House of Commons
Tuesday 19 May 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
The House entered into hybrid scrutiny proceedings (Order, 21 April).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Pubs as Takeaway Restaurants
The Government welcome the reopening of food-to-go businesses in line with social distancing measures and have relaxed planning rules so that pubs and restaurants can operate as hot food takeaways. We published guidance for restaurants offering takeaway or delivery services, which has been widely welcomed by the sector. The UK Government, along with the devolved Administrations, are working closely with the food and drink and hospitality sectors to support their gradual reopening and continued operations.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Pubs like the Fleur De Lys in East Hagbourne have been doing a great job, with takeaway pints of beer and food three nights a week, from fish and chips to roasts. Can he confirm that he actively encourages that but knows that it is not a substitute for being properly open and that the Government will work with pubs to guide them on how they can do so safely as soon as possible?
We were very clear when we imposed the original restrictions at the point of lockdown that those did not extend to takeaway food outlets. We were clear that we wanted to support those pubs and restaurants that wanted to remain open, offering takeaway food. Those that have done have made an important contribution to our food supply at this difficult time, and we very much welcome the steps they have taken. Of course, we also recognise that until things return to something closer to normal and they can reopen normally—hopefully later this summer—that will not give them all the trade they previously had.
I am encouraged by my right hon. Friend’s response. Our pubs are at the heart of the communities I represent in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton. What work will he be undertaking alongside his colleagues across Government and, more importantly, on a regional level with our West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, to ensure that pubs in the Black Country have all the means necessary to survive and thrive again once the crisis is over?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Pubs are at the heart of our community, and the fact that they have been forced to close has caused difficulty for many of them. As the Prime Minister has outlined, we intend that the hospitality sector, including pubs, will be able to tentatively start gradually opening, hopefully during the month of July, subject to the epidemiology supporting such a move. We are already working with the hospitality and pub sector to identify what social distancing measures they might be able to put in place to make that work properly.
Supermarket Supply Chains
We have worked closely with retailers and suppliers to ensure the security of supply chains, while also protecting staff safety. I would like to put on record again my thanks to the sector for demonstrating such resilience and flexibility in the face of the crisis. Staff have worked around the clock to ensure that people have the food they need. To support industry, we have introduced temporary measures, including temporary relaxations to competition law, and extended delivery hour regulations, and we have published guidance to help to ensure that workplaces and retail spaces are as safe as possible.
To support the resilience of the supermarkets and food shops on which my constituents in Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner depend, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that people who work in food supply and food retail are able to access priority testing for covid-19, so that they can get back to work?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that all essential workers, including all those involved in the food supply chain, are eligible for testing. We are working with the food sector to ensure that employees who are either self-isolating with symptoms of the coronavirus or who have a symptomatic household member are able to access those tests. Eligible workers who are self-isolating can apply for a test directly online or can be referred for a test by their employer.
The resilience of the food supply chains has been impressive, and we thank all those who work on our farms and in processing factories and the pickers, delivery drivers and, of course, shop workers who have kept the food flowing to our supermarkets. The foolish dismantling of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, now made worse by the covid crisis, means that we face an alarming shortfall in the 70,000 experienced people needed to pick our crops. The laudable “Pick for Britain” campaign may help, but it was reported only a few weeks ago that of the 50,000 applicants, only 112 had made it into the field. Can the Secretary of State tell us what those figures are today and what is his plan B?
We estimate that only about a third of the east European workforce who would usually come to work on our farms are here or have continued to come. That means that we will need a British workforce to step up and assist in getting the harvest in this year, and we are very encouraged by the results so far. The hon. Gentleman is right that a few weeks ago, when it was early in the season, there were not many jobs. But we are now approaching the peak season in June, and employers are starting to recruit more and more British workers. For instance, G’s salads currently has more than 400 British people working on its farms today
The food industry has responded quickly and impressively to the significant changes in demand that we have seen over the past month. That has ensured supply into stores and people’s homes across the country, and has demonstrated that the supply chain remains resilient. The Government have supported the industry with proportionate and temporary relaxations of competition law and drivers’ hours and extended delivery hours.
The Secretary of State is absolutely right: British farmers have been brilliant in getting food on the table. Does he agree, therefore, that there is no need for US-style industrial factory farming of poultry in this country, and will he look into the rotten proposal from my constituency, which I wrote to him about on 15 April?
I am aware, as it has been drawn to my attention, following my hon. Friend’s question, that there is a letter that I have yet to respond to; I will respond to that. Obviously, the issues that he has raised are predominantly issues for the environment agencies that carry out such environmental assessments. He mentions US-style poultry. Obviously, some approaches to poultry farming in the US will not be lawful in the United Kingdom, so I can reassure him on that.
The adequacy of the food supply includes the nutritional values and the production standards. The Government whipped their Back Benchers to vote against maintaining food standards for imports in the Agriculture Bill, and now we are hearing that it is a fire sale in the US trade deal. How can the public ensure that the food in our shops remains of the same quality as it is now?
This Government have a very clear manifesto commitment that we will protect our food standards in all our trade negotiations. Certain practices, such as chlorine washes on chicken or hormones in beef, are subject to a prohibition on sale in the UK, and that law remains in place. It is also the case that, as we advance trade negotiations with all third countries, animal welfare is one of the issues that we will be seeking to promote.
Supermarkets: Good Hygiene and Social Distancing
From the outset, we have worked extensively with retailers and Public Health England to establish best practice and publish guidance on social distancing and hygiene, to keep staff and customers safe. Industry has adapted effectively and quickly, and measures introduced include signage and floor markings to help customers maintain distance, screens at tills and limits on the number of customers in store.
On a recent visit to my local supermarket in Blyth, I was pleased to see that the supermarkets are taking all the necessary precautions to try to protect the public while they are out shopping. Those include cleaning stations, markings on the floor and regular announcements to tell people to maintain social distance. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as measures are relaxed and we move forward, we must all be aware and mindful while out shopping, to protect not only ourselves but the staff, who have been providing an invaluable service during this pandemic?
On the latter point, I take the opportunity to pay tribute to all those key workers working throughout our food supply chain, from those working on farms to those working in logistics and food manufacturing, and of course those working in our supermarkets. They have helped to ensure that the nation has remained fed, and the work that they have done has been truly phenomenal.
I also agree with my hon. Friend that as we seek to evolve the current restrictions and move back to something closer to life as normal, we all have a great deal that we can learn from the measures that have been put in place by supermarkets—and also in factory environments by our food processors.
I congratulate my local Sainsbury’s stores in Erith Road, Barnehurst, and in Crayford on their good organisation and friendly staff. Does my right hon. Friend agree that other businesses will be able to learn lessons from the actions taken by supermarkets to ensure good hygiene and social distancing?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: our supermarket retailers acted within hours—certainly within 24 hours—to implement social distancing when lockdown occurred. They acted swiftly, and we have learned a lot along the way, in conjunction with Public Health England. I can tell my right hon. Friend that the experiences of our supermarkets and food manufacturers have been shared extensively with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, as it has developed safer-working protocols for other parts of the economy, because we can—absolutely—learn from the steps that supermarkets and others have taken.
The coronavirus response has exemplified the resilience of the UK food supply chain. Industry has responded quickly to significant changes in demand to ensure that people have the food they need. In the initial few weeks, when there was an episode of panic buying, our food manufacturers increased output by some 50%.
Although our food security depends on both international trade and domestic production, this crisis has brought home the crucial importance of domestic food production. We are fortunate to have some of the most innovative food manufacturers and producers in the world, and I pay tribute to all they have done in recent months.
Between April and September last year, the Trussell Trust reported a 23% rise in the number of food parcels provided across the UK. As of April this year, the figure has doubled. Given the World Bank’s recent warning of a covid-19 worldwide food price spike, as well as the alarming rise in unemployment we have seen today, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to alleviate the shameful growth in food poverty?
We recognise that, as a result of the coronavirus crisis, the financial vulnerability of households has also increased. That is why, last week, the Government announced a new £16 million fund to support food charities, including refuges and homeless hostels. The food will be distributed by our existing partners in FareShare.
Food bank demand is surging, up on average by between 60% and 80% from pre-virus levels. Now, unemployment is soaring, up by nearly 70% last month. It is clear that we need measures that match the scale of the crisis. Last week, the Secretary of State whipped his MPs to reject Labour’s sensible proposals for an emergency coronavirus food plan. With The Times reporting that the Prime Minister is now keen on a food plan of his own, dealing with obesity and coronavirus, will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government’s urgently needed food strategy, which must include a coronavirus focus, will be published before the recession bites?
