House of Commons
Tuesday 2 June 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Before I bring in the Secretary of State, I remind the House that if Members who have managed to ask a question could leave to allow others to do the same, that would be very helpful and allow you to share the Chamber. At the end of the first statement, we will have a gap of five minutes before the next statement, in order to allow people to rotate.
Hong Kong National Security Legislation: UK Response
I would like to update the House on the situation in Hong Kong. As all Members will know, Hong Kong’s historic success was built on its autonomy, its freedoms and the remarkable resourcefulness and determination of its people. We have long admired their prosperity and their values, respected through China’s own expression of the one country, two systems approach—an approach that China itself has long articulated and affirmed as the basis for its relations with Hong Kong. The UK, through successive Governments, has consistently respected and supported that model, as reflected both in China’s Basic Law and also the joint declaration, which, as Members will know, is the treaty agreed by the United Kingdom and China, registered with the United Nations, as part of the arrangements for the handover of Hong Kong that were made back in 1984.
Set against this Chinese framework and the historical context, on 22 May, during a meeting of the National People’s Congress, China considered a proposal for a national security law for Hong Kong, and then on 28 May the National People’s Congress adopted that decision. China’s Foreign Minister, State Councillor Wang Yi, made it clear that the legislation will seek to ban treason, secession, sedition and subversion, and we expect it to be published in full shortly.
This proposed national security law undermines the one country, two systems framework that I have described, under which Hong Kong is guaranteed a high degree of autonomy with Executive, legislative and independent judicial powers. To be very clear and specific about this, the imposition of national security legislation on Hong Kong by the Government in Beijing, rather than through Hong Kong’s own institutions, lies in direct conflict with article 23 of China’s own Basic Law and with China’s international obligations freely assumed under the joint declaration. The Basic Law is clear that there are only a limited number of areas in which Beijing can impose laws directly, such as for the purposes of defence and foreign affairs, or in exceptional circumstances in which the National People’s Congress declares a state of war or a state of emergency.
The proposed national security law, as it has been described, in terms of the substance and detail, raises the prospect of prosecution in Hong Kong for political crimes, which would undermine the existing commitments to protect the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong, as set out in the joint declaration, but also reflecting the international covenant on civil and political rights. Finally, the proposals also include provision for the authorities in Hong Kong to report back to Beijing on progress in pursuing national security education of its people—a truly sobering prospect.
We have not yet seen the detailed published text of the legislation, but I can tell the House that if legislation in those terms is imposed by China on Hong Kong, it would violate China’s own Basic Law. It would upend China’s one country, two systems paradigm, and it would be a clear violation of China’s international obligations, including those made specifically to the United Kingdom under the joint declaration.
Let me be clear about the approach that the United Kingdom intends to take. We do not oppose Hong Kong passing its own national security law. We do strongly oppose such an authoritarian law being opposed by China, in breach of international law. We are not seeking to intervene in China’s internal affairs, only to hold China to its international commitments, just as China expects of the United Kingdom. We do not seek to prevent China’s rise—far from it. We welcome China as a leading member of the international community, and we look to engage with China on everything from trade to climate change. It is precisely because we recognise China’s role in the world that we expect it to live up to the international obligations and the international responsibilities that come with it.
On Thursday, working closely with our partners in Australia, Canada and the United States, the UK released a joint statement expressing our deep concerns over this proposed new security legislation. Our partners in New Zealand and Japan have issued similar statements. The EU has too, and I have had discussions with a number of our EU partners. The UK stands firm with our international partners in our expectation that China lives up to its international obligations under the Sino-British joint declaration.
There is time for China to reconsider. There is a moment for China to step back from the brink and respect Hong Kong’s autonomy and respect China’s own international obligations. We urge the Government of China to work with the people of Hong Kong and with the Hong Kong Government to end the recent violence and to resolve the underlying tensions based on political dialogue. If China continues down this current path, if it enacts this national security law, we will consider what further response we make working with those international partners and others.
I hope the whole House agrees that we, as the United Kingdom, have historical responsibilities—a duty I would say—to the people of Hong Kong. I can tell the House now that if China enacts the law, we will change the arrangements for British National (Overseas) passport holders in Hong Kong. The House will recall that the BNO status was conferred on British dependent territories’ citizens connected with Hong Kong as part of the package of arrangements that accompanied the joint declaration in 1984 in preparation for the handover of the territory. Under that status currently, BNO passport holders are already entitled to UK consular assistance in third countries. The British Government also provide people with BNO passports visa-free entry into the UK for up to six months as visitors.
