Wren Hall, with an outstanding rating, and Sutton Manor, which is in the top 20 care homes in the east midlands, face a difficult future. With empty beds due to covid-19 comes a dramatic loss of income, which has a significant impact on their business. Could my right hon. Friend advise me what safeguards are in place to ensure that our care homes are supported to keep their doors open and continue to provide this exceptional level of care?
I want to congratulate Wren Hall, because getting an outstanding rating is not easy, and it has done that. I congratulate every single member of staff, and I thank my hon. Friend for being a champion for them and bringing to my attention Wren Hall’s outstanding rating when it was received. The funding, of course, is a critical part of this. We put in £600 million extra on Friday, and as I said, that will all go direct to care homes—it is not to go into local authority budgets for onward consideration of passing to care homes; it is to get to the care homes. That will help with infection control, but we also have to ensure that funding is sustainable for the future.
Yesterday, the British Government announced in their daily briefing that they hope to have 30 million vaccines ready for use by September, yet on the same day, the Prime Minister wrote in The Mail on Sunday that there may never be a vaccine. Considering the way that Wales has been undermined by the British Government over the distribution of PPE and testing, what confidence can the people of Wales have that we will have our fair share of vaccines if one is developed?
It is not quite fair to say that Wales has not been served on PPE or testing. I have worked very closely with the Welsh Labour Government, and although the number of tests declared per day in Wales is low—it is only just over 1,000—there is access to UK-wide testing capabilities, such as home testing and the drive-through centres.
On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point about the vaccine, I am delighted that we have been able to come to an agreement with AstraZeneca. If the science behind the Oxford vaccine works, it is likely to be one of the first available in the world, and we then have an agreement to ensure that 100 million doses are available for the UK, the first 30 million of which will be right at the start for the most vulnerable. That is a UK-wide policy—we will deliver it right across these islands. We should pay tribute to the work and the ingenuity of our scientists in Oxford and to the industrial might of AstraZeneca, who together, should they manage to pull off the science, will be able to deliver this vaccine to our population as we need it. Vaccine science is an uncertain business. That is why we cannot ever be 100% sure that there will be a safe and effective vaccine, but we are putting everything we can into making sure that we give them the best possible chance for every citizen of the whole United Kingdom.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, thanks to the actions that this Government have taken and the brilliant response of the British people, we have prevented the NHS from being overwhelmed at any point during the current crisis, which has meant that ordinary people have been able to receive a fantastic standard of care when they needed it?
Yes, that is absolutely right. Two months ago, the people of Blackpool were told that it would be difficult to get through this without the NHS being overwhelmed across the country. Through the hard work of people who have done their bit by staying at home and staying alert, and through the NHS expansion, we have managed to ensure that every single person with coronavirus could get access to NHS treatment. I think the whole country should be proud of that.
As a co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on adult social care, I have been speaking with social care providers across the country every single week since the start of this crisis. Not a single one would recognise the Secretary of State’s description last week of a “protective ring” having been thrown around them. They had no access to PPE, no access to testing and, in some cases, were told that ambulances would not take their residents to hospital. Now the sector is clear that they need access to testing on a weekly basis for all staff and residents, with prompt access to results, so that they can act to maintain infection control. Can the Secretary of State say when that essential measure will be in place?
We absolutely did a throw a protective ring around social care, not least with the £3.2 billion-worth of funding we put in right at the start, topped up with £600 million-worth of funding on Friday. Further to that, the hon. Lady does know, I think, that testing has been carried out in care homes throughout. Of course there is always more that we should and will do, but we have been working very hard and closely with the adult social care sector. Towards the start of this crisis, I was meeting the leaders of adult social care in Downing Street with the Prime Minister. We have been working very hard to tie together our response in what is a very diverse sector.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the work of local initiatives such as Makers 4 the NHS in Beaconsfield, who have volunteered their time and money to help to contribute and deliver PPE to the NHS and care homes? Following the announcement of the new guidelines surrounding PPE production, will my right hon. Friend ensure that local groups like Makers 4 the NHS are not excluded from delivery of PPE, and will he meet me to discuss how we can support local businesses who are already supporting the NHS and local covid-19 responses?
Yes, I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend, possibly via Zoom—other videoconferencing services are available—to discuss what Makers 4 the NHS and other voluntary organisations and groups of volunteers have come together to deliver with regard to PPE: it is absolutely fantastic. I pay tribute, too, to the Daily Mail’s PPE campaign, which has raised an enormous amount to bring in PPE from China. But those who are making it here in Britain I salute and I thank.
Does the Secretary of State remember that about a month ago I upset him by telling him that his Government’s policy during this crisis was a shambles? I thought they were actually getting a grip on this crisis until last Sunday’s disastrous performance by his Prime Minister. Now we have relaxed the advice to the country at a time when Yorkshire and the north-east is doubling its R rate. What is he going to do about that? Can he not get a grip? Can he not stand up to the Prime Minister?
The R rate has not doubled in Yorkshire or indeed anywhere else in the country. By contrast, as I said at the start of my statement, the good news is that things are progressing: the number of people in hospital is significantly down, and the number of people in critical care is down by two thirds. I think we should be thanking and supporting our NHS staff and others, and working together to get to the best possible outcome.
I acknowledge that no Health Secretary has faced the scale of challenges that my right hon. Friend has. Will he join me in thanking all the staff at Southend University Hospital, and those who provide associated healthcare, for their heroic efforts during this time of national crisis, and will he reassure them all that we do have plans to deliver this vaccine?
Yes, absolutely. To deliver the vaccine, if the science comes off—and we hope as much as we possibly can that it will—we will have the plans in place to ensure that it can safely be delivered to those who will benefit from it. We have the agreement with AstraZeneca for the production of 100 million doses—30 million right at the start of the programme. I join my hon. Friend in thanking the staff of Southend University Hospital, who have done so much in such difficult times to make sure that all the community can get access to the support they need if they have got coronavirus, and who I know are working now on the restoration of other services so that people with any health need can get the support they need.
When it comes to “test, trace, isolate”, the Scottish Government are expanding the resilience of the public health system. The UK Government are expanding outsourcing. While the private sector is part of an overall solution, surely the Secretary of State should be doing more to limit the profits of the likes of Serco and Deloitte.
On the contrary, one of things that we have learned in this crisis, as a nation, is that things are best delivered with people working together in the public and private sectors. I think this crisis has ended for good the idea that the public sector alone should deliver certain services. Actually, teamwork is the best option.
We are rightly tackling the global pandemic, covid-19, but there is a danger that the totally preventable diseases of measles, mumps and rubella will re-emerge if vaccinations are missed. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me and the parents in Broxtowe that it is safe and vital that scheduled vaccinations continue?
Yes, it is very important that the scheduled vaccination programme continues wherever possible, and we have protected it as much as possible. We must remember that, with the hope of a vaccine for coronavirus, so, too, will we have to redouble efforts to vaccinate children for MMR and for flu this autumn. Everybody will need to get a flu jab if they possibly can, and we will have more to say on that soon. It is really important that people vaccinate and that anybody who hears messages from anti-vaxxers stands up to them and says that what they say is wrong and harmful.
There are reports that covid-19 test results are coming in some 96 hours after testing. In that time, health workers and their families are at risk of catching the virus. Will the Health Secretary confirm whether there are enough reagents, specifically in acute settings, to perform all covid-19 tests within 24 hours?
Obviously, being able to perform all tests within 24 hours would be a great success. We are trying, as much as possible, to shorten the amount of time it takes. The average time is much, much shorter than 96 hours, and I will write to the hon. Lady with an exact figure of the time that it takes in acute settings. It is much shorter than the time that she mentions. All test results under 24 hours would be great. Sometimes it is just a matter of minutes or hours depending on how busy the test centre is.
May I return to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) and ask my right hon. Friend whether it is possible to give any specific support to care homes facing financial difficulties due to unusually high vacancy rates?
The answer that I tried to give at the end of my answer—perhaps too long an answer—to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) is that, yes, that is something on which I am working. It is not something that I am able to announce today, but I do recognise the concerns and the challenges that the social care sector faces.
The number of daily new cases of coronavirus remains above 3,000 and the daily death rate higher than that of other countries, including Italy and Spain. We were slow to go into lockdown, but we now seem to be in a rush to come out, with restrictions relaxed before the test, track and trace system is fully in place, which may well be putting those numbers back on the rise. Does the Secretary of State understand why the public are anxious about the relaxation and the plans to reopen schools given the lack of systems in place now to minimise the risk of adding to the already devastating death toll?
We have set out the five tests that need to be met before relaxation. We will only do that cautiously and carefully. I would sign up to it only if it were safe to do so. The hon. Lady raises the issue of schools. It is very clear that the number of children who are badly affected by this disease is very, very, very small. It is a tiny proportion of the overall total. This disease reserves its power and its risk mostly for the elderly. The proposals that we have made for schools are safe and they are sensible. There clearly needs to be collaborative work to ensure that they can happen, because there are also risks to children, especially some of the most vulnerable children, of not going to school.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his incredible hard work and determination to get us through this crisis and for helping to save many lives in my constituency. Will he join me in thanking some of the amazing groups and organisations in my constituency of Stourbridge, such as staff at Russells Hall hospital, Mary Stevens hospice and our care homes, community pharmacists, volunteers, and all those unsung heroes who continue to work day in, day out, saving lives and supporting the most vulnerable?
I would be very happy and honoured to join my hon. Friend in thanking the staff at Russells Hall hospital and at Mary Stevens hospice, at the care homes and the community pharmacists, and indeed the volunteers of Stourbridge, who have come together. There have been many terrible things about this disease, but there have also been some heartwarming things. The dedication of staff and volunteers alike to coming to the aid of others is one of the things that the whole nation has been proud to see.
The Secretary of State will know the concerns across northern England about the Government’s approach to easing lockdown, specifically those raised by the Greater Manchester Mayor and the combined authority about the risk of a second wave of coronavirus owing to different R values across our city region. What measures is he putting in place to ensure that, as lockdown is lifted across England, those areas behind London in the curve do not see all their hard work undone?
Of course we take the decision after looking at the information for the whole country, and we take into account the R rate and the level of new cases and all other data from right across the land when deciding what is the appropriate step to recommend and to take. We do this cautiously and carefully, and we make sure that everyone is taken into consideration. The safety of the whole population is right at the front of our mind.
Wolverhampton has united throughout the coronavirus crisis and we have been testing for the virus at a rapid pace. Supplies of the reagent chemicals and swabs we have been using have reduced in the last week, which affects testing in care homes. Will my right hon. Friend address that as a matter of urgency, so that we can continue to test at the pace we need to?