The food strategy that is being developed by Henry Dimbleby, one of our non-executive directors, will involve an initial report in the autumn setting out the approach and the nature of the challenges, and the final report is expected in the early part of next year.
UK Food Producers
Our food and farming industry plays a crucial role in challenging times, and we are co-funding a £1 million campaign to promote milk, alongside industry and devolved Government partners. We are also supporting the fishing industry by promoting a wide variety of seafood species from UK waters. A further campaign is promoting beef across the devolved nations, and our Food is GREAT campaign, which showcases internationally products from across our four nations, has delivered successful trade and consumer focused marketing activities.
Given that there is already mandatory country of origin labelling for fish, fruit, vegetables, eggs, wine, honey, olive oil and beef, does the Secretary of State agree that now is the right time for mandatory country of origin labelling for all meat, so that consumers can never be misled by dodgy imports produced in conditions that would be unlawful here and which are sold as if they were British?
As my hon. Friend has pointed out, there has been a long-standing legal provision for mandatory country of origin labelling on beef, in which, to claim that the country of origin is the UK, the animal must be born, reared and slaughtered in the UK. Those regulations on mandatory country of origin labelling were extended several years ago to cover all principal meat species. They do not yet extend to processed goods that might contain multiple goods, but there have been significant steps forward in broadening the scope of mandatory country of origin labelling.
Financial Support for Food Producers
We are working closely with the agriculture and fishing industries to manage the negative impacts of covid-19. In addition to HM Treasury’s financial support packages, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has announced support schemes for the dairy and fishing industries, and we continue to monitor other sectors.
The Government are very clear—and it was set out in our manifesto—that we will not compromise on our high food and animal welfare standards as we approach trade agreements. Specifically, that means that the UK will determine its own domestic standards when it comes to the so-called SPS chapter—those sanitary and phytosanitary issues—relating in particular to food safety. Those will be set at a UK level and we will not abandon or change those standards in response to demands from other countries.
I note that today’s announcement by the Department for International Trade does not change agricultural tariffs, so how will DEFRA Ministers ensure that the new tariff regimes after Brexit continue to favour our long-established and profitable trade in that sector with member states of the European Union? How will they ensure that the tariffs prevent our marketplace from being flooded with low-quality products from elsewhere in the world?
The new UK global tariff that has been announced today does retain tariffs for most key agricultural products, including those sensitive agricultural products that are often discussed in this House. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that we would seek to grant tariff-free access to EU trading partners in future through a free trade agreement, and we have set out clearly the legal text of an acceptable free trade agreement should our partners wish to enter into such an agreement. Maintaining those agricultural tariffs also ensures that we do not expose our market in the short term to lower-standard products from other countries.
Covid-19 Lockdown: Air Quality
It is an absolute pleasure to be taking part today, Mr Speaker, although nothing really makes up for being there in person with you.
DEFRA’s roadside air quality monitoring stations continuously monitor air quality. Between 23 March and 5 May, nitrogen dioxide concentrations were, on average, 46% lower than this time last year, with reductions ranging from 9% to 65% at individual locations. That is largely due to the substantial reduction in traffic levels, although other factors such as weather may also have had some impact. Interestingly, concentrations of other air pollutants, such as fine particulate matter, have not shown similar trends.
I thank the Minister for her answer. That is some small good news, I guess, out of lockdown. In Manchester’s sister city of Wuhan in China, private car use nearly doubled when the lockdown ended, with the obvious effects on air quality. Is the Minister concerned that the Prime Minister’s statement of 10 May encouraged the use of cars?
It has been made very clear in all the guidance and by the Prime Minister that, first and foremost, if people can work from home, they should do so. Those who have to go to work were advised to go by car, and also to cycle and walk. I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his question, because he strikes a good note. He will know that the uptake of cycling has surged during this time, especially where businesses are providing a scheme so that their employees can have bikes. He will also know that the Prime Minister has announced that we are phasing out new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2035—earlier, if possible. Lessons will be learnt. The Air Quality Expert Group has been conducting a big survey, and I know that the hon. Gentleman will be interested in the results when they are revealed.
It is my first time appearing opposite the Minister; hopefully we will have many fruitful discussions.
There is growing evidence that deaths due to covid are higher in areas of bad air quality, but lockdown means that right now we are breathing the cleanest air that we have had in generations. We need to do all we can to ensure that many of the survivors of covid, who will have weakened lungs, are protected. Air pollution currently kills 40,000 people each year, with 40 of our towns breaking the World Health Organisation limit. The Government and the Minister dismissed putting targets in the Environment Bill, but surely covid has changed all that. Will the Minister sit down with us and agree a form of wording that will require Ministers to set targets on air quality in order to reach the WHO standard by 2030 and help save British lives?
As the hon. Gentleman alludes to, the Environment Bill delivers key parts of the clean air strategy and introduces a duty to set an ambitious, legally binding target on PM concentrations of pollutants of greatest harm. I know that he will also be interested in the independent Air Quality Expert Group, which has been analysing the situation so that we can learn lessons from coronavirus, and from air quality and its potential impact on human lives. Air quality is a serious issue for human health.
Commercial and Household Waste Collection
DEFRA officials are working with local authorities and industry to ensure that commercial and household waste can continue to be collected safely during the coronavirus outbreak. I pay tribute to and thank all those working in local authorities and the waste sector who have ensured that nearly all household waste collections in England are operating as normal. On 5 May, DEFRA published guidance to help local authorities to reopen household waste and recycling centres.
Does my hon. Friend agree that waste collection is an integral part of ensuring health and wellbeing during this global pandemic? I know that she has thanked key workers, but would she particularly thank key workers in South West Herts? I am sure that they would appreciate her comments.
Of course, I would be delighted to thank those key workers. We must not forget that those who work in the waste sector are key workers, and they have done a tremendous job in keeping our waste systems flowing, with a terrific record of 91% maintaining normal collection services from our households during this difficult period. Many are now working in the waste and recycling centres that I am pleased to say have opened, and that are working efficiently in almost every area—albeit with strict guidance and slightly different services from those that they were operating before.
Covid-19 Death and Infection Rate: Air Quality
DEFRA has had extensive discussions with the Department of Health and Social Care on the relationship between air quality and health, recently considering the specific relationship between covid-19 deaths and air quality. DEFRA is actively working with Public Health England and the Office for National Statistics to assess further the relationship for the UK, and DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser is working with relevant experts in health, disease and air quality to assess the relationship between air quality and the risk of infection, based on the emerging scientific research into covid-19.
Research from Harvard University suggests that a change of 1 microgram per cubic metre of PM2.5 leads to a 15% reduction in covid deaths, and Queen Mary University of London has shown that short-term pollution gives rise to more infection. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State meet me and the academics from Harvard and Queen Mary on 29 May at the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution to discuss this, with a view to introducing World Health Organisation air quality standards into the Environment Bill?
I know that the hon. Gentleman works very hard in this area. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Public Health England and the ONS are working together to assess whether there is evidence of association between exposure to particulates—the PM2.5 that he refers to—and covid-19 mortality in the UK. The clean air strategy sets out the comprehensive action required across all parts of Government to improve air quality for everyone, and it includes measures to reduce key sources that contribute to fine particulate matter. Because of the lockdown, I think joining the APPG would be difficult, but I would be very interested to have some feedback from that meeting.
Tens of thousands of lives cut short every year—that was the UK’s air quality health emergency long before we had even heard of coronavirus. As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) said, we now know that there is a strong correlation between long-term exposure to air pollution and covid-19 deaths, so clean air zones are needed more than ever. However, Nottingham’s taxi drivers tell me they are worried about their ability to invest in new clean electric vehicles as a result of lost income, and other businesses face similar pressures. As we come out of lockdown, how will the Government support local councils and small businesses to go even faster to protect the public from toxic air?