Yes. This weekend, I was looking at how to make sure that there is enough testing capacity specifically in Wolverhampton. We are acting to ensure that everybody, right across Wolverhampton and the whole country, can benefit from the hugely expanding testing capability.
In south Wales and industrial towns, former miners with severe breathing issues are extremely vulnerable to covid-19. Those miners deserve recompense for years of dangerous work, but this is only possible after death if industrial disease is also noted on the death certificate. Will the Secretary of State please ask his officials to work with the mineworkers union to ensure that industrial diseases as well as covid-19 are considered as causes of death, so that grieving families can access the support they need?
Yes. I am from mining stock myself—in Nottinghamshire rather than south Wales—so I entirely understand the impact mining has on breathing and respiratory disease, and of course I understand the impact in turn of respiratory disease on the likelihood of having a bad response to coronavirus. I am happy to take up the point the hon. Gentleman makes, to contact those in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy who I believe are specifically responsible for redress for miners, and to write to him.
In April, 16 residents of a care home in Fylde died. They represent about half of those in the home. Six of the remaining residents are displaying symptoms, but they are being told that they will have to wait until mid-June for further tests, following errors made by Randox a few weeks ago. Can the Secretary of State please investigate and work with me to resolve this important issue?
Yes, of course I can. I will take that up immediately and we will try to get a resolution. Thankfully, we have the testing capacity to be able to resolve such problems.
One of my constituents has written to me as a worried grandmother and the mother of a teacher. When scientists are divided over the coronavirus risk for children and how they might spread the virus, is this grandmother not right to ask me why Parliament is virtually empty due to social distancing measures, but her grandchild, who is least able to socially distance, is expected to return to school?
We have taken a cautious, balanced and safety-first approach to restarting schools. That is why we have we taken the approach of just three years being proposed for return in the first instance, to ensure that there can be more social distancing at schools. Of course, as the father of three small children I get that that is more challenging than among adults, but it is necessary. The approach that we propose is safe and is signed off by medical advisers as safe. Of course, because there is hardly any impact on children of this disease—a very small number of children are badly affected—that means that parents can be confident that if they send their child to school, it is a safe environment for them.
During Mental Health Awareness Week, will the Secretary of State agree with me that local volunteer-led mental health groups meeting regularly on Zoom here in Warrington South, such as Offload Rugby League Cares and Man Talk, are providing an absolutely vital service for men during these unprecedented times, and that they really should continue to receive the Government’s full backing?
I pay tribute to Man Talk, to Offload Rugby League Cares and to all those who are working to support the mental health of others during this difficult crisis.
Many teachers and school staff are anxious about a return to class, especially those who have medical conditions or who are living with someone who is shielding. I understand that it will not be a requirement, but can the Secretary of State clarify whether if, for reassurance, staff at times want to wear face coverings and/or visors, they are perfectly free to do so?
They are not advised to do so. What staff do within a school is a matter for their head.
May I please ask the Secretary of State whether the NHS is taking full advantage of the military logistics expertise currently available, and is there greater value to be had?
And some! The military have been unbelievably helpful in this crisis, right across the extraordinary things that my teams and the whole NHS have had to do in terms of logistics and delivery on the ground—literally boots on the ground. The military, just like the private sector that we were discussing earlier, have made the testing capability possible. They have supported care homes and they have done an amazing thing. They have really risen to the challenge.
Most countries have imposed some form of public health measures on international travellers in order to limit imported cases of the virus. The United Kingdom has been out of step on that since the middle of March, and today we heard that details of a quarantine scheme will not be published until next month. As Health Secretary, will he publish the detailed scientific advice on which the United Kingdom’s approach has been based in this matter since the middle of March?
We are working on a four nations approach, and trying to make sure that the approach that we have to international travel is aligned across all four nations, including with the Assembly Government in Edinburgh. We have, of course, based those decisions on scientific advice, and we will make sure that, as and when that advice is updated as we move through this pandemic, so the decisions continue to be based on that advice.
Fortunately, coronavirus presents an extremely low risk to children, and I am delighted that schools are able to plan to reopen from 1 June. We will need to monitor closely the effects of that on numbers of covid-19 infections. Can my right hon. Friend reassure parents and teachers that every effort is being made to ensure test, track and trace will be available in time for schools reopening?
That is right, and my hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The number of children who have died is sadly more than none, but very, very low compared to adults, and it is absolutely right that getting test and trace up and running is important. I am delighted that today we have recruited 21,000 contact tracers, ahead of the goal I set that by today we would recruit 18,000—7,500 of them medical professionals—to make sure that we can deliver safely on the opening of schools, which is so important to so many.
On the subject of those 21,000 contact tracers, what is being done to support, supervise and train them in what will be an incredibly sensitive job, dealing with not only the individuals affected but their data and other privileged information?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and that training is under way.
I have a big BAME community in my constituency of Kensington; will the Secretary of State assure me that Public Health England will look into the effect of ethnicity on outcomes?
Yes. Kevin Fenton, who is the London lead for public health in Public Health England, is undertaking exactly the review for which my hon. Friend asks. We propose to publish it in the coming weeks.
The Government have promised to carry out routine testing in care homes, yet my local authority tells me that there is a shortage of the home-test kits needed to do that and fears that such kits will be diverted to fulfil another of the Government’s pledges on tracking and tracing as more become available. Yet again, the Government have made a claim that is not borne out by the situation in our care homes. By what date will we have enough home-test kits to carry out routine testing in care homes?
I am happy to ensure that my team contacts the hon. Gentleman’s local authority, not least to explain that home testing is only one of the avenues available. In fact, much more testing in care homes is done through the mobile testing units, with the mobile unit going to the care home, or by the satellite units, from which a whole batch is taken to the care home, than through the home-testing channel, which is designed for sending an individual test or a small number of tests to an individual house.
An unheralded aspect of the comfort that has been brought to patients in the coronavirus crisis has come from hospital radio stations, such as the one at Stoke Mandeville. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the volunteers who have provided the only company available to covid patients when they have not been allowed to have visitors? Will he do all he can to support hospital radio stations in the months and years ahead?
My hon. Friend should be proud to represent Stoke Mandeville hospital and Stoke Mandeville hospital radio. He is right: hospital radio is always important, but at times like this, when visitors have not been able to go into hospitals, it is even more important. I am pleased that he raised it.
The Secretary of State has mentioned that both the R rate and the level of new cases are important factors in determining the Government’s decision making, but will he clarify whether the way in which those factors differ throughout the UK will be considered in future planning, including in respect of financial-assistance programmes?
We go next, with audio only, to Dan Jarvis.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Inequality is nothing new—[Inaudible.] The mortality rate for the poorest 10% is around double that of the most affluent. Does the Secretary of State agree that we must tackle this disparity? Will he commit to building a healthier country as we emerge from this crisis?
I think the Secretary of State got that.
Yes, I will.
It is widely believed that the impact of covid-19 in the UK has been greater because of high levels of obesity. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must do more to tackle the causes of obesity in our society?
Yes. It is true that the early evidence shows that obesity is a major factor in covid-19’s impact on an individual. One early study by Dr Ben Goldacre implied that serious obesity is one of the greatest factors, after age. We must make sure that we tackle obesity across the nation, and I very much look forward to working with the Prime Minister to bring forward plans to tackle obesity.
If I may, cheekily, Mr Speaker, I wish to thank all community first responders for the work that they are doing, because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) wanted to ask about them.
I am now suspending the House for 15 minutes, until 4.49 pm.
On resuming, the House entered into hybrid substantive proceedings (Order, 22 April).
Business of the House (18 May)
(1) The following arrangements shall apply to today’s business:
Business Timings Remote division designation Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination Bill: Second Reading Up to two hours and 15 minutes; suspension; up to two hours Remote division Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination Bill: Programme No debate (Standing Order No. 83A(7)) Remote division Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination Bill: Money No debate (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)) Remote division Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination Bill: Ways and Means No debate (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)) Remote division
Remote division designation
Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination Bill: Second Reading
Up to two hours and 15 minutes; suspension; up to two hours
Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination Bill: Programme
No debate (Standing Order No. 83A(7))
Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination Bill: Money
No debate (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a))
Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination Bill: Ways and Means
No debate (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a))
(2) At the conclusion of the debate on the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination Bill the Speaker shall put the Question, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Michael Tomlinson.)
The Speaker declared the Question to be agreed to (Order (4), 22 April).
Four items of business are designated for remote Division. Mr Speaker’s provisional determination is that remote Divisions will take place on the Second Reading of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill, and on a reasoned amendment if selected. Mr Speaker has not selected the reasoned amendment. The following will not be the subject of a remote Division: the programme motion, the money motion and the ways and means motion.
Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill
I must inform the House, as I have just done in the previous item of business, that Mr Speaker has not selected any of the reasoned amendments. I am delighted to call the Home Secretary to move Second Reading. The Home Secretary is asked to speak for no more than 20 minutes.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
We meet here today in extraordinary circumstances. Our way of life has changed beyond anything we could have imagined just a few months ago. The British people are making extraordinary sacrifices as we pull together to combat this deadly pandemic. Coronavirus is the biggest crisis this nation has faced in my lifetime, and we must do everything in our power to control the virus as we reopen society and support the United Kingdom’s recovery. Our national recovery will reflect many new norms, including how we look to the future as a confident, outward-facing, global Britain, open to the world now that we have left the EU.
The Bill will play a vital role in our future recovery plans. It will end free movement and pave the way for our new points-based immigration system: a firmer, fairer and simpler system that will attract the people we need to drive our country forward through the recovery stage of coronavirus, laying the foundation for a high-wage, high-skill, productive economy; a system that works in the interests of the British people, allowing us to attract the very best talent from right around the globe; a system that will revolutionise the operation of the UK border, tightening security and keeping criminals out while also making the experience of coming to the UK transparent, smoother and simpler; a system that, for the first time in decades, allows us, as an open and democratic country, to set our own controls and to count people in and out; a system that will attract the most talented people from around the world to boost our economy and support our public services to rebuild and thrive, including our outstanding NHS.
Since publishing the details of the new points-based system in February, our world has undoubtedly changed, but what has not changed is the Government’s unwavering support for our NHS and its incredible professional staff. They are the very best of Britain. That is why we are introducing a new fast-track NHS visa, to prioritise the qualified staff needed to provide high-quality and compassionate professional care. During these exceptional times, it is right that policies that affect our NHS workers are kept under review, including the immigration health surcharge. That is why I recently announced a free automatic one-year visa extension for those with six months or less left to stay on their visas. Our EU settlement scheme enables EU citizens who made our country their home to continue to build their lives here, including those working in the NHS.
As Britain fight back against coronavirus, controlling the virus to save lives remains the Government’s top priority, but it is also our duty to continue to serve the public by delivering on the people’s priorities so that when these darker days are behind us, we can focus on building a brighter future—a brighter future for people in cities, towns and villages across all four nations—and, as we have promised, on levelling up right across the country, especially in those areas that have been left behind in economic renewal in the past and communities that placed their trust in us back in December last year.
It is almost four years since the British people voted for independence from the European Union. This Government have already delivered that sovereignty, and we have been clear that there will be no extension to the transition period with the EU. We promised the British people that we would end free movement, take back control of our borders and restore trust in the immigration system. This Bill delivers on that.
The story of immigration in the UK is woven into our national fabric. It is at the core of our national character and has defined many traditions and characteristics of our country. It is a testament to British society that, notwithstanding the past struggles of race, ethnicity and class, today in this very House so many descendants of migrants are now representing every region of the United Kingdom. Equally, our national fabric continues to be enriched by EU citizens who have made the UK their home. From day one, despite scaremongering from those in the Labour party, we have been clear: we say to EU citizens in the UK—to all of them—“We want you to stay”.
Our successful EU settlement scheme has now seen over 3.5 million applications, with over 1.3 million concluded. This is a fantastic example of a digital and data-led project delivering real results, despite many of those who have sought deliberately to campaign against the scheme and undermine public trust and confidence in protecting the rights of EU citizens in the UK.
This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform our immigration system, and we are determined to get it right. Through our extensive engagement programme, we have consulted the British people, business leaders, employers, civic groups, local government, academia and specialist organisations such as those working with vulnerable migrants. Our proposal to lift the cap on skilled workers has been supported by the CBI. The decision to widen the threshold for skilled workers has been welcomed by the Construction Industry Training Board, and the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry has spoken favourably about the plans for the salary threshold.
This responsive, people’s Government have listened to the evidence and designed an immigration system that meets the needs of our businesses, our economy and our country. To ensure that it works from the start, our extensive engagement programme continues. We are working with employers to make it a success for them. We are supporting them every step of the way to ensure that their economic needs and business needs are supported, so people know that global Britain is open for business. The Government will work with employers to develop a UK-wide labour market strategy, enabling businesses to move away from their reliance on the immigration system as an alternative to investing in the domestic labour market, and encouraging employers to invest in people, their skills and development, leading to an economy that is fit for the future, with higher productivity and wider investment in technology and skills.
The current crisis has shone a light on how we value those who provide compassionate care across health and social care. The Government’s long-term solution for social care is focused on investing in those who deliver that compassionate and high-quality care. An additional £1.5 billion has already been allocated for adult and children’s social care in this financial year, and the Government are working with the sector on a plan for the long-term recruitment, investment and training of those who are dedicating their careers to care. As the Migration Advisory Committee identified in its own report published earlier this year, the immigration system is not the sole solution to the employment issues in the social care sector.
I will now set out for hon. Members exactly what this Bill does. First and foremost, the purpose of this Bill is to end free movement. From 1 January 2021, all EU and non-EU citizens will be treated equally. The Bill repeals all EU immigration legislation retained under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, as amended by the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020. This means that European economic area citizens, including EU and European Free Trade Association citizens, and their family members will become subject to UK immigration law, and they will require the same permission to enter and remain in this country as people from the rest of the world—levelling the playing field and giving everybody the same opportunity to come to the UK regardless of which countries they come from.
A great deal has changed over the last four years, but the one thing that has remained stable is the Labour party’s refusal to support the end of free movement. The leader may have changed, but the dogged determination to deny the will of the people has not. From Bolsover to Blyth Valley, Darlington to Stoke-on-Trent South, and beyond, the message to this House from the British people at the ballot box was clear: they voted to end free movement and for a firmer and fairer points-based immigration system, with control over who comes into our country based on the skills they have to offer, not where they come from.
We are enormously proud of our deep and historical ties with Ireland, and of the contribution Irish citizens have made to the UK over many years, which is why the Bill will protect the rights of Irish citizens. The long-standing arrangements between our countries ensure that Irish citizens benefit from specific rights in the UK—the same rights that British citizens enjoy in Ireland—including the right to work, to study, to access healthcare and social security benefits, and to vote. The Bill makes it clear that once free movement ends, Irish citizens will continue to be able to come to the UK to live and work as they do now, regardless of where they have travelled from. There will remain limited exceptions, where Irish citizens are subject to deportation orders, exclusion decisions or international travel bans. But the wider rights enjoyed by Irish citizens in the UK that flow from the common travel area arrangements will remain, as was reaffirmed in the memorandum of understanding signed by the UK and Ireland last year. Both Governments are committed to preserving the unique status and special rights in each other’s countries enjoyed for over 100 years.
Thirdly, the Bill makes an important power to ensure UK legislation remains coherent once free movement ends. The power permits amendments to primary and secondary legislation that become necessary after the end of free movement, which means we can align our treatment of EEA and non-EEA citizens and deliver a system in which everyone is treated equally.
Finally, the Bill will enable us to make any necessary changes to our social security system as we align access to benefits for EEA and non-EEA citizens. It will also contain powers to allow the Government or a devolved authority to amend the retained EU social security co-ordination rules from the end of the transition period. We have been clear that any future arrangements on social security must respect Britain’s autonomy in setting its own rules. Social security co-ordination arrangements will change—for example, the right to export child benefits will end, as was announced in the Budget. The Bill will enable us to deliver on this commitment.
The Bill is integral to our plans to simplify and reform the immigration system. The current system has expanded over decades. It has become inefficient and difficult to navigate for those who want to come to this country. We are seizing this opportunity to change the entire system, end to end, for the better, with simple, clear and transparent routes, which is why I welcome the Law Commission’s recent report on simplifying the immigration rules, and why I have accepted many of its recommendations. Cutting through the complexity and streamlining processes will be at the heart of the new immigration system, with new, clear, consistent and accessible rules. Of equal importance will be our ability to act against those who break our rules, including through illegal migration, and our ability to remove those who abuse our hospitality by committing crime.
There are many across the House who care passionately about immigration issues, from the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), who has strived to get justice for the Windrush generation, wronged by successive Governments, to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who speaks passionately about immigration and asylum, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa), who regularly raises the issue of citizenship and the rights of EU nationals, as he did this weekend with me. These are vital issues and they have all had their time on the Floor of this House, but all these issues fall outside the simple Bill before us today.
The Bill is a simple one that delivers on the promise we made to the British people. It ends free movement. It takes back control of our borders. It gives the Government the powers needed to deliver an immigration system that is firm, fair and fit for the future: the points-based system the public voted for; a system that will support our economic recovery by prioritising jobs for people here in the UK while continuing to attract the brightest and best in terms of global talent; a system that will make it cheaper, easier and quicker for global medical professionals to work in our brilliant NHS; and, as we come through coronavirus, a system that will send a message to the world that global Britain is once again open for business. I commend the Bill to the House.
I call Nick Thomas-Symonds, who is asked to speak for no more than 15 minutes.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would like to start by thanking the Home Secretary for our briefings in recent weeks, which have been very important throughout this crisis. I look forward to them continuing in the weeks and months ahead. We meet today during a public health emergency that has shone a light on deep inequality and unfairness in our society, and that has shown the extraordinary value of what so many workers do for our families and our communities.
The Bill fell at the general election and has now been brought back to the House for the second time. Looking at the text of the Bill, we see that little has changed—it now has nine clauses rather than seven—but what has changed dramatically are the circumstances in which we debate it.
On a Thursday evening at 8 o’clock, we clap for our carers. Millions of people come to their doorsteps to say thank you. Quite rightly, we are showing our appreciation for our NHS workers, our care workers and all our frontline workers—police, fire, all our emergency services, those in our shops and those out on our roads driving supplies up and down the country—who are putting themselves in harm’s way day after day to keep us safe. They are making sacrifices in order to help others. We are rightly proud of them and we honour their bravery and courage, yet in the midst of this crisis, the Government are putting forward an immigration system containing a salary threshold of £25,600. That sends a signal and tells people that anyone earning less than that is unskilled and unwelcome in our country.
We on the Opposition Benches know that people are not being paid the value of what they do, and that what our frontline workers earn does not reflect what they contribute to our society. Many of us did not need reminding of that, but it seems that the Government do need reminding. Those who clapped on Thursday are only too happy to vote through a Bill today that will send a powerful message to those same people that they are not considered by this Government to be skilled workers. Are our shop workers unskilled? Our refuse collectors? Our local government workers? Our NHS staff? Our care workers? Of course they are not. Government Ministers who were out clapping for the 180,000 EU nationals in the NHS and the care sector on Thursday night are sending a message tonight that they are no longer welcome. That is not fair, and it is not in the national interest.
A labour force survey by the Institute for Public Policy Research found that 69% of EU migrants who currently work in the UK would not be eligible for a visa under the Government’s new immigration system. It found that 66% of EU workers in the whole health and social work sector and 90% of EU workers in transport and storage would be ineligible—the very people who are keeping this country running right now. Four in five EEA employees working full time in social care would be ineligible to work in the UK under the skills and salary threshold the Government want to impose. The average salary for care workers is £19,104, leaving many short of the cap, and there are 115,000 workers in our care system who are EU nationals.
I will give Members an example. This is somebody who did not want her name mentioned, but these are her details. She is an EU migrant, and she is 62. She came to the UK in 2013 and has been working as a live-in carer ever since. She is a 24-hour live-in carer for a 96-year-old lady with dementia. On her earnings last year, she would have no chance of coming to the country under the Government’s new rules. Are we to believe that a 24-hour live-in carer is in low-skilled work? That is what the Government want us to believe.
The care sector in England was not properly prepared going into this crisis and it seems that no lessons are being learnt from that lack of resilience and that lack of proper preparation before the crisis began. One would think the Government would have learned the lesson about not leaving people vulnerable in our care homes, but it seems they have not. Indeed, they want to create conditions where the situation could become even worse. In England alone, 66,000 NHS workers are EU nationals and there are 40,000 nursing vacancies, which will be exacerbated by the income threshold.
The Home Secretary talks about a fast-track visa, but it is not on the face of the Bill and, in any event, it does not include social care. No wonder the Royal College of Nursing says that the Government’s current proposals for the immigration system will exclude some health and care workers from entering the UK, primarily social care staff, and will have a devastating impact on the health and social care sector. No wonder the British Medical Association says:
“Any changes to the UK immigration system, which could deter those who may want to work in the UK, risks having significant implications for the staffing of health and social care services, quality of care and patient safety in the future.”
The truth is that the Government have not won the trust of our most vital service at this crucial time, yet rather than reflect on that they are attempting to rush this through Parliament and ask that we trust they will do the right thing by the health service. We all know that you cannot trust the Conservatives with the NHS. When it comes to the health service, if asked to choose between the RCN, the BMA and Unison on the one hand, and the Conservatives on the other, I know who I would choose every time.