As the hon. Lady will know, we have supported Nottingham City Council to tackle its nitrogen dioxide exceedance through a £1 million investment to support the uptake of e-taxis and £1.7 million to retrofit 171 buses, which means that there is not a need for a clean air zone. Nottingham is also one of the Go Ultra Low cities. My officials will be working closely with and will be very interested to speak to Nottingham City Council to see how the impacts of coronavirus are affecting its plans. They are doing that with all local authorities across the country, just to keep a weather eye on how coronavirus will impact our new clean air zones and our drive to reduce air pollution, which of course is all important.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Isolation of House Staff: Gemma White QC Recommendations
Good day to you, Mr Speaker. In February this year, the House of Commons Commission agreed to establish the Member Services Team, which will deliver the recommendations of Gemma White QC, including on the isolation felt by MPs’ staff. I understand that the team is already working with Members’ staff to see how their ideas for greater mental health support can be delivered. The MST is also currently recruiting two MPs’ staff advisers to tackle the issues raised around isolation.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. I know, Mr Speaker, that you are well aware of the excellent cross-party work that members of my team —Stephanie McTighe and Chloe Mclellan—have done on the issue of staff wellness and support, including by giving vital evidence to the board of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The Gemma White report highlighted that constituency staff often deal with vulnerable constituents, many of whom can be suicidal and in deep distress. Those existing challenges are now compounded by the fact that staff are working from home. Will my hon. Friend meet my team and I to discuss their work and how staff wellbeing can be made a priority, and to ensure that the Commission does all it can to support staff in our constituencies so that we can continue to serve our constituents in a safe and supportive way?
I thank my hon. Friend very sincerely and commend her for the work she has been doing across the House. I also thank her staff, who have inputted greatly into the work on this terrain. I draw attention to the fact that £4,000 has been made available from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to help with those very issues, and I encourage her to use that resource as much as possible to ensure that her staff are assisted. The employee assistance programme is already available to MPs’ staff for counselling and support. I encourage all Members from across the House to access those services and that resource, and do everything possible to ensure that their staff are kept safe and secure.
Hybrid Proceedings in Parliament
The Commission has made no formal assessment of the effectiveness of the implementation of hybrid proceedings in the House. I should like to put on the record—on your behalf, too, Mr Speaker, as you have led on these issues—our appreciation of the broadcasting service and the digital service for delivering the hybrid functions and services at breakneck speed. It is quite extraordinary that they have done it under these circumstances.
The Commission has no responsibility for making changes to the House’s procedures. That is a matter for the House itself. The hon. Lady may wish to make a submission to the Procedure Committee’s current inquiry into the operation of proceedings. The Commission has responsibility for the staff of the House and the provision of services to Members and their staff on the estate. It is currently working to ensure that the House meets the Government guidelines to become a covid-19-secure workplace.
Thanks to you, Mr Speaker, the parliamentary digital service, the Clerks, the Commission, the House authorities, broadcasting and other staff in the House, the digital Parliament has been a huge success, but now the Leader of the House wants to abandon it and instead insists that 650 MPs—potential super-spreaders—should travel from across the country to cram into Westminster, putting constituents and staff at risk. Why would the Government choose to ignore their own advice that those who can work from home should, unless it is to cast a protective cloak around their floundering Prime Minister?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question, and I note her long-term interest in this issue. Unfortunately, it is a matter not for the Commission, but for the Government. The Commission’s responsibility begins and ends with our obligations and service to the staff of the House. I note her concerns, and she may wish to take them to the Procedure Committee. There are likely to be further announcements about the operation of the hybrid virtual proceedings in the course of the next couple of days, and I encourage her to engage fully with all debates and discussions concerning them.
I echo what has been said, and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for making hybridisation happen in a Parliament where just getting TV cameras in took centuries. Given that social distancing is here to stay, it will take 40 minutes of votes to incorporate it into our jobs. We are told, on issues from ending air pollution to destroying capitalism, that we cannot go on with what was happening before. Is there any reason why the Government seem in such indecent haste to rush back to the bad old days? Is it to disguise the drubbings that the PM is getting every Wednesday from our new leader by having a few more of his own around him to cheer him on?
Unfortunately, the answer is going to be pretty much the same as the previous one. That is a matter for the Government; it is not within the responsibilities and obligations of the House of Commons Commission. All I can say to the hon. Lady is that I note her concerns. We have obligations and responsibilities to the staff of this House. The staff unions have been making representations to the Commission on behalf of their members. I encourage her to take up these issues with the relevant Ministers.
Covid-19: Parliamentary Estate
The House Service is currently working in conjunction with Public Health England to ensure that we meet the Government guidelines to become a covid-19-secure work- place and to build on our existing measures to ensure that all those working on the estate can do so safely. That is underpinned by the completion of a covid-19 risk assessment, which will be shared by all those working on the estate if the House returns after the Whitsun recess. The successful introduction of those measures will help to reduce the spread of covid-19, and they have been supported by those on the estate.
I thank the Commission and, indeed, the staff in Parliament for the work they have done in enabling Members to participate virtually while complying with Government guidelines to stay at home. Of course, returning to normal proceedings would involve not just 650 Members but several thousand staff on the estate, many of whom are currently shielding. As my hon. Friend will know, it is almost impossible to travel more than about 10 metres in Parliament without touching a door handle. So what work is the Commission doing to ensure that both staff and Members stay safe and do not become super-spreaders?
The House is doing everything possible to ensure that we do become a covid-19-secure workplace. But my hon. Friend is right to note that if we do abandon these virtual proceedings tomorrow, it will be necessary for 650 Members to travel from all corners of the United Kingdom to participate in proceedings in an environment that will be very, very challenging in order to ensure that we can maintain social distancing requirements. All I can say, again, is that this not a matter for the Commission—it is a matter for Government, who are driving the “return to this House” agenda. I encourage her to take this up with Ministers to ensure that we do have a safe environment and that we do nothing further to put our constituents at risk.
Parliamentary works sponsor body
The right hon. Member for East Hampshire, representing the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, was asked—
Parliamentary Works Programme: Cost
I am sure that covid-19 is going to cause all of us to think afresh about many things. For the restoration and renewal project, value for money is clearly vital—indeed, it is a statutory obligation. With the Sponsor Body and the Delivery Authority now substantive, we will conduct a strategic review that will consider the trade-offs and compromises that could be available. But of course, any such decisions would be for Parliament to make.
May I associate myself with the comments made earlier about 650 super-spreaders returning to Parliament?
We are currently spending in the order of several million pounds to repair the roofs and the brickwork, and to stop fire damage to that marvellous building, the Palace of Westminster. That is all correct. However, as my right hon. Friend said, there is perhaps some doubt as to whether R&R will go ahead, so I may I ask him to ensure that huge amounts of money are not now spent on a project that would cost between £4 billion and £8 billion to complete, if it is ever done at all?
I think it is rather more than several million pounds that has had to be spent by Parliament just to keep its own operation going. However, I want to reassure my hon. Friend that the business case would have come before Parliament for decision anyway. It was always envisaged that once the Sponsor Body was set up in law, there would be a review of certain aspects of the programme. But in these current circumstances, and with what we know now, it is right that that review will now be broader and deeper.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Electoral Commission: Effectiveness
In accordance with its functions under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Speaker’s Committee met on 24 March to examine the Electoral Commission’s main supply estimates for 2020-21 and its five-year plan. In doing so, the Committee had regard to the advice from the Treasury and the latest report made to it by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The Committee was satisfied that both the estimate and the plan were consistent with the economic, efficient and effective discharge by the Commission of its functions.
May I congratulate the hon. Member on his new responsibilities? But this is not about figures— it is about the way that the Electoral Commission has hounded leave campaigners. There have been 34 investigations, eight court cases, and at least four people referred to the police for criminal investigation—and it has all come to nowt. Would the hon. Member support a review by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels that the Speaker’s Committee is doing a decent job in maintaining scrutiny of the Electoral Commission. It is entirely appropriate, from time to time, for Select Committees to look into public bodies that fall under their competence, and I suggest that he write to the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee making that suggestion.
Boundary Review in England
The Local Government Boundary Commission for England continues to recommend fair electoral and boundary arrangements for local authorities in England. Last week, it published final recommendations for Westminster and Richmond upon Thames. These local government boundaries generally become the building blocks for parliamentary boundaries, which are, of course, a matter for the four Boundary Commissions, reporting through the Cabinet Office.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. The covid-19 virus has, of course, had an impact on every facet of our lives at the moment. Will he tell us more about its impact on the commission’s boundary work and whether it has been able to co-ordinate its work with other Boundary Commissions, such as those working on the parliamentary boundaries?
When coronavirus-related restrictions were introduced, the commission shifted entirely to home working. It took forward work on reviews where further external information or input was not required, such as those for Westminster and Richmond. The commission aims to deliver external reviews informed by local needs, views and circumstances. It therefore paused some reviews that were part way through the review process while it considered how to proceed. It has now developed new ways of working, and commissioners are meeting today to agree how and when to restart paused reviews and begin others. On the wider issue of parliamentary boundaries using these building blocks, because that is a rolling programme, many of those building blocks will already be in place and other reviews perhaps would never have been ready in time for the particular parliamentary reviews.
Digital Election Campaigning: Transparency
At its meeting on 24 March, the committee approved the commission’s interim corporate plan, which includes plans to address voter concerns about digital campaigning. The commission’s recent report on the 2019 general election highlighted significant public concerns about the transparency of digital election campaigns, which risk overshadowing their benefits. The commission has set out actions that parties, campaigners, Governments and social media companies should take to support trust and confidence at future elections. The actions include extending the imprint rules for printed materials to digital campaign materials so that voters know who is trying to influence them.
This follows on from what the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) asked earlier. Last week, he said the Electoral Commission, which, as my hon. Friend said, is asked to do this important work on digital campaigning, was “arrogant”, “incompetent” and
“politically corrupt, totally biased and morally bankrupt”.—[Official Report, 13 May 2020; Vol. 676, c. 246.]
This was because it had the nerve to enforce the law and fine Vote Leave £61,000. Would the committee agree that to try to intimidate an independent electoral body in this way is more in the tradition of the politicians of Zimbabwe than of Britain?
The Electoral Commission has a regulatory role and regulatory authority which are the same as those of many regulators throughout the United Kingdom. I suggest that the track record of the Electoral Commission is one that perhaps does not bear some of the description that has just been repeated. In the past five years, it has carried out approximately 500 investigations into a variety of electoral offences. Only five of those have been challenged in the courts and only one challenge has been upheld.
Public Accounts Commission
The hon. Member for South Norfolk, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—
Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme: Date of Eligibility
The National Audit Office’s work programme is ultimately determined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, and it is regularly reviewed to ensure that it reflects current issues. Dealing with covid-19 is, of course, a major task of the Departments, on which the NAO will report. The hon. Lady may be interested to know that later this week the NAO will be publishing a report summarising the Government’s actions on covid-19 to date, which will provide the basis for further work. This first report will set out the main measures adopted under the Government response, including the coronavirus job retention scheme.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that response, which may well have answered my question—that is unusual. The point I wanted to flag up with him is that although the Government coronavirus support packages have helped a great many people, far too many have fallen through the gaps and, for one reason or another, are not getting the help they need. I therefore ask him to bring this issue to the attention of the Comptroller and Auditor General, so that the NAO could look into the operation of these schemes to see whether they represented the best use of public money or whether lessons could be learned as to how we would approach an issue such as this if, God forbid, we ended up with another situation as serious as the current pandemic.
I would hate to be thought of as responsible for starting a new trend by actually answering the question, but as I mentioned in my initial response, the NAO is soon to publish this report, which will be just the first in a programme of work supporting Parliament in its scrutiny of covid-19. I am certainly happy to draw the hon. Lady’s concerns to the attention of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The future work programme will include how the large sums that have been committed to the health and social care response, and indeed, to mitigating the economic impact, will be being spent, and the quality of that spending. It will be important for the NAO to review whether the money is achieving the intended impact, as well as how the risks of fraud and error are being managed.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
With no access to our church buildings, considerable innovation by the clergy has seen the creation of virtual prayer services, school assemblies, study groups, fellowship meetings and craft workshops. That is in addition to online church services, bereavement counselling, marriage preparation and marriage support.
In normal times, churches engage with thousands of parents and children each week through playgroups, coffee mornings, church services and youth groups, providing support to families across all sections of society. In my constituency, groups such as these have been a lifeline to many families, including my own. During this crisis, what steps are churches taking to remain in contact with these families, particularly to support parents as they continue to raise children in very difficult circumstances?
I am so pleased to hear how the work of the church benefits my hon. Friend’s family and the families of many of her Penistone and Stocksbridge constituents. I also recommend that families check out the Faith at Home video resources of the Church of England, which nurture a growing faith and this month focus on hope, courage, love and humility—all qualities that we need at work and in the community, as well as at home.
Clergy’s Access to Churches
Clergy can now return to their churches to pray and live-stream services. For the time being, churches must remain closed for public worship, as set out in law. The Government set out their ambition to reopen places of worship from 4 July, subject to further scientific advice. No place of worship will be able to reopen before a final decision by the Government, the necessary changes to the legal position in the published regulations and the accompanying decision by the diocesan bishop, which will take into account local circumstances.
During this national crisis, there has been a vital role for the established Church to represent the concerns and fears of the whole nation. Does my hon. Friend agree that the physical presence of a parish church, open for prayer and attended by its priests, is an important signal that we are not alone in our struggle? Health workers, care workers, bin collectors, posties and now all those who are unable to undertake their work from home have been asked to accept additional personal risk to carry out their important work for the health and wellbeing of the nation. Should our clergy not be allowed to provide the same level of service to their—[Inaudible.]
I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the physical presence of churches, but while our buildings may be closed, the Church is very much alive and has been astonishingly present in the midst of suffering and need, providing comfort, inspiration and a great deal of practical help. Those who allege that we have done nothing or vacated the field are not correct.
Buildings, Liturgy and Worship: Adaptation
The House of Bishops guidance issued on 5 May shows that the Church of England is committed to reopening buildings in a phased and measured manner, in accordance with the legal position. We are working with the Government and representatives of the heritage planning sector to assess the need for building adaptations related to public health.
Polling shows that during the current crisis, one in four adults, and one in three of 16 to 30-year-olds, have joined a religious service remotely. Does my hon. Friend welcome that, and what is the Church doing to ensure that this continues more widely, even after lockdown?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing those figures to the House’s attention and I welcome them very warmly, particularly the large viewing figures among younger people. She is absolutely right that the Church will need to keep up a significant online presence well after lockdown has finished.
Support for People in Need
The priority for the Church has been to continue its vital service to those in material and spiritual need in all communities despite the restrictions imposed. Bishops and the Church are in regular contact with Ministers, and to this end the Church is represented on two Cabinet Office taskforces.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have many interests, including cricket, as you do I know.
The smaller charities are struggling because of fundraising difficulties in the current crisis. Will my hon. Friend look at how the Church can work with those charities? It is true that our churches have closed, but the Church has many buildings—church halls and so on—that might be made available. Fellowship and faith are so important at this time, as is our charitable work. I wonder if he can help.
All food bank work in churches continues. For example, Christ Church in Eastbourne is feeding 200 people breakfast in its car park; churches in Alston Moor are delivering groceries in a refrigerated van; and St Luke’s in Buckfastleigh has delivered 18 sets of hearing aids among other items. There are wonderful examples of what the Church is doing, and no doubt that is happening in South Holland and the Deepings as well.
Clergy Discipline Process
I recognise my hon. Friend’s experience in dealing with these difficult issues. The operation of the clergy discipline measure is currently being reviewed, and it is hoped that less serious complaints could be referred initially to mediation or alternative dispute resolution, which would allow complaints to be dealt with more expediently and effectively.
Research has shown that the clergy discipline process leaves many members of our clergy vulnerable and, in some deeply saddening cases, has driven them to take their lives. What steps are the Church Commissioners taking to review these processes and to provide the right mental health support to those clergy subject to discipline, particularly where such discipline arises from a spurious or malicious allegation? Will my hon. Friend reassure the House that the Church Commissioners will provide our clergy with the support they need during the process?
Our hope is that the proposals under consideration, which I have just outlined, will mitigate the possible detriment to respondents from complaints that may be unfounded. Freeing bishops from direct judicial involvement in disciplinary matters would enable them more easily to offer the pastoral support my hon. Friend refers to. We are also exploring how to supplement ecclesiastical legal aid to support those responding to complaints.
Remote Access to Church Services
I can tell my right hon. Friend that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter day sermon was listened to by 5 million people and that the Alexa Church app has had a 70% increase in usage in the last month. Perhaps most notably, “The UK Blessing”, co-ordinated by Gas Street Church, Birmingham, has been downloaded 2.6 million times, and according to the Prime Minister is a sensational singing masterpiece to which he has awarded a point of light.
I warmly welcome the huge efforts going into ensuring that people have remote access to church services, but there are some situations when that is not a substitute for meeting in places of worship with one’s family, so can I urge the Church Commissioners and my hon. Friend to speed up the introduction of small-scale funerals within churches, with social distancing observed, because of the comfort they can bring to people bereaved by this terrible crisis?
I know what a deeply difficult issue this is. The Church will work with the Government on these issues to do safely what my right hon. Friend asks. She will be aware that cleaning in many of our churches is done by volunteers, some of whom are elderly and may have difficulty coming in between funerals, but the point she makes is very valid and has absolutely been noted.