Let us be clear: the Bill allows the Government to create a new system through statutory instrument. Ministers are asking this House for a blank cheque, for the trust of Members to go away and implement a new system, and for an Executive power grab that reduces the role of this House in shaping it. The Lords’ Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee report on the 2017-19 Bill expressed concerns about the wide scope of the powers:
“We are frankly disturbed that the Government should consider it appropriate to include the words ‘in connection with’. This would confer permanent powers on Ministers to make whatever legislation they considered appropriate, provided there was at least some connection with part 1, however tenuous”.
The words “in connection with” are in the new version of the Bill and the situation is unchanged.
In recent weeks, we have seen the confusion and chaos caused when the Government act like they are giving Executive orders outside Parliament without proper scrutiny. The Government should not make the same mistake again when it comes to an issue as important as our future immigration system. Scrutiny makes for better Government decisions and should be welcomed, not shunned.
Let me take this opportunity to say that the 1.2 million British-born people living in the EU27 should be protected and that the 3 million EU citizens living in this country are welcome and are valued here: our families, our friends, our neighbours. They are a central part of our communities and our society. They have brought great benefits and make us a richer, more diverse society. But I am only too aware that warm words are not enough. The deadline for the EU settlement scheme will fast approach. The default position is that anyone who has not applied by the deadline will lose their legal residence status here in the UK unless they have a good reason not to have applied. The Government must act, be open on the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the system, and do all they can to ensure that those who are eligible for the scheme apply and have their applications swiftly processed.
The Government plan for the future immigration system was first set out in the White Paper published in December 2018. How different things were then. The Government talk of a points-based system; what they actually propose is an income-based system. Salary is not a proxy for the level of skill and a salary-based system will not work for incentivising high-skilled migration.
The Government have deliberately held down public sector wages for a decade, and if they do so again, the gap between what people are paid and the value of their contribution to our society will only widen. This does not reward work and is unfair. Try telling the careworkers in my constituency or, indeed, any in the land that their work is unskilled.
Fairness will be at the heart of the amendments that the Opposition will press in Committee. We know what happens when a Government lose sight of fairness and the national interest in our immigration system. Wendy Williams’s “Windrush Lessons Learned Review” was published only a short time ago. The Home Secretary referenced the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). That review makes for sobering reading, saying:
“Members of the Windrush generation and their children have been poorly served by this country. They had every right to be here and should never have been caught in the immigration net. The many stories of injustice and hardship are heartbreaking, with jobs lost, lives uprooted and untold damage done to so many individuals and families.”
Never should we let something like that happen again. Indeed, there is such mistrust that the3million and other campaign groups want physical proof of settled status for EU citizens because they simply do not trust the Government’s assurances about everything being digital.
Where the system is not working as it should, the Government must act. Take, for example, looked-after children in local authority care. Currently, there have to be applications for pre-settled or settled status on behalf of eligible children by hard-pressed local authorities that are dealing with the coronavirus crisis. Given those pressures, the Government should just do that automatically, and I urge the Home Secretary to consider that. On immigration detention, we will be putting forward proposals for fairness, including an all-important time limit of 28 days.
In my first letter to the Home Secretary last month, I raised the issue of the injustice of continuing with the policy of no recourse to public funds during the coronavirus crisis for victims of domestic abuse. The Government must look at the issue of those left with no recourse to public funds. We are in a public health emergency—it is in the interests of all of us that people get the help they need.
There are also issues around NHS charges during this crisis. Nobody should have barriers placed in front of them when their work is essential in helping us all. I was appalled by the revelation over the weekend that, after all, NHS staff will not be exempt from these charges, despite their hopes having been raised by the Home Secretary, who mentioned a review. The issue has been mishandled by this Government from the start of the crisis. Additional fees for NHS staff to access the very healthcare that we are thanking them for providing is no way to mark their extraordinary service throughout this crisis. I ask the Home Secretary to think again about that review.
Having left the EU, and with the transition period coming to an end, we must have an immigration system that is fair and in the national interest. Handing over sweeping powers to the Government to create a system that labels so many of those workers who are keeping our country running day by day as unskilled is the wrong thing to do. If the Government are confident in their arguments, they should not be afraid of parliamentary scrutiny of their proposed new system. If they truly value what our frontline workers do, they will not send out a powerful signal that those who earn below £25,600 are unskilled and unwelcome. Instead, they should think again, and that is why we will vote against the Bill tonight.
I call Caroline Nokes, who has five minutes.
It is a pleasure to be able to speak in this debate from a more nuanced perspective than I would have been permitted just 12 months ago. I welcome the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) to his new role. The last time he and I debated immigration, it was in a debate on the previous iteration of this Bill, when he had the opportunity to intervene on me frequently—an opportunity denied to him today.
The hon. Gentleman said that we are rushing the Bill but also pointed out that it is just two clauses different from the previous Bill, which we well debated. I argue that we are not rushing the Bill. It is something that we must complete before the end of the transition period on 31 December this year. He also commented on the use of statutory instrument to change the immigration rules. That has ever been the case and often can be used for good; I highlight the example of Afghan interpreters, on which I remind my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary there is still more to be done.
Returning to the iteration of the Bill in front of us, there is no doubt that we must turn off free movement. We must uphold the outcome of the 2016 referendum, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary rightly pointed out, but I would argue that we must do that with caution, and a phased approach might give us more flexibility. This time last year, matters were very different. I was an immigration Minister seeking to find a route through a minefield at a time of record employment. I have grave fears that my right hon. Friend will find herself doing it at a time of record unemployment. Perhaps those roles that British workers have been able to choose not to do over the past 10 years will be more attractive than they were, but the omens do not look good.
We heard calls for a British land army that were repeated yesterday by Waitrose, and many thousands have responded, but few have chosen to pursue the option. One in six of the brave care workers on the frontline of the battle against coronavirus are non-UK nationals. I commend the Home Secretary on her commitment to extend visas to doctors and nurses, but what of care workers? Are they to be the Cinderella service, forgotten once again? What of ancillary staff in our hospitals, who are crucial in a war against the virus in which repeated deep cleaning is an absolute imperative. We cannot open hospitals if we cannot clean the loos.
Many in the House have experience of the Home Office —I think that no fewer than six immigration Ministers since 2016 have had a hand in trying to introduce a Bill to end free movement—but it is a machine that moves slowly. Sometimes the best laid plans to revolutionise our immigration system do not work well when introduced in a big-bang style. That is in the best of times; we are not in the best of times. We know from Home Office press releases that there are backlogs in the settled status scheme; that visa application centres are closed; and if someone wishes to renew their indefinite leave to remain, or obtain a new biometric residence card they cannot do so currently. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) responded to me on 16 March that the Home Office was planning an engagement programme for employers that would start that month, explaining that those who were not already tier 2 sponsors should consider “applying now”.
Small businesses that have no experience of the visa system need to become registered sponsors by January, or they will not be able to sponsor the visas of new employees. That includes care homes—the people on the frontline of this crisis. I wonder whether that engagement programme, which was supposed to begin in March, did indeed do so, or has it understandably been delayed? We know from news emanating from the Home Office that it is very much not business as usual, so can care-home owners, freight transporters, retailers, food processors, au pairs and childcare providers have confidence that their applications will be processed, even if they know that they need to apply “now”—that is the Minister’s word, not mine?
I hope that the Home Office has in place the resources needed to process the many thousands of applications to become sponsors that may be made by businesses that have never had any previous contact with the system whatsoever, but I would ask what bandwidth the care-home manager, frantically trying to put a ring round her home to keep residents and staff safe, has suddenly to think, “I had better apply to become a sponsor—just in case.” This is a crucial Bill, but I would like more than two words from the immigration Minister on how it can be delivered in a big-bang fashion in just seven months’ time, when history has proved that that is perhaps not the best way to deliver bold, new immigration systems.
We now go to Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East and Stuart McDonald, speaking for the SNP, who has 10 minutes.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am afraid to say that this is a dreadful Bill that will destroy opportunities for future generations and will split even more families apart. It will result in many thousands of EU nationals losing their rights in this country overnight; it will extend the reach of the hostile environment still further; it will drown thousands of businesses and key industries in red tape and massive fees; and it will deprive our public services of talented and desperately needed workers. It will push different nations and regions of the United Kingdom towards depopulation and drive a wedge between us and our European neighbours. In short, it brings to an end the one part of the UK migration system that works well—the free movement of people. Instead, it expands the reach of the UK’s domestic rules—a complicated mess of burning injustice and bureaucracy—and that is why the SNP, without any hesitation, will be voting against this awful Bill. But this awful Bill was made even worse by its appalling timing. Pushing ahead with it in the midst of a public health and economic crisis, and without paying heed to the recent Windrush review, is spectacularly misjudged and shows that the Home Office remains totally out of touch with reality, and completely out of touch with public opinion.
I turn first to the coronavirus pandemic and I join others in paying tribute to those on the frontline. I pay particular tribute to the migrant workers who are there, including too many who have lost their lives—consultants from Sudan, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Uganda and Pakistan, a hospital porter from the Philippines, doctors from Germany and Iraq, nurses from Zimbabwe, Trinidad and South Africa, support workers from India and Ghana, and many, many more. Each and every one deserves our tributes and our gratitude, but the more fitting tribute would be a coherent and robust response to the crisis—one that genuinely seeks to ensure that we are all in this together and doing whatever it takes, but that is not what the Bill provides.
We should have had a Bill that makes it easier, instead of harder, to recruit the NHS, social care and other staff we need, and not one that uses an ill-considered financial threshold as a poor proxy for skill, talent or contribution. It is right that the Home Office has ditched its earlier rhetoric about cheap, low-skilled labour, but it is now time to drop the accompanying policies, too. We should have had a Bill setting out a comprehensive and generous system of visa extensions for those frontline workers and their families, not the piecemeal, back-of-the-envelope scheme that the Home Office has so far cobbled together.
We need a Bill that scraps the minimum income requirements for family visas and suspends other financial thresholds, acknowledging that migrant families and workers have had their incomes slashed, just like too many others. More than 100,000 NHS workers and a huge percentage of care workers are prevented by Home Office financial requirements from being able to sponsor their husbands, wives and children to join them here in the UK. Is it not quite outrageous for the Home Office to say, “Thank you for your hard work, but no thanks to bringing your family”? There is absolutely nothing fair about that.
We need a Bill that uprates the pitiful sums of money that we are providing to asylum seekers in this time of crisis and which ensures that, whatever stage of their asylum journey they are at, they can be properly protected. We need a Bill that ensures that all migrants have at least some form of temporary status and which ends the no recourse to public funds rules that deprive people of the support and accommodation they need to get through this crisis. It is impossible for someone to self-isolate if they do not have a roof over their head or food to eat.