Support for Hospital Chaplains
I thank my hon. Friend for his interest in and concern for our hospital chaplains, who have done such amazing work in recent months. The Church works closely with the College of Healthcare Chaplains to ensure support for our chaplains. Anglican chaplains, while being required to hold a bishop’s licence, are actually employees of the trusts they serve, not the Church of England.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Sadly, I was touched by the virus with the loss of my father, and Father John Diver of St Lawrence’s parish in Sidcup was a source of great comfort to him and my family at a difficult time. Would the Church Commissioner join me in recording our gratitude to hospital chaplains and to the clergy of all faiths?
I know that the whole House would want to extend our deepest condolences to my hon. Friend for the very sad loss of his father. What he says about all chaplains is absolutely right, and the Archbishop of Canterbury has himself been volunteering as a chaplain at St Thomas’s Hospital. I thank him very much for his kind comments, which will be deeply appreciated.
Church of England Schools: Support for Children and Parents
I would like to thank very warmly and pay tribute to all the teachers and staff in Church schools who are providing teaching and care for children at this difficult time. They have moved rapidly to provide online lessons and resources, and are looking after children of key workers and overseeing the distribution of free school meal vouchers. The Church is also delighted to have partnered with the Oak National Academy to provide assemblies and weekly collective worship.
Here in Cumbria and the South Lakes, headteachers of Church schools—in fact, of all schools—do want to return on 1 June, but of course they see protecting the safety of their school community as their first and primary responsibility. Will the hon. Gentleman make strong representations to the Department for Education about supporting those schools that decide to stay closed for the time being for safety reasons, especially given new Government guidance against schools using flexible approaches for returning pupils?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. In addition to being Second Church Estates Commissioner, I am a governor myself of a Church school, and I actually attended a governors meeting by Zoom early this morning looking at exactly these issues. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I will make sure that his comments are fed in. I know that the Department for Education is taking these issues very seriously and will proceed cautiously, as we would all expect it to do.
Before the first urgent question, I have a short statement to make. The Government have called for Parliament to set an example as to how business can continue in this new normal. The Government should also set an example themselves. It is unacceptable that the business of answering written questions in a timely and substantive way has not continued. The Government simply must do better. The Departments that do not improve soon can expect to be called to answer an urgent question on this matter.
Coronavirus and Care Homes
One of the first things we knew about coronavirus as it began its dismal spread across the world was that it reserves its greatest impact for those who are physically weakest, especially the old. In the UK, 89% of all deaths have been of those aged above 65. From the start, we have worked hard to protect those in social care. In early March, we put £3.2 billion into social care—half through the NHS and half through local authorities—and we have repeatedly set out and strengthened guidance for infection control and support.
For anyone who has a loved one living in a care home and for all the residents and staff, I understand what a worrying time this has been. I am glad that we have been able to protect the majority of homes, and we will keep working to strengthen the protective ring that we have cast around all our care homes. As I said in the House yesterday, last week we set out a further £600 million to strengthen infection control, and this comes on top of a substantial programme of support.
First, on testing, from the start we have tested symptomatic residents of care homes, even when testing capacity was much lower, and this has always been a top priority. We are now testing all care home residents and staff in England—those with symptoms and those without—and this is being done according to clinical advice, starting with the most vulnerable, and extending to working-age residents, too.
Secondly, we have strengthened the NHS support available to social care. We are putting in place a named clinical lead for every care home in England and have brought NHS infection-control expertise to the sector.
Thirdly, we are making sure that local authorities play their part. Councils are conducting daily reviews of the situation on the ground in local care homes, so that every care home gets the support that it needs need every day.
Fourthly, we are supporting care homes to get the PPE that they need.
Fifthly, we have increased the social care workforce during this crisis and provided more support. Altogether, this is an unprecedented level of support for the social care system. I thank colleagues across social care for their hard work.[Official Report, 20 May 2020, Vol. 676, c. 2MC.]
We have also broken down some of the long-standing barriers, including between health and social care, and we have learned the importance of making sure that money for social care is ring-fenced specifically for social care, as the £600 million agreed last Friday has been. On top of that, we are requiring much better data from social care, because partial data has bedevilled the management of social care for many years and made policy making more difficult. Regular information returns are required in return for the latest funding, and we are looking to change the regulations to require data returns from every care provider, so that we can better prepare and support social care.
Our elderly care homes provide for people towards the end of their life. They do an amazing job and deserve the praise that they have received from the public during this crisis. Residents are looked after when they need care the most: their hands are held, their brows are mopped and they are made comfortable. As a collective result of our efforts—especially the efforts of care colleagues throughout the country—62% of care homes have had no reported cases of coronavirus.
The figures released today by the Office for National Statistics show that the number of deaths in care homes has fallen significantly and is down by a third in just the past week, from 2,423 to 1,666. This morning’s statistics confirmed that 27% of coronavirus deaths in England have taken place in care homes, compared with a European average of around half, but whatever the figures say, we will not rest in doing whatever is humanly possible to protect our care homes from this appalling virus, to make sure that residents and care colleagues have the safety and security they deserve.
Over 23,000 more people have died in care homes in the first four months of this year compared with last year. This virus is the biggest health challenge of our lives, but Ministers have been too slow to tackle the problem in care homes, social care has not had the same priority as the NHS, and these services have not been treated as inextricably linked.
Will the Secretary of State explain why guidance saying that care homes were “very unlikely” to be infected was not withdrawn until 12 March, given that the chief medical officer warned about community transmission and the risks to the elderly on 4 March? NHS England rightly asked hospitals to free up at least 30,000 beds to cope with the virus, but will the Secretary of State explain why there was no requirement to test those being discharged to care homes—the very group most at risk—until 15 April? Care providers had serious problems getting personal protective equipment, as their normal supply was requisitioned by the NHS, when both are equally important. Why did that happen?
It took until mid-April for the Government to produce a social care plan, until the end of April for them to say that all residents and staff should be tested, and until 11 May for them to set a deadline for achieving this—and that deadline still is not until 6 June. Will the Secretary of State explain how he squares all that with his claim that Government have thrown a “protective cloak” around care homes right from the start? Despite all the warnings, care homes in my constituency told me over the weekend that they cannot access the Government’s new online testing portal, that tests are not being picked up and that it is often weeks until they get results back. When will this be sorted out?
Finally, the Government have said that the NHS will get whatever resources it takes to deal with this virus. Will the Minister now make the same commitment to social care and guarantee that no provider will collapse because of this virus? No one denies how difficult this is, but instead of denying problems and delays, Ministers should learn from their mistakes so that they can put the right measures in place in future and keep all elderly and disabled people safe.
I welcome the hon. Lady to her post and to her first question in this new role. I know that she enjoys a good working relationship with the Minister for Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), and that cross-party working during this crisis has gone on throughout. I thank her for that and for the approach that she is taking. She is right and perfectly reasonable to ask questions about how we can further improve the support that we are giving to the care sector, and, as I have said from this Dispatch Box before, and before her appointment, we have made social care a priority from the start. The first guidance went out to social care in February. She referred to the 13 March guidance. That was only a matter of days immediately after the risk to the public was raised on medical advice. The guidance that was in place until then, as she probably knows, explicitly stated that that guidance was in place while community transmission was low and that it would be updated as soon as community transmission went broader. That is exactly what we did.
More importantly, the hon. Lady raised the question of discharges, and I understand the questions that have been asked about discharges into care. It is important to remember that hospital can be a dangerous place for people. As well as saving lives, it can also carry risks, and does so, so it is an appropriate clinical decision in many cases for people to be discharged from hospital, and safer for them to go to a care home. What is important is that infection control procedures are in place in that care home, and those infection control procedures were put in place at the start of this crisis and have been strengthened, exactly as she says, as we have learned more and more about the virus all the way along. As the clinical understanding of coronavirus has strengthened, so too have we updated and strengthened our guidance.
The hon. Lady asked about PPE. As she and every Member of the House knows, there has been an enormous global challenge with the global shortage of PPE and the need to get PPE distribution out to tens of thousands of settings. The guidance that we have put out again, which is guided by clinical expertise, states the level of PPE that is required, and we are now delivering against those standards. We have processes in place so that all care homes that have shortages—the numbers are coming down, I am glad to say—can get in contact with their local resilience forum and make sure that they can get that PPE. Those processes are in place. It has been a huge challenge. It was called the biggest logistical exercise of the last 40 years by the head of the Army, and I think he was right.