We need a Bill that automatically protects all who are at risk of accidental overstaying until coronavirus is over, that gets people out of immigration detention, and that ends data sharing with the Home Office so that the NHS and other vital services are not places that people in need are afraid to attend. We need a Bill that recognises the absurdity of the NHS surcharge and scraps it for good. We need a Bill that postpones any new immigration system until this pandemic is over and we know the reality of the huge economic challenges ahead.
Employers are justifiably aghast at the fact that the Home Office is attempting to foist a whole new bureaucracy on them now, in the middle of a public health and economic crisis. The Government took four years to finalise their immigration proposals, yet they are giving employers little more than four months to adapt—four of the most difficult months imaginable. The Bill undermines, rather than helps, our response to the coronavirus.
However, it is not just the public health crisis that the Home Office has totally ignored in the Bill—staggeringly, it pays no heed to Windrush either. The Windrush lessons learned review is an incredible indictment of the Department. It talks of Ministers failing to “sufficiently question unintended consequences.” It refers to
“an institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race”
that reveals a Department that does not listen to contrary opinions or learn lessons, and where the political culture and pressure to be tough has caused harsh treatment, poor decisions and an absence of empathy for individuals. The Windrush case studies presented by Wendy Williams are enough to make people shake with anger, yet the Bill has not a single trace of recognition of Windrush in it and there are alarming signs that the Department has failed to learn lessons. Its crass and insensitive defence of the discriminatory right-to-rent policy almost makes me wonder whether the review has actually been read. Meanwhile, many of the same voices that warned about Windrush are warning about the fate of tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of EU citizens—old people, young people, looked-after children, care leavers and others—who may not appreciate the need to apply for settled status.
If they truly have learned the lessons of Windrush, the Government should protect EEA nationals properly. They should provide them with automatic rights, not rights contingent on their applying by a certain date; they should provide all with fully settled status and abandon the precarious pre-settled status; they should provide EEA citizens with a physical document as proof of their rights, and they must scrap the right to rent and other discriminatory hostile environment policies. Just as before, the Government seem to be ignoring the warnings; instead, the Bill seeks to give Ministers a blank cheque on future immigration policies. The last thing we should do is give the Home Office any more powers until the lessons of Windrush are properly learned.
There are so many other areas of immigration, asylum and nationality laws that need fixing. There is nothing in the Bill to address the injustices of nationality law, such as the disgraceful fees charged to children who simply want to register their British citizenship, to which they are entitled. There is nothing to fix our broken asylum system —the poverty support rates, the chaotic accommodation contracts, the shambolic move-on period, the ban on work, the restricted family reunion rights, and the loss of Dublin III participation. There is nothing here to address our addiction to immigration detention and the shame of being the only country in Europe without a time limit on detention. There is nothing to address the decimation of appeal rights and legal aid, which has contributed to many injustices, including Windrush.
Time and again, the Home Office has shown that it is so obsessed with numbers that it has totally lost sight of individual workers, students and family members, and the contributions that they make. More and more people will be asking, “Why did we leave immigration policy to the Home Office at all?”
Of course, on the question of who should make migration policy, with every single day of Home Office incompetence and injustice, the case for migration policy for Scotland being made in Scotland grows stronger. We have been reasonable, pragmatic and thorough in building the case, publishing papers and pointing to international best practice, but the Government simply refuse to engage in a grown-up discussion about migration policy being tailored for Scotland.
The risk of population decline and a shrinking labour force and tax base are real and grave issues for Scotland. The future system that this Government have designed is nothing short of a disaster for health and social care, tourism and hospitality, food and drink, agriculture, our universities, and many other key sectors of the Scottish economy. I recognise that it is not just Scotland that the Home Office is throwing under the bus, but other nations and regions of the UK too.
Instead of issuing soundbites and slogans about a system working for all, the Home Office must engage seriously. It must recognise that any system that has the express aim of reducing migration does not just fail to work for Scotland but actively works against Scotland’s interests. This is a rotten Bill, introduced with rotten timing. It is beyond repair and it does not deserve a Second Reading.
I now have to introduce a formal time limit of five minutes on Back-Bench speeches. I should remind hon. Members who are speaking from home to have some way of ensuring that they do not exceed five minutes in case they cannot see the time on their computer or device while they are speaking, because I will have to enforce the five-minute limit very strictly.
Parliament has an opportunity to seek a broader consensus on what immigration and citizenship means for our country. However, we must recognise that immigration is a question of balance. It may bring pressures, but it also brings significant gains. Finding that balance is crucial.
My party’s manifesto talked about control, which was a cornerstone of the 2016 referendum. However, a country’s having a sovereign say over its borders should not be confused with its being anti-immigration; as my party’s manifesto set out, it is more about offering a balanced package of measures that are fair, firm and compassionate.
The importance of the new immigration system is to identify and welcome the skills our country needs. The proposed NHS visa is a good case in point. The ongoing health crisis has underscored the tremendous contribution and commitment that many healthcare workers from overseas make to our care; without them, our nation and our brilliant NHS could not cope.
Further, we have a commitment to the 3 million-plus EEA nationals who call Britain home. We have rightly made a promise that no one with legal status should lose out, and we likewise rely on an important reciprocal arrangement with our European friends that they safeguard the rights of over 1 million British citizens living and working on the continent. Only a few days ago, my friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster wrote to the European Commission to highlight the issues some of our fellow British citizens are encountering in seeking to guarantee their rights—issues that I reasonably foresaw and gave prior repeated warnings on to both successive UK Governments and the EU, for example during my meeting with Michel Barnier last July.
The immigration debate today also focuses on the new points-based system and visas for work immigration. That is, of course, a central and key part of the new immigration policy, but it is not the only aspect that warrants and deserves our attention. I encourage the UK Government to think more about what happens after the points-based system: what is in store for those who come here, who build their lives here, who pay their taxes here, who reside here and who make significant contributions here? Just as the Government’s points-based system draws on the experience of Australia and Canada, there is much to be learned from their respective approaches to citizenship. For example, the Canadian handbook for new citizens opens with a warm message of welcome from the Queen and has a positive tone throughout. We could simply and easily emulate that welcoming, positive tone. But how do the costs of becoming a British citizen compare with those of Canada or Australia? It is estimated that the cost to the Home Office to process a citizenship application is about £370, yet the fee charged to an applicant is £1,330-odd, the highest amount in the western world. The combined cost for citizenship in Australia, Canada, France, Denmark and the United States is still less than the cost of an application for one British citizenship. This serves to highlight the huge disparity between our nation’s costs and those of nations such as Canada and Australia, whose immigration systems we are about to emulate.
I am currently chairing an inquiry involving colleagues from across the House and experts outside it, with the highly respected non-partisan think-tank British Future. The inquiry seeks to promote a new, proactive, measured approach and making citizenship fully part of our new perspective on immigration, and some of the practical ideas that could make that a reality. Therefore, in supporting this Bill today, I make this very modest request of the Government: to conduct a review of citizenship policy, to assess the current policies and processes from the perspective of the value of integration and shared identity that can be gained by encouraging the uptake of British citizenship.
The cross-party Select Committee on Home Affairs that I chair has repeatedly called for us to build a new, positive consensus on immigration in place of the polarisation of previous years, and this should be the time to do that: right across the country everyone can see the immense contribution of immigration to our nation and our public services, most of all our NHS and social care system. More than half of the NHS and careworkers who have died from coronavirus were born abroad; they could not have given more to this country, and we owe them so much.
We are also at a time when we need to move on from the old Brexit divides: Brexit happened in January and as a result European free movement rights end in December, so we need new legislation and the UK has to choose what to do next. We have to choose well and build a positive system that recognises and welcomes the contribution people coming to Britain have made for many generations and will make in future, too. We have to choose well and build a positive system that recognises and welcomes the contribution that people coming to Britain have made for many generations and will make in future, too. That means that the Government have to ditch the divisive rhetoric of recent years and recognise that the hostile environment, and the treatment of the Windrush generation as a result, demean us and can never be part of a new consensus. Meanwhile, Labour will need to make a start on the commitment we made in our 2017 manifesto to draw up new fair immigration rules for EU and non-EU migration in place of the EU free movement system.
I heard from Labour supporters concerned about the gulf, for example, between the rules for EU and non-EU citizens. I heard from others who opposed EU free movement, because they could see employers exploiting it to keep wages down, and who rightly pointed out that there is a difference between a free-market approach to immigration and a progressive approach to immigration. There are many different ways to draw up a left-of-centre, fair approach. It is time to look afresh at how we build a new positive consensus on immigration, but there are significant problems with the Government’s approach.
First, this is only half a Bill. It removes the old system, but it does not set out a new one. It gives Ministers major powers. In fact, we should be rejecting the old approach through successive Governments of only doing things through secondary legislation by making things more transparent and putting the bones of a new system in primary legislation instead.
Secondly, by default, the Bill extends rather than repeals the hostile environment. As we have seen from the Windrush scandal, that shames us. The hostile environment should be repealed rather than extended in this way.
Thirdly, there will be considerable problems with the Government’s White Paper proposals for social care. A quarter of a million careworkers have come from abroad —half of them from Europe—and we should be supporting them, yet the Government’s £25,000 salary threshold for overseas workers will turn those people away. Those careworkers should be valued and paid more, and I will campaign for them to be so, but the Government must heed the warning from the Health Foundation, which said:
“The government’s new immigration system looks set to make our social care crisis even worse.”
We cannot do that at this time.
The Bill should also do more to support careworkers. Rightly, the Home Office has introduced free visa extension for overseas doctors and nurses and has also said that if they die from covid-19, their families will be given indefinite leave to remain, but why exclude careworkers? Why exclude NHS porters and cleaners—those who wash and clean sick residents, those who scrub the door handles and the floor and those who do laundry for the covid wards? It is also time to lift the NHS surcharge for NHS staff and careworkers, instead of charging families maybe £10,000 when they renew five-year visas, on top of their taxes, to fund the NHS they are already working incredibly hard for and, in some awful cases, giving their lives for, too.
I believe this Bill is flawed, but I recognise that legislation on immigration is now needed. As Select Committee Chair, I will table amendments that I hope will receive cross-party support. In that cross-party spirit, I will not vote against the Bill tonight, although if the Government’s approach does not change, I expect to oppose it when it returns to the House, because it is immensely important that we try to build that new consensus. I urge the Government to do so, because they have the opportunity to do so now. There will always be disagreements on different aspects of immigration, but right now at this point, particularly in this coronavirus crisis, we should be looking for the areas where we can find agreement, and find a positive way forward.