The hon. Lady also asked about resources. Of course, if more resources are needed, we are open to those discussions. The fact that we put through £600 million more that will go directly to social care—it will not be able to be held by councils; rather, it will go directly into social care—is right, but we have also learned some really big things about social care, confirming some of the things many of us thought before. For instance, it is true that we need to have a more co-ordinated policy between health and social care. These social care reforms, which are long overdue and have not been put in place by Governments of all colours, absolutely must happen.
Clearly, tackling this virus in care homes is a very difficult thing, but the chief executive of Hertfordshire Care Providers Association is on record as saying that care providers in the county feel well supported during the pandemic. Does the Secretary of State agree that what is required to achieve this, as in Hertfordshire, is a very close working relationship—a partnership—between care homes, the councils, the Care Quality Commission and, of course, the clinical commissioning groups?
I entirely agree. We have seen much better partnership working in most parts of the country during this crisis. The partnerships between local authorities, with their statutory responsibilities, and, as my right hon. and learned Friend mentioned, all parts of the NHS, with its statutory responsibilities—clinical commissioning groups, trusts and the integrated care systems—is very important. They have worked much better over the last few months than they had hitherto. We need to make sure that that coming together—in a very difficult circumstance, which has broken down boundaries—continues. I look forward to working with him and others in making sure that the boundaries that exist in social care can be brought to the ground.
The London School of Economics reported that there were over 23,000 excess deaths in care homes in England and Wales, but only 12,000 were put down as due to covid. How does the Secretary of State explain the other 10,000? Testing of care home staff is critical to reduce the spread, but how will he improve the return of results to local GPs and public health teams? Concerns have been raised that a quarter of tests are false negatives, which could send staff with the virus back into care homes and hospitals. It is a difficult sample to take, so is any comparison being made between self-administered tests and those carried out by healthcare staff? Finally, where is the Green Paper that was promised in 2017?
On the point about tests, absolutely, work was done to assess the difference in efficacy between professionally administered and self-administered tests, and it found that their efficacy was very similar and not significantly different. That is why across England and Scotland, and indeed the whole UK, we use home tests, which are an important part of our testing regime.
The hon. Lady asks about the increased number of deaths, sadly, that there have been in care homes. She is absolutely right that there has been an increase. We analyse the causes of all the different factors that may have had an impact, which is something our clinical advisers are looking at. The same is true in Scotland, and I am sure that the Scottish medical advisers are looking into the same. When it comes to a Green Paper, at the moment we are working on crisis response, and I think that is the appropriate thing to do.
In Harrogate and Knaresborough, and across North Yorkshire, the county council has established a step-down facility for patients being discharged from hospital, using care homes with segregated spaces, and in Boroughbridge an entire care home, effectively as a form of quarantine facility. That is in addition to the testing and protective arrangements, not as a replacement. I view this as a welcome and valuable addition to the tools available for keeping some of the most vulnerable people in our community safe. Does my right hon. Friend agree, and can the idea of this facility be replicated further across the country?
The Select Committee on Health and Social Care has just heard evidence that there has been not one single care home death in Hong Kong or South Korea, despite their proximity to China and shorter time to prepare for this crisis. In comparison, the UK has now tragically seen over 10,000 deaths of loved ones in care homes. How can Government describe this as a success? Is it not time now to learn from other countries that have genuinely put a protective ring round their care homes?
It is good to see my right hon. Friend bearing up so well under the considerable burdens of his office. Can he reassure me that the PPE supply into the UK and within the UK is now flowing into all care homes in a timely and comprehensive manner? I am concerned that those who are running our care homes so well in Sutton Coldfield should have the security of knowing that they can rely on continuous supply.
Yes, I can reassure my right hon. Friend—I thank him for what he said about the work we are doing in the Department—first, that supplies of PPE into the country and buying around the world have improved significantly, and we have put huge amounts of effort into improving that. Secondly, the supply, once the equipment is in the country, out into the care homes and where it needs to be is improving all the time. The number of care homes reporting that they are within 48 hours of a stock out, which is the measure we use, has been falling and is less than half what it was a month ago, but we of course keep working to get that number down. When a care home is within two days of a stock out, we immediately work to get it the PPE that it needs.
At this morning’s Health and Social Care Committee, Care England said that care staff were suffering a constant cycle of bereavement. With so many deaths in care homes, staff are not only caring for, but comforting those they know well who are dying alone. So will the Secretary of State take steps this week to provide a 24-hour mental health phone line for all care staff, as well as fast-track access to professional mental health services, as is the case for the military?
The Secretary of State is doing a phenomenal job. It is a huge crisis and a huge thing to mobilise everything that has needed mobilising.
I have spoken to most of my care homes and most of them are doing very well, but one, Milford Care, is having a problem with getting test kits. Six people in the home have died recently. The home requested test kits on 12 May through the Government portal, but they were told there was a very limited supply. They may get them on Wednesday this week, if they are lucky, but if not they will have to re-register for them. Staff and residents may be infected, but they are not aware. They have had somebody who was tested and seven days later was told they were positive, even though they had no symptoms, so clearly, the virus is spreading. What can my right hon. Friend suggest that they do?
I think the best thing they can do is raise it with their very effective local MP, who can bring it to my attention, and that is exactly what they have done. I will get right on to it, straight after this session in the House of Commons. We have the testing capability. Of course, making sure you get exactly the right test to exactly the right place and the right care home at the right time is itself a huge logistical challenge, but I will look into this immediately.
CQC data revealed a 175% increase in deaths of people with autism and learning difficulties last month, yet the new care home testing portal is only available to homes whose residents are aged 65 and over. What is the Minister doing to ensure that all care homes are able to access tests? Will the Government conduct a review of why there has been such a sharp increase in deaths among these groups?
I addressed this point in my opening response to the urgent question. We will roll out testing to care homes of all ages. This is an area that I take very seriously indeed. We are looking into the statistics that have been mentioned in the public domain. Some of the statistics are not quite as they first seem. We will make sure that we publish accurate and full statistics, because transparency is absolutely vital in this area.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Resolution Foundation has detailed that 61% of frontline careworkers in England are paid less than the real living wage. The Scottish Government introduced a real living wage for carers in 2017. Will the Secretary of State therefore follow their lead and instead of a badge or round of applause finally give frontline careworkers in England a real living wage?
I am a massive supporter of the living wage and, of course, the increase in the living wage that we have seen since its introduction in 2015 has had a very positive impact on the pay of the lowest paid people in our country right across the board, including many in care homes. I think it is an excellent policy and I am delighted that we have brought it in.
The £600 million presented by the Secretary of State for infection control is very welcome, and having a named clinician to help support care home staff is particularly important. That came out in the Health and Social Care Committee when Professor Lum talked about what happens in Hong Kong. One of the lessons they learned several years ago was to have a named person in a care home, but also to do yearly, effectively, virus drills, like a fire drill. Would the Secretary of State consider putting that in place to help to deal with the impact of possible second waves?
Yes, we are doing a huge amount of work now to ensure that there is protection in the future should there be a further increase, and in particular in advance of winter in case there is strong seasonality to this disease. As a clinician himself, my hon. Friend understands the importance of these areas and we will absolutely take the idea he put forward and run with it.
Brent Council was at the epicentre of the initial covid outbreak, with one of the highest hospital death rates in the country, but back in February it spent £1.5 million to purchase PPE, which it made available to its care homes. In March, it established a separate care facility to provide 14 days’ isolation for any patients discharged from hospital back into the care system, whether or not they had tested positive for coronavirus. Now Brent has one of the lowest number of care home deaths in London. I know the right hon. Gentleman will want to congratulate Brent, which actually did put in place a protective ring around its care homes, but what he must answer is: if Brent Council had the good sense and foresight to get this right, why didn’t he?
The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point and it comes to the nub of the challenge around care home policy. I do want to congratulate Brent. I think that the work it did was important, but, of course, formally and in the law responsibility for care homes is for local councils and some local councils, like Brent and others, have done a magnificent job. However, I also understand that it is a reality of political life and our constitution that I as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care am also responsible, and I take that responsibility very seriously. However, when it comes to longer-term reform, this does bring a conundrum because the policy levers that I have as Secretary of State are only through councils, which themselves have to then act.