It is always a privilege to follow the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, and I will pick up on one or two of the things she said.
The core purpose of the Bill is to deliver on the 2016 mandate of taking back control of our borders, so it is no surprise that I wholeheartedly approve of that policy, although I say to those on both Front Benches that I have always presumed that control of our own borders allows us to create policies that protect the interests of sectors such as care homes and their dedicated workers, and I trust we will do that.
The House should also use this opportunity to put right some deep and long-standing injustices at the heart of our immigration system. As it stands, illegal migrants can be held and detained indefinitely in psychologically inhumane conditions. Detention is meant to facilitate deportation, but we routinely detain people for extraordinary lengths of time without deporting them. By the end of 2019, the individual detained for the longest period had been in a holding centre for 1,002 days —nearly three years. These people are detained without trial or due process, without oversight and without basic freedom, and they are carrying the destabilising psychological burden of having no idea when they will be released. This flies in the face of centuries of British civil liberties and the rule of law.
For the most part, these detainees are not hardened criminals—they are frequently the victims of human trafficking, sexual assault and torture—yet we treat them as criminals, with little compassion at all. Let me tell one story, that of Anna, a Chinese woman who speaks no English. She had fled her home in China after her husband was sentenced to death for drug offences. She was told that she was being taken elsewhere in China. After days of travel, when the doors of her vehicle finally opened, she was not in China, but in rural Britain, where she was forced into prostitution and several years of unpaid work—slavery by another name—under threat of being reported to the immigration authorities. She was then arrested during a raid, taken to Yarl’s Wood and held indefinitely. Anna’s story is not an isolated case; as a country, we detain about 25,000 individuals each year for immigration purposes. Any situation in which the state strips people of their liberty requires the highest possible level of scrutiny and accountability. The purpose of any incarceration should be clear. Conditions and a time for release should be set. That is why I intend to table amendments limiting migrant detention to 28 days and providing robust judicial oversight. This was backed before, at the last turn of this Bill, by a cross-party group of MPs, as well as by the Select Committee on Home Affairs and the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I will finish by saying this simple thing: the UK has a proud tradition of civil liberties and the rule of law, and it is time to honour that by bringing an end to this damaging and unjust policy.
If the covid-19 crisis has taught us anything, it is the value of key workers, so many of whom are immigrants to this country, as we see when we look at the names of the NHS and social care workers who have tragically died. They came from every corner of the globe to care for us and have given their lives for us. So many of the key workers in the UK are immigrants: about 180,000 workers in the NHS and social care sector are from the EU alone, and they are highly represented among the doctors and nurses in our NHS; and, of course, we also have the agriculture workers, food production workers and other key workers, who are keeping our country going at a time of crisis. For decades, we have undervalued them, but now we applaud them in the streets. When the applause dies, we cannot return to business as usual; we cannot go back to the hostile environment, the racism and xenophobia, the “go home” vans and the scandal of Windrush.
We understand that the world economy is about to fall off a cliff, so we must invest domestically, in skills, education and jobs for our constituents, to ensure that they do not face mass unemployment and hardship, but we will still need new immigrants to help us fill skill gaps, where they exist. Now is not the time to put up barriers because, as we have heard, if we do so, the NHS and social care system will be on its knees. The new global Britain must be open for business, welcoming those who want to roll up their sleeves and help us, just as previous generations did, including my parents’ generation, who made a contribution to this country as new Commonwealth migrants. So let us not forget the proud history of supporting and encouraging immigration appropriately to rebuild after the post-war period. This Bill does not meet our economic needs after covid, nor does it protect the NHS or the social care system. The major flaw in the Bill is the conflation, as others have said, of skills and salaries. Lots of low-paid workers have a huge range of skills; yet the Government are setting a bar of more than £25,000, which, as we have heard, will block many NHS and social care workers.
Unison has predicted that we will need an extra 1 million careworkers by 2025. Many of them earn between £16,500 and £18,500. We should be recruiting an army of carers so that we honour the generations that raised us, who should be supported and cared for in their later years. That will be put even further at risk if we do not ensure that we meet the skills gap and shortages. We need to ensure that we have a pragmatic policy on immigration. The Bill provides nothing of the sort.
Finally, I want to turn to other areas where the Bill does not address the challenges. In other countries, such as Portugal and elsewhere, Governments are looking at how to ensure that undocumented migrants—we have some 800,000 to 1 million undocumented migrants—are given the healthcare that is needed during the pandemic, where there could be a wider risk.
When the Prime Minister emerged from hospital, he thanked staff, especially the two nurses from New Zealand and Portugal. Despite his praise, it is his Government’s policies that are making them suffer. The proposed surcharge on NHS workers coming to the UK could be as much as £8,000 for a family of four on a five-year visa. That is a huge amount of money, and it is an absolute disgrace that the Government are considering that surcharge. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that that does not happen.
There are many flaws in the Bill, as others have pointed out, including the power grab by Ministers. Why should anyone trust Ministers who presided over the “Go Home” vans and the Windrush scandal? For those reasons, the Bill is not fit for purpose and does not recognise that we need a new settlement and a new consensus, having seen the contribution of migrants to our national health service in protecting and saving lives. The Bill is not fit for purpose, and for that reason I will vote against it.
For decades, people in this country have talked about immigration. When it comes to EU migration, that national debate has been entirely academic, as the UK had so little control over it. In 2016, the British people were asked their view on membership of the EU. Some suggest that immigration was the main driver in making their decision to leave. I think that there were several reasons, but without doubt, immigration was clearly a key driver—the control of our borders and the ending of free movement.
A question was asked; a question was answered. Although too many Members of the last Parliament did not get it, today we can put the dilly, dally, dither and delay to an end. I understand that some are concerned by what they see as a bizarre concept: the end of free movement. To me, it is rather simple: a UK immigration system created and developed by the UK’s elected Government; a system devised in our national interest, determined by the needs of our economy; a system that treats immigrants from every corner of the globe on the same basis, which is all about what they are bringing to our country rather than where they are coming from.
The Bill means that the nurses, doctors, engineers and scientists from the Philippines, Canada, India or the USA will be treated equally to those from Germany, Italy or France. The Bill is not anti-immigration; it is about fair immigration. It will mean that applicants will be judged on their skills and talents, not just their country of origin. The European backdoor will be closed, but Britain will be very much open to the brightest and best, wherever they come from. It is absurd that someone from outside the EU might be denied access to this country based on criminality, while someone from the EU who met the same threshold would be free to enter. It is wrong and it must end.
Very often, the country has chosen to import huge segments of its workforce. Actually, we need to look at why we fail to find the right people with the right skills domestically. The success of this system will be determined by the adaptability and flexibility of the shortage occupation list, coupled with a renewed effort to train, incentivise and invest in our domestic workforce. At the same time, I am glad that the Government are working to welcome the migrants who make such a valued contribution to our NHS, extending the visas of frontline NHS workers and introducing a new NHS visa with fast-track entry and more generous terms.
I am happy to be talking about our borders because it is a subject that concerns many people in my constituency, but also because it is crucial at this time to secure our borders. I have discussed this issue with the Home Secretary and look forward to hearing her express our shared concern to deliver a swift and active solution. Let us give the people what they want and what they voted for: a country in control of its own borders, with a fairer, firmer points-based system that will welcome the brightest and the best based on what they can contribute to this country and not on where they come from.
Today, with this Bill, the Government are seeking to grant themselves powers to reshape our immigration system, with little scrutiny and with little regard for the rights of people who, sadly, they dismiss as low-skilled simply because they do not earn a high salary. These Government plans are built on the right-wing neo-liberal myth that people’s salary determines their skills and their value. Well, the coronavirus crisis has shown all of us whose work actually is essential to keeping our society running, and many of those workers earn far less than the Government’s proposed salary threshold of £25,600. Let us be clear: workers earning under the threshold are not low-skilled; they are low-paid. All of us have a moral responsibility to recognise their contribution, and not to introduce rules that restrict the rights of low-paid workers even further, because it will be our communities, and often the most vulnerable members of our communities, who will pay the price for this.
Our care system is facing an unprecedented crisis, and our Government, shamefully, are seeking to make it harder for careworkers to come to this country to contribute. The founder of our national health service, Aneurin Bevan, once remarked that we could manage without stockbrokers, but we would find it harder to do without miners, steelworkers and those who cultivate the land. The 21st-century equivalent is that our society could cope a lot longer without hedge fund managers, fat-cat landlords and billionaire tax avoiders and tax evaders than we could without bus drivers, bin collectors, supermarket workers, carers and other low-paid workers who under these rules will face tougher restrictions than the top earners.
Our approach to the Bill today cannot be divorced from the record of this Government over the past decade. This Government, with their hostile environment, have used their narrative on immigration as a way to scapegoat one part of the working class for problems the working-class as a whole face due to austerity, cuts and free market fundamentalism. This Government are wilfully scapegoating migrants to let off the hook those who are really responsible for the economic failings of the past decade.
Just the other week, an NHS physician in my constituency who came here from Egypt wrote to me distraught because, as he put it to me, if he were to die in service of our NHS due to coronavirus, his dependent family would be booted out of this country. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said, the Government have shifted on this, but they should not have had to be asked in the first place—and why can they not extend that change in position to careworkers?
How can we trust a Government who oversaw the hostile environment? How can we hand over powers to the Government to create a new immigration system with far less scrutiny than previously? How can we trust that there will not be a second Windrush crisis affecting many thousands of EU citizens who came to make their life here but have not yet been granted settled status? How can we trust that, under political pressure, the Home Secretary and this Government will not make immigration policy that is designed not to serve the interests of working-class communities or diversity, but to chase headlines in the right-wing newspapers?
I was one of the sponsors of a reasoned amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy). It was not selected, but I nevertheless want to reiterate demands made in it. I want the Government to think again about this immigration Bill. We need the Government to think again and to protect the rights of British citizens to live, work and study in other EEA member states. We need the Government to think again and grant EEA citizens currently living here in the UK automatic permanent settled status. We need the Government to reflect long and hard on the history of the Windrush scandal and of “Go Home” vans touring estates, making a hostile environment for people in our communities. The Government need to reflect on that. They need to reflect on who really contributes to our society.
The Government also need to reflect on the need to end the scandal of indefinite detention, which makes us, in a very shameful way, stick out like a sore thumb in Europe—
Order. The hon. Gentleman has exceeded his five minutes. We now go to Dr Jamie Wallis in Bridgend.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
It is clear that when some people in Bridgend voted for my party for the first time, they did so knowing that this Government would take them out of the European Union and that we were going to take back control of our borders. One of the loudest messages that some of my constituents raised with me during the last general election campaign was that immigration needed to be under this Government’s control. They rejected the plan on offer by the Opposition, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has shown that she is absolutely on the side of British people and their priorities.