On the funding side we have seen this challenge. We put in £1.6 billion at the start of this crisis through councils without a ring fence, and there are questions being raised about how much of that has got to the frontline, so for the £600 million we put through on Friday we have put in a very firm ring fence, so it must be paid in a timely manner through to care providers. I think this actually raises a question not just for the crisis but for the longer term. When I am held accountable at this Dispatch Box for the actions of local authorities, I can give support, but we do not have the direct levers. We have not even had the direct data flows through to the centre, and we are putting that right too.
On behalf of the care homes in Worcestershire, I thank the Secretary of State for the extra £7 million that will be reaching them to help them to tackle infection control. Can he confirm that that money will also be available to support the domiciliary careworkers, who regularly visit homes of individuals who need that care?
My constituent Sonya Kaygan lost her life to coronavirus. She was a highly skilled and committed careworker, but worked in a low-pay sector, caused by the near £8 billion cut to its funding in the past decade. Will the Secretary of State commit to ending the scandal of low pay in the care sector and reverse a decade of cuts to social care budgets, in honour of my constituent and others who have died doing their job, so that all careworkers are paid a fair wage and have the equipment to do their job safely?
We have put an unprecedented amount of funding into social care during the crisis. There is the important challenge of ensuring that that reaches the frontline through local councils. We have also increased, through the increase in the living wage, the pay of the lowest paid across society and in social care. I am proud to have supported that.
The Secretary of State is doing an extraordinary job in the most challenging of times. He will be aware that we have a testing centre down in Bexhill that is available to care home workers for testing, but if they follow the Government advice and go on the website, they will be directed further afield to Brighton or Gatwick. Will he help me to ensure that that testing centre is made available to care workers so that they have more protection locally?
Yes, absolutely. My hon. Friend texted me about that last week. I should have fixed it by now, then I would not have had the question. It absolutely needs to be sorted. We are working on it. We rolled out the testing centres at an unbelievable pace during April, so I hope he will forgive me and allow me to take a couple more days to fix the problem.
The Secretary of State may be aware of the comments of Martin Green, the chief executive of Care England, to the Health and Social Care Committee. He said:
“We should have been focusing on care homes from the start of this...What we saw at the start was a focus on the NHS”.
He also criticised the discharge of patients from hospitals into care homes and said that there were,
“people who either didn’t have a covid-19 status or were symptomatic who were discharged into care homes”,
“full of people with underlying health conditions”.
Ministers, however, have said that fewer care home residents were discharged into care homes in March than in previous months this year. Will the Secretary of State commit to publishing those figures and the figures of how many people were discharged from hospital with covid-19 into care homes?
I am happy to look into that. Martin Green also said:
“It has become clear that in such a crisis we need further direction from Central Government.”
That is what we have tried to put in place by working with colleagues in local authorities to try to make sure that we get the best infection control procedures across the board.
Will the Secretary of State join me in praising the work of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight local resilience forum, which has meant that no care home has been without personal protective equipment during the pandemic? Will he also join me in thanking the resilience and hard work of all the careworkers in Meon Valley?
As the Secretary of State has already mentioned, the coronavirus crisis has highlighted the importance of the joined-up approach between the NHS and the social care sector. He has assured me that we will continue to build a more cohesive structure. Will he also consider appointing a social care commissioner to lead that work and be the voice of the social care sector?
A resident contacted me whose mum is classified as clinically extremely vulnerable and is in a care home. The care home has interpreted the Government’s guidance to mean that her mum must be kept in solitary confinement for three months for her own protection.
In 2011, the United Nations concluded that solitary confinement beyond 15 days constituted a cruel and inhumane punishment. The resident is heartbroken. Her mum is deteriorating and has no quality of life. We believe that the care home has the best of intentions, but can the Secretary of State urgently give clear and unequivocal advice on exactly how care homes should treat residents listed as needing shielding?
The hon. Lady is right to raise that heart-rending case. I would be happy to look into the specifics if she writes to me with the details. Of course, the shielding programme is there for the protection of the shielded. If somebody who is being shielded would prefer to do things differently, that is not clinically recommended, but so long as it is within the broader social distancing guidelines, of course we understand why that might be the case. In particular, people coming to the end of their life may want to consider ensuring that they enjoy their last few weeks and months as much as they can. A proportionate approach is required here, and one that is guided by the individual clinical circumstances of that person. I very much hope that the care home will take a proportionate approach. I am sure, as the hon. Lady says, that it has the best intentions at heart, and I would be happy to take up that individual case.
Testing for my constituents in care homes has begun, but can the Secretary of State tell me when all care home staff and residents will be tested? Secondly, it has become apparent that some residents of care homes are refusing tests due to a fear of what the results could mean. Can he reassure them that getting tested will not affect their treatment and is the right thing to do, in the best health interests of everyone?
Yes, absolutely—being tested is the right thing to do if that is what you are asked to do. It is really important. We are rolling out testing both for people with symptoms and asymptomatic people, to try to find all the coronavirus in our care homes, to be able to trace it and then end this epidemic.
This being Mental Health Awareness Week, can we spend some time considering and reflecting on the mental health impact that the coronavirus pandemic will have on the frontline health and social care workers charged with tackling it? In particular, would it not be a great example of the good working of our four Governments if an action plan on mental health was constructed with the support of all four Governments?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise that. This is Mental Health Awareness Week, and I have front of mind the mental health impacts of coronavirus, particularly on staff but across the board. We work closely through the chief medical officers of the four nations of the UK and between Ministers to try to ensure that clinical advice is co-ordinated. After all, it is based on the science. I am happy to look at the proposals and discuss them with the CMO.
We welcome the announcement by the UK Government of a £60,000 payment for care home workers who sadly lose their lives due to covid-19. Can the Secretary of State confirm that acceptance of that payment precludes subsequent legal action if that death is thought to be due to negligence, and will he outline the thinking behind that?
Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the owners and managers of care homes who put the safety of their residents first and refused to admit any of the 15,000 hospital patients who had been exposed to covid-19, whom the Government were forcing to be discharged from hospitals at the end of March?
I say happy birthday to my hon. Friend and pass on the best wishes, no doubt, of the whole House. The question he raises is a difficult one, because in many cases, the best place for somebody is not in a hospital. Indeed, people can catch diseases in hospital, so it needs to be done on a clinical basis. That is why we have put in place the testing, isolation procedures and infection control of people who are leaving hospital to go into care homes.
At the Health and Social Care Committee on 5 May, the Government chief scientific adviser told me:
“We need to get on top of it in care homes. We have been clear about that.”
“What SAGE does is try to distil the scientific advice into a form that then others need to operationalise and take accountability for”.
Will the Secretary of State commit to publishing all the SAGE advice that his Department has received throughout this outbreak about infection control in care homes?
Future Relationship with the EU: Negotiations
I am grateful for this opportunity to update the House on the progress of our negotiations with the European Union. I have today laid a written ministerial statement before the House, which provides a comprehensive update on the third round of our negotiations with the EU on our future relationship. We have also today made public the UK’s draft legal texts. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade has also published the new tariff schedule that we will operate at the end of the transition period for those countries with which we do not have a free trade agreement.
Negotiators from the UK and the EU held full and constructive discussions last week via video conference. The talks covered trading goods and services, fisheries, law enforcement and criminal justice, and other issues, with both sides discussing full legal texts. The discussion underlined that a standard comprehensive free trade agreement, alongside other key agreements on issues such as law enforcement, civil nuclear and aviation, all in line with the political declaration, could be agreed without major difficulties in the time available. There remain, however, some areas where we have significant difference of principle, notably on fisheries, governance arrangements and the so-called level playing field. The EU, essentially, wants us to obey the rules of its club, even though we are no longer members, and it wants the same access to our fishing grounds as it currently enjoys while restricting our access to its markets.
It remains difficult to reach a mutually beneficial agreement while the EU maintains such an ideological approach, but we believe that agreement is possible if flexibility is shown. The agreements that we seek are, of course, built on the precedents of the agreements that the EU has reached with other sovereign nations. To help facilitate discussions in the fourth round and beyond, the Government have today published the full draft legal text that we have already shared with the Commission and which, together with the EU’s draft agreement, have formed the basis of all discussions. The UK texts are fully in line with the Government’s document entitled, “The Future Relationship with the EU: The UK’s Approach to Negotiations” which was published on 27 February. Copies of the legal text have been placed in the House of Commons Library and are also available online at gov.uk.
The Government remain committed to a deal with a free trade agreement at its core and we look forward to the fourth round of negotiations beginning on 1 June, but success depends on the EU recognising that the UK is a sovereign equal.