Immigration is essential to our culture, economy and way of life. Immigrants have powered and often created many of our businesses. We should also thank them for their continued contribution to our great public services, and our appreciation should never waver, especially now, during the covid-19 crisis. But this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the way our immigration system works for the better. For the first time in decades, the UK will have full control over who comes to this country and how our immigration system operates. I welcome the Government’s commitment to build a fairer, single global immigration system that considers people based on their skills rather than their nationality. I also welcome the commitment to replace free movement with the UK’s very own points-based system. This new system will prioritise those with the best skills and the more-needed talents, including scientists, doctors, nurses, engineers, academics and innovators.
I have always believed that the new system is about more than simply controlling the numbers. While I am glad that the Government are committed to reducing the overall levels of migration, I am more glad still of their commitment to attract the best and brightest from across the world. This will benefit businesses, including those within my Bridgend constituency. This process is about helping to create a high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy. I welcome this approach. Our country cannot become dependent on cheap labour and must focus instead on investment in technology and future industries, such as the space industry and clean energy.
The current covid-19 crisis will undoubtedly have a huge impact on the British economy, and it is imperative that our immigration policy facilitates those businesses looking to future industries as a way of supporting our recovery. We must ensure that our policy is focused on building a future where we level up Britain and focus on what is best for all our futures in the coming months. Our common aim should be to invest in and mobilise our UK workforce.
We also need to take into account the fact that within the United Kingdom we are going to have regional variations in demand for certain skills. Take Wales, for example: we have a high dependence on a limited number of sectors such as steel and manufacturing. Where there is a shortage of certain skills within specific industries, the Migration Advisory Committee should be set up to acknowledge and report on those differences.
Just before I close, let me say that the economy, especially during these uncertain times, has the potential to change quite dramatically over the next few years. We need to make sure that, rather than looking at the current output of certain industries, our immigration policy is looking to respond proactively to their potential. For example, sectors such as clean energy and robotics may make up a small part of Britain’s economy today, but they have the potential to make a much larger contribution in the future. It is therefore important that we have an immigration policy that is set up to support the future growth of these sectors in particular. By ensuring that we take this proactive approach, we can ensure that our immigration system can withstand significant changes to the way our economy may work in the future and that we continue to attract the brightest and the best in their respective fields.
Finally, stopping the unfair disadvantage that some people outside the EU face when trying to come to this country is a sound argument. I say that as someone who has parents and grandparents who were born outside the EU, but who made Britain their home and built their lives here. Talent is spread across the whole world and is not concentrated in any one region. That is why, with this fair immigration Bill, we will be able to ensure that our friends and partners across the whole world have the opportunity to come to this great country and help make a success of post-Brexit Britain.
Like my good friend the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), I shall be voting against this Bill. It is a bad Bill. It is bad in principle, bad in practice and it sends a terrible message to migrants and the children of migrants. The Bill does indeed abolish freedom of movement—although once this country voted to brexit, freedom of movement would have fallen in any event—but the Government are doing it in such a way and in such a manner that it seems to ignore the effect of this on around 890,000 British nationals in the EU. We feel that there was a better way of achieving the same effect.
The Bill gives the Government a blank cheque to construct a new immigration system through statutory instrument. Anybody that has had to deal with the immigration system knows that one of the problems is ill-thought regulation piled on top of ill-thought regulation. The idea that the Government can construct a new immigration system without proper parliamentary scrutiny will make anyone who has ever tried to help anybody with an immigration problem fear for the consequences.
The Bill is a slap in the face for the thousands of migrants, including EU migrants, who have been working so hard for the NHS and the care sector in this time of covid crisis. The idea put forward by Ministers that £25,600 is somehow a proxy level for skill is absurd. We know that the skills, the concern and the devotion that migrants are currently showing at this time of covid crisis cannot be measured by money, but Ministers seem to think that we can measure somebody’s value to society by an arbitrary financial threshold.
EU migrants play a vital role not just in the NHS and the care sector, but in construction. In fact, they play a big role in construction, not because they are unskilled but because, as any developer would tell us, they have very important construction skills that developers are unable to recruit here. They play an important role in hospitality. They should have been granted settled status automatically. They should have physical documents, not a digital code, and we should not be moving towards extending the hostile environment towards EU migrants.
The Bill represents a missed opportunity. It is a missed opportunity on the NHS surcharge. It is quite wrong that migrants working for the NHS pay three times over: once through taxation; once through the surcharge; and, in some cases, with their lives. It should have ended the no recourse to public funds system. It should have brought in a 28- day statutory time limit for immigration detention. It should have brought back legal aid for article 8 immigration cases, and it should have reformed the law on deportations so that people who came here as children cannot be arbitrarily deported.
When the House debated Wendy Williams’ Windrush lessons learned review, there was a lot of hand-wringing on the Government side of the House about the Windrush scandal, but the review had some quite specific recommendations about immigration, including that the Home Secretary introduce a migrants commissioner; that the immigration department should re-educate itself fully about the current reach and effect of immigration and nationality law; that there should be a programme of training and development for all immigration and policy officials; and that Ministers should ensure that all policies and proposals for legislation on immigration are subject to rigorous impact assessments.
The Home Secretary has said that the Bill is about a brighter future. A brighter future for whom? For EU nationals, who face a period of great uncertainty? Is it a brighter future for the old, the sick and the infirm, because the institutions that they rely on will have enormous difficulty recruiting people when there is an end to freedom of movement? Is it a brighter future for society, when we pass a Bill that sends a signal to wider society—and to migrants in particular—that you are only as valuable as the amount that you earn, and that we will clap for you on a Thursday and put forward a Bill like this a few days’ later?
I welcome the opportunity to speak in these proceedings, as they represent another important step in this Government delivering on what people in Crewe and Nantwich voted for, and that is for us to take back control. That is why the Bill is important. I relish the fact that we are now once again having a full and healthy debate about the details of our immigration policy—not just a yes or no to the freedom of movement. We are having these debates because our Government are once again fully accountable for immigration policy. The Opposition have every right to scrutinise and propose alternative approaches—that is how our democracy functions.
How did we ever think that on such a complicated issue we could simply tick a box saying yes? Deciding who can visit, work in and live in our country is a matter of fundamental importance that should never have been simplified to such an unsophisticated approach as freedom of movement. There are so many different factors that we need to balance—the needs of business in the short and long term; the goal of providing the best possible job opportunities for British citizens; the obligations we have to provide safe refuge to individuals in need; the impact on our housing market; and the effect of large-scale immigration on social cohesion. Those are just a few of the things we have to think about.
All of those factors will ebb and flow in importance over time, and any effective immigration system needs to be able to ebb and flow along with them. Instead, we have had a fixed policy, direct accountability for which sat offshore. A multifactorial issue became a binary one. People were either pro freedom of movement or against it. I am afraid that that did not work, and was never going to work. It became a touchstone issue in relation to our EU membership, because voters could sense it was not right. That is fundamentally why I want freedom of movement abolished. It is policy making on the cheap, decision making without decisions—the multitude of views on all the different ways in which we should change our policy that we will hear in the Chamber today are a testimony to that.
I want to talk about what I think has been a shameless attempt to distort the meaning of the term “low-skilled”—a phrase that has been used cross-party across multiple Governments for many years. The last Labour Home Secretary referred on a number of occasions in this House to the low-skilled, and I cannot believe anybody would ascribe to him any disrespect to those he was referring to in his use of that term. The current shadow Home Secretary has spoken about high-skilled jobs in the House, and I do not imagine that anyone would argue that we can talk about high-skilled jobs without having to acknowledge the existence of low-skilled jobs. I do not in any way seek to diminish the prominence of the current post holder, but in 2014 the previous long-serving shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) asked the then Business Secretary what steps were being taken to address the exploitation of low-skilled workers. In 2018, the right hon. Lady also agreed that it was logical to distinguish between high and low-skilled migrants when making immigration decisions. I find the deliberate attempt to inject disrespect into the current use of that term extremely distasteful, because it is an attempt to gain some short-term political advantage by hurting the feelings of people who at this minute are working hard for this nation. However, perhaps it would do no harm to review our language in this regard so that in future it cannot be exploited.
What do we really mean when we use the term “low-skilled”? What we are actually talking about is how readily a skill can be acquired. The person who cleans a cubicle so that I can see a patient is just as vital a member of the team as I am when it comes to looking after patients. If they were not doing their job, I could not do mine. But we can more readily train someone to do that job than we can train someone to be a doctor or nurse. That is a simple fact. It does not in any way demean the importance of the role or contribution of those whose skills are more easily acquired than others. Opposition Members know that full well, and that is part of the discussion we will have about salaries and how that works when we decide roles and who we want to come here.
When we consider whether we should allow people to come here to live and work, we inevitably prioritise individuals with skillsets that are not readily or easily acquired. That is what we are talking about when we talk about high and low-skilled jobs. Going forward, perhaps we could consider changing our approach to talk about readily acquired and non-readily acquired skills, so that we are saying exactly what we mean and there can be no doubt.
Of course, I expect the Government to look closely at how their policy approach will translate in the real world so that our public services have the staff who are needed and our economy is well resourced. We need to find a way to recognise the important and valuable contribution that immigrant workers have made to the NHS during this crisis, but it is absolutely right that we should grow our home skill base whenever possible. I have felt very uncomfortable with our reliance on the immigration of healthcare professionals to this country over many decades, because we are sometimes taking staff who are desperately needed in their countries of origin, particularly outside the EU. That cannot be right—
Order. Thank you. The hon. Gentleman has exceeded his five minutes.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate remotely. Last week, one Member described the hybrid system as “sub-optimal”, and that is undoubtedly the case, but it does at least allow everyone the chance to take part in debates safely.
If the Leader of the House is going to press ahead with his proposals for a physical Parliament after recess, I hope he will explain how we could debate this Bill any more effectively while only small numbers of Members can be allowed in the Chamber; how Members who are shielding or self-isolating could take part in this debate; how Members who have childcare responsibilities and kids off school during the crisis could take part in this debate; and how we could sensibly have a Division involving 600 people at the end of this debate, while social distancing. Perhaps he will also explain why the House of Commons should follow different advice from that given to the rest of the country.
Let me move on to the Bill. I agree with everything that my hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary said about the EU citizens who are keeping our care system and our health service going at this most difficult of times. They are heroes, like the rest of the staff in our care and health sector and the other key workers in this crisis. They are highly skilled; they should be highly valued. I endorse what my hon. Friend said about the income threshold and our concerns about the risk to the future care sector under the Government’s proposals.
Three quarters of my constituents voted to remain in the EU, and the principles of openness, co-operation, internationalism and solidarity that led so many of them to do that have not changed. Yes, free movement brings challenges, but it also brings huge economic, social and cultural benefits. It will be a sad day when my constituents and other UK citizens will no longer have the ability to travel freely and to study, live and work easily across our wonderful continent.
I recognise that free movement is going to end as a result of the Bill, but the way the Government are going about it is unacceptable, most worryingly in the granting to the Executive of wide Henry VIII powers, which many of my constituents in south Manchester do not trust this Government with. Side-lining Parliament is ironic in the context of the arguments for taking back control to Parliament.
The House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee produced a report on the almost identical 2017-19 Bill and expressed serious concerns about the wide scope of its regulation-making powers. The Committee stated that it was “frankly disturbed” that the Government would attempt to confer permanent powers to Ministers
“to make whatever legislation they considered appropriate”
as long as it was loosely connected to clause 4 of that Bill. It is a serious report and I refer all Members to the concerns expressed in it.
Other Members have raised the important issues in respect of detention, unaccompanied vulnerable children and visas, so I shall not go over them again. I wish to use the brief time I have left to raise one specific issue for future consideration. As we design a future work and immigration system, and as we come out of this crisis, it is more important than ever to support our cultural industries, which have been hit harder than most by the crisis. Lots of my constituents in south Manchester work in the entertainment industry, many of them in the live music and performance professions. Loss of freedom of movement could have a seriously detrimental effect on the live performance industry. If we make it harder for EU artists to perform in the UK, we are vulnerable to measures that make it harder for our artists to perform around the EU. Winding up a Westminster Hall debate just four months ago, in January, the Minister, the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), said:
“It is essential that free movement is protected for artists post 2020.”—[Official Report, 21 January 2020; Vol. 670, c. 56WH.]
Organisations in the music industry are pressing for an EU-wide touring visa for musicians, performers, road crew, tour managers, sound and light engineers—all the people who make the industry such a vital contributor to our economic and cultural life. We need a passporting system with reciprocal arrangements, so performers can continue to tour easily after the transition period. A two-year, multi-entry touring visa that is cheap and easy to administer is a deliverable ask.
Music remains a low-earning sector, with musicians earning £23,000 a year on average. They would not meet the salary threshold under the Government’s proposal, so it is vital that the Government come up with a system that supports the live music and performance industries, which employ so many of my constituents and make all our lives richer and more rewarding.
Importantly for this country, which has always welcomed immigrants, the Bill will enable the alignment of treatment of EU and non-EU citizens as part of our future immigration system. The Bill reflects the concerns of the British people and ends free movement, giving everyone the same opportunity to come to the UK, regardless of where they come from. In line with our manifesto commitments, there will be no automatic route into the UK for foreign workers with few formal qualifications. We can attract the talent and skills from around the world that our economy needs as we emerge from coronavirus. The new, fair immigration system will be flexible and in line with advice from the Migration Advisory Committee, which will keep the occupation shortage list under regular review to ensure that it reflects the needs of our labour market.
Immigration will no longer be used as a replacement for investment in the domestic British workforce. We have an abundance of talent and skills in this country, which must be developed and utilised. Most of us, except for those who support open borders, believe that countries should have an unalienable right to decide who gets to enter their land for work. To seek and strive for such a right does not make us anti-immigrant—quite the opposite. The UK is made up of a rich tapestry of people, and as a country we are the better for it. It is right that people from all over the world are treated fairly and equally, so far as immigration into this country is concerned, under our rule of law. We have a rule of law allowing legal immigration from non-EU countries, but it has far too often been exploited by illegal immigrants and people smugglers and traffickers. It is not right that those who have arrived here illegally are seen by some to have a presumptive right. People who avoid the law are not acting within the law, and are therefore acting illegally.
I welcome the introduction, from the end of the transition period, of a single, consistent and firmer approach to criminality across the immigration system. In my constituency of beautiful Hastings and Rye, we have seen hundreds of migrants land on our shores in small boats from France, most recently at Pett Level at the weekend. They are not refugees, as some insist on calling them. They are migrants, who move for a variety of reasons but who generally make a conscious choice to leave their country to seek a better life elsewhere. They are free to return at any time if things do not work out as they had hoped or if they wish to visit family members and friends left behind.
Refugees are forced to leave their country because they are at risk of, or have experienced, persecution. Their concerns are of safety and human rights, not economic advantage, and as such they seek asylum in the first safe country that they arrive in. Many have experienced trauma or have been tortured, causing them to risk their lives in search of protection. They are not free to return to their homelands unless the situation that forced them to leave improves.
Worryingly, we have seen unaccompanied children arrive who are thought to be victims of trafficking. The people who have been landing on our beaches are coming over from France via unauthorised, illegal crossings, having paid thousands of pounds to a criminal—a people smuggler—to do so. I want to be clear: we must press down hard on those exploiting the vulnerable and using them as part of their human trafficking system. Those making the perilous journey across the English channel are risking their lives by doing so, and we must discourage these journeys. We must ensure that those caught up in human trafficking gangs and smuggling rackets are protected and that those orchestrating the journeys are stopped.
France is a safe country. They are not fleeing persecution. Under EU law—the Dublin regulation—asylum must be sought in the first country people arrive in. Furthermore, many have travelled through a number of safe European countries before arriving in France and then going on to UK. If we do not emphasise the difference between migrants and those seeking asylum or refuge, it promulgates misconceptions about the most vulnerable—the refugees, for whom we need to provide the best possible sanctuary. We need to safeguard and expand refugees’ rights and protect them.
Ultimately, we need to ensure that the British public have trust in our immigration system and remain welcoming of legal immigrants and refugees. That can be achieved with the new, robust, fair and independent migration system controlled by the United Kingdom, making sure that illegal migrants do not have not a presumptive right to stay—
Order. The hon. Lady has exceeded her five minutes.
It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart). Two words dominate my thinking in this debate: disappointment and frustration. My disappointment is that we are presented with a Bill that seeks to end freedom of movement without offering a fair, compassionate and effective alternative, and that the bold words from the Home Secretary are not matched by bold actions in her Bill. I am afraid that I see no point in any level playing field if it is one on which no one is welcome to play. My frustration is with the fact that the Government do not appear to have listened to the many reasonable voices from across Parliament calling on them to rethink this potentially damaging Bill.
The Bill comes at a time when everything we thought we knew about our economy, our wellbeing, our health and how we live our lives every day has been thrown into doubt by the pandemic—a pandemic which demands that we take its actual and potential impacts into account in each step we take towards putting the crisis behind us. That is more relevant to this immigration Bill than to almost any other legislation before us.
Just this morning, a Cabinet Minister told the “Today” programme that the Government want to see people we need come to this country. Surely there is nobody this country needs more at the moment than the tens of thousands of doctors, nurses and other NHS staff, the hundreds of thousands of social care workers and the millions more in sectors hit hard by this crisis—from restaurants and hotels to construction and manufacturing —in every city, town and rural community in this country who are migrants. These are migrants who are putting their lives on the line to protect us, who will be crucial to creating economic growth and jobs as we recover from this crisis, and yet who are still expected to pay the surcharge for the NHS they work for, despite the false hope offered by the Home Secretary.
The Royal Society has warned that the end of freedom of movement could mean that other countries without restrictive visas and salary qualifications will benefit from the skills and knowledge available across Europe to which we will no longer have access. In the midst of this crisis, I find it beyond understanding that the Home Secretary is pushing ahead with her plans to make it much harder for employers to hire the very people I am talking about. Visa extensions and fast tracks for some are not enough. Many of these people are the very people we go out every Thursday to applaud for their efforts and sacrifice for us. Surely the Government’s memory is not that short.
That is only part of why I believe that this House should refuse the Bill a Second Reading. Crucially, it also fails to protect the rights of British citizens to live, work and study in EU member states, and it does not fully guarantee the rights of UK citizens already living across the EU. While I am disappointed and frustrated that the Government refuse to respect the rights of EU citizens who contribute to this country, I find it beyond comprehension that they do not recognise the need to protect the rights of our citizens either.
If the stated aim of this Bill is to establish an immigration system to replace free movement that will allow businesses and public services to recruit the workers they need, then it fails. What is needed by the people living in this country right now—people depending on our NHS right now and people struggling, right now, to see how their employer or the business they have worked decades to build will survive this—is an immigration system that will work for them. All of us need a system that will encourage not only those we need to come here, but those we need to stay, and one that will encourage them by creating a fair and compassionate system that will value them according to what they do, not just by a simple salary calculation. Many will also have no recourse to public funds in this crisis.
This Government, in asking Parliament to support a Bill that will give Ministers sweeping powers, would do well to take into account the words of US politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan:
“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”
This Bill could have profound and, I believe, negative effects on our society and culture. Surely it is up to those of us with political power to save us from that, and that is why I will be voting against this Bill.
I rise in support of this Bill. First and foremost, I am a democrat. I stood on a manifesto saying that we will take back control of our immigration policies, and this Bill is part of that package. Brexit and covid-19 have shown how quickly the world changes, and we need an immigration system flexible enough to ensure that we attract the skilled workers that we need for tomorrow. February’s policy statement made it clear that we need to move away from cheap labour from Europe and more towards investment in technology and automation. I would add that perhaps we need to talk about increasing manufacturing to be making our country more self-sufficient.
The system proposed is a lot simpler. It really does incorporate a points-based system, with streamlined process times that I am sure businesses will welcome. The reality is that businesses need to adapt. They are currently having to change fundamentally the way they work because of the pandemic, and this will be part of their business decision making. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) referred to the criminality, and how this reinforces and strengthens that policy, and I am fully in agreement with him.
As things stand today, we have a two-tier immigration system. With our leaving at the end of this year, we need to have a simple single immigration system, and this immigration Bill allows that to happen. We must be flexible, yet firm on our direction of travel. The Migration Advisory Committee has done some sterling work, and I urge Ministers to ensure that a regular review is fed back to them and perhaps to the Home Affairs Committee on the parameters it uses for the shortage occupation lists. In my view, that will be the key driver in ensuring that we have the skilled workers in the right place at the right time. I welcome the proposal for the support of the agriculture sector, with the increase to 10,000 visas per year from the current 2,500.
It is probably worth remembering, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) mentioned, that this Bill is only two clauses different from that proposed in the previous Parliament. I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to continue to encourage their European nationals to utilise the EU settlement scheme, which is fundamentally very successful. Of the 3.147 million applications, 99% have either been granted as settled or pre-settled, with only 1% having other outcomes; only 640 have been refused, so it is obviously a system that works.
I will leave it there, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I know there are other colleagues wanting to be involved in this debate. Thank you for your time.