We left the European Union at the end of January and we now have seven months to agree new arrangements with our nearest neighbours. It was always a tight timetable, but the Government have made it clear that they are sticking to it and we need them to get it right. The Government have promised an ambitious, broad, deep and flexible partnership with no tariffs, fees or charges; the safeguarding of workers’ rights; consumer and environmental protections; and a comprehensive security partnership. Let me push the Minister on those issues.
First, on the economy, will the Minister tell the House what concrete progress was made last week on ensuring that British businesses will face no tariffs, fees or quotas on any goods exported to the EU? What assurances can he give to workers with regards to maintaining and improving existing labour standards?
Secondly, on our regulatory framework, leaving the European Medicines Agency, the Chemicals Agency and the Aviation Safety Agency means new regulatory bodies will need to take on this work. Can the Minister guarantee that they will be up and running by the start of January?
Thirdly, on research, international collaboration on scientific research has never been as important as it is today. What assurances can the Minister give on our future participation in the Horizon research programme?
Fourthly, peace in Northern Ireland was hard won. We must not jeopardise it. In January, the Prime Minister guaranteed unfettered access for goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland. Last week, it was revealed that the Government would implement checks on some products crossing the Irish sea and that there would be new infrastructure at ports coming from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland. Can the Minister confirm whether those additional checks are being planned for when the road map for implementing the protocol will be published?
To conclude, we must not add to the uncertainty already being experienced right now. We need answers to the questions I have put today. I urge the Minister to act in the national interest to get a deal that is good for jobs, workers’ rights and scientific co-operation.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her questions, which touch on critical issues in these negotiations. We believe that a zero-tariff, zero-quota deal is available; indeed, that is the explicit aim of the political declaration to which the EU has said it will apply its best endeavours.
On working standards, we are confident that we will continue to remain a leader, in not just Europe but the world, in workplace protection and the support we give to all our citizens. It has been the case all the time we have been in the EU that we have maintained higher standards than other European countries. Indeed, countries outside the EU, such as Norway, also lead the world in this way.
New regulatory bodies are in the process of being set out to ensure that all businesses have the certainty they need. When it comes to scientific research, we are committed to collaborating with European and other partners. As the hon. Lady knows, there are countries outside the EU that take part in the Horizon programme, including, of course, our friends in Israel.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that peace in Northern Ireland is critical, and we will shortly publish a framework document on how we intend to implement the protocol to ensure that we have unfettered access for goods from Northern Ireland into Great Britain and that we preserve the gains of the peace process.
The final point the hon. Lady asked about was certainty. She said uncertainty was a problem, and indeed it is—uncertainty over Labour’s position. On 2 January, the leader of the Labour party called for a two-year extension to our transition period. In April, he said once again that we should extend if necessary. But, then, earlier this month, he turned turtle and said:
“I’ve not called for a pause”.
Then, on Sunday, the hon. Lady said we “mustn’t rush this” and that, if the Government need to, they should come back and expand the timetable. So which is it? Is the Labour party committed to making sure that we leave the transition period on the 31st?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Negotiations of this nature are always complex, but their resolution tends to be a matter of political will. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how much of the apparent impasse is due to practical impediments and how much is due to a lack of political will? Is he satisfied that his good offices have the capacity, currently, to make a success of these negotiations?
What a petit déjeuner de chien! The Government are wilfully piling a second hammer blow on to an economy already shattered by covid, in their obsessive pursuit of a hard-Brexit agenda and the self-inflicted economic misery that that will bring on top of a pandemic. Is it not the case that the Government are doing nothing other than playing political games with the futures of millions of people by pursuing this anti-EU agenda at all costs? As countries in the rest of the world get round to putting in place their various recoveries, this Government will still be blaming Barnier as the good ship Britannia hits that Brexit iceberg. Even the Euro dogs on the street know that this Government are making a pig’s ear of the negotiations with their petulant demands and their rewriting of agreements, yet it is still all the EU’s fault. For goodness’ sake, for the good of all our constituents, will the Minister just stop, seek that extension and engage in these negotiations like a grown-up?
I am grateful for that intervention. The hon. Gentleman read it beautifully; it could almost have been set to music. However, the point that both of us have to accept is that we are democrats: we voted democratically to have one United Kingdom, we voted democratically for that United Kingdom to leave the European Union and we are honouring both those referendum results. I am sure that, on reflection, he would wish to as well.
Over recent weeks, we have seen how the European Union’s response to the unprecedented covid-19 pandemic has been fraught with internal divisions, as the German Federal Court ruled that the European Central Bank had overstepped its legitimate competence with its £2 trillion rescue policy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is now even more essential that we press ahead with negotiations and end the transition period by the end of this year, so that we can regain complete control over our money, our borders and our laws and therefore have the flexibility and the nimbleness in this country to chart our own path to recovery post covid-19?
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Were we to extend the transition period, as some have argued for, including the SNP and, in a previous incarnation, the Leader of the Opposition, we would find ourselves paying additional sums to be part of the EU subject to new laws over which we have no say and without the freedom to regulate our economy in a way to ensure that our recovery works.
Under the single-use plastics directive, the EU is introducing a range of bands, labelling and extended producer responsibility on single-use plastics, as the Minister, who worked in this area, well knows, which will lead to increased recycling and producers covering the costs. In developing our own world-leading environment management system, what discussions are we having with the EU on its schemes, and when will we inform industry if we plan to align with the EU or to produce our own betterment plans, because they need to know soon?
Yes, during the happy years that I spent at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we made strides, as indeed did European nations, on improving recycling and reducing the use of single-use plastic. We pay close attention to what is happening in Europe and elsewhere as we develop our plans, but, in significant areas, our plans are ahead of where the EU is now. None the less, we want to work co-operatively because, even though we may be in different jurisdictions, we all share one planet.
I congratulate the Prime Minister, the Cabinet Office Minister and everyone in the negotiating team for robustly resisting attempts by the EU to set our laws via its playing-field clauses? Those clauses are not present in any other comparable EU trade agreement and are not wanted by the people of Dudley and beyond. May I ask my right hon. Friend to be equally robust in ensuring that the Prime Minister’s commitment to allow goods to flow freely from Great Britain into Northern Ireland in any future trade agreement with the EU is fulfilled, and, above all, that we shall be ending the transition period without extension and on WTO rules if an acceptable agreement cannot be reached?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on both areas. We will not be extending the transition period and we will be outlining, very shortly, our approach towards a Northern Ireland protocol to make sure that the UK, as a single customs territory, can take advantage of its new freedoms.
The Minister will be aware that an earlier version of the European Union withdrawal Act contained provisions that ring-fenced workers’ rights, namely a lock on EU-derived workers’ rights. That would have meant that, before the Government changed workers’ rights, they would rightly have had to consult employer bodies and trade unions. Those measures were removed and we were told to expect them in an upcoming employment Bill, the details of which we are yet to see. Given that the decision made in the UK-EU trade talks will have a huge impact on UK workers, what is the Minister doing to ensure that there is no period of time during which workers are left without sufficient rights in law? Very importantly, what discussions is he having with trade unions and the TUC to ensure that workers are protected?
The hon. Lady raises a very important point. EU law will continue until we choose to alter it, but it has always been the case, as I mentioned briefly earlier, that we have had higher standards of worker protection than some other European countries. I enjoy my discussions with the TUC in order to ensure that this country can continue, as great socialists such as Tony Benn have always proclaimed that we should, leading the world, whether inside or outside the EU, in protecting workers’ rights.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and warmly welcome the stance that the Government are taking in these negotiations, but can he confirm that, whatever the outcome of these negotiations, we will have control of our own waters? It will be we who decides who has access to them, which will mean that fishermen of places such as Mevagissey and Newquay can look forward to a much fairer share of the fish available in UK waters?
This morning’s figures for the claimant count show an alarming rise in the number of people in receipt of out-of-work benefits, and we expect that future figures will be still worse. What estimates have the Government made of the likely further rise in those figures if at the end of this year we are tackling not just covid-19 but a no-deal Brexit?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. As he knows, it is a source of sadness to all of us to see people who want to be at work, not at work. Of course, we need to protect the fragile economy of the island communities that he represents, and we do so strongly through the power of the Exchequer across this United Kingdom. We believe that, outside the European Union, we will have more freedom to protect people in employment, and we will also save some of the money that we would have spent on EU membership.
I believe that the Secretary of State, like me, thinks that the customs compliance obligations under the protocol can be implemented without new physical inspections or infrastructure at Northern Ireland ports. In that case, will he intervene with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to stop it making preparations for new physical inspections and infrastructure at Northern Ireland ports?