If China follows through with its proposed legislation, we will put in place new arrangements to allow BNOs to come to the UK without the current six-month limit, enabling them to live and apply to study and work for extendable periods of 12 months, thereby also providing a pathway to citizenship.
Let me just finish by saying that, even at this stage, I sincerely hope that China will reconsider its approach, but if it does not the UK will not just look the other way when it comes to the people of Hong Kong; we will stand by them and live up to our responsibilities. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for coming to the House to make this statement and for advance sight of it. In particular, I thank him for the sentiment of solidarity that he expressed at the end of his statement.
We are deeply concerned about events in Hong Kong. We share the Government’s opposition to the national security law. We want to see real action to address police brutality and the steady erosion of the joint declaration. We want the people of Hong Kong to know that the world is watching. We also want them to know that the world is prepared to act. Can I press the Foreign Secretary for more clarity on BNO passport holders? We welcome the announcement that visa rights will be extended. He says that they will be able to come to the UK if China continues down this path and implements this legislation. Will he tell us at which stage he envisages our taking action? When will these measures be brought before the House? I also ask him for more details about how this will apply. Will it apply to the 350,000 people who hold valid passports, or to the 2.9 million who are eligible? For this to be meaningful, surely it has to apply to people’s families. Will he confirm whether this is the Government’s intention, and what assessment he has done of the numbers?
The first rule of any sanction against China must surely be that it does not harm the people of Hong Kong. Will he tell us what assessment he has made of the potential loss of millions of highly skilled people from Hong Kong; and what assessment he has done of the USA’s recent announcement, which I understand he supports, that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous? Will he therefore support the withdrawal of trade preferences and economic sanctions? There are implications for China and, of course, implications for the UK, but there are also serious implications for the people of Hong Kong, many of whom he does not appear to be offering safe haven to. What impact does he believe that that will have on them?
We have been asking for concrete steps, and I welcome the fact that the Government are now signalling that they are prepared to take these, but the joint declaration has been repeatedly undermined since 2012. As the former Governor of Hong Kong put it, that has been met with only “tut-tutting” and “embarrassed clearing of the throat” from UK Ministers. Why has the Foreign Secretary not pressed for an independent inquiry into police brutality? Given the serious implications for human rights, does he welcome, as we do, the suggestion by former Foreign Secretaries that an international contact group should be established? He knows that the only long-term solution to this is universal suffrage. We must see pressure from Britain on the Hong Kong authorities to begin the process of democratic reform.
I was astonished that, in his statement, the Foreign Secretary did not address how the UK intends to respond to the threat of countermeasures by China. It is increasingly clear that we need an alliance of democracies to ensure that we can maintain, as he says, a constructive dialogue with China on shared challenges, not least on climate change, while standing up to aggressive behaviour and clear breaches of international law. He referenced the statements by the UK, Australia, Canada and the US, which was welcome, and the additional statements from New Zealand, Japan and the European Union. It is time for an international democratic alliance to come together and speak with one voice. The G7 is now off. The G20 is not meeting. The discussion at the UN Security Council has been blocked by China. It is time for Britain to be far more proactive. In recent weeks, Australia has shown real leadership on the search for a vaccine for covid-19 and France has led the charge for a global ceasefire. On this of all issues, why is Britain not stepping up and showing the leadership the world needs?
Finally, I am concerned that this exposes some serious, deep contradictions in the Government’s approach to China. For a decade, we have been told that we are in a “golden era” of Sino-British relations, whereas the right hon. Gentleman has said that we cannot go back to “business as usual” with China. What does any of this mean in practice? The Government have finally accepted that there are concerns about the threat the Huawei contract poses to national security and are reportedly working with other countries to explore an alternative, but will he rule out Chinese involvement in any new nuclear projects beyond Hinkley? With a long and deep recession likely, the need for a coherent approach is only becoming more urgent. We do not have a strategy abroad. We do not have a strategy at home. This needs a calm and sensible approach, to maintain a constructive dialogue and build far greater strategic independence; the two are not contradictory but go hand in hand. Now is the moment that Britain must step up, show global leadership and begin to take this seriously.
I thank the hon. Lady for her solidarity and support, as expressed at the commencement of her remarks. She asked about the trigger point for changes. It is only right, in order to do this in a very careful and accurate way, to wait for the legislation to be published, so that we can see the full text, because, of course, it is only at that point, or indeed at its application, that we would be able credibly and reliably to say it was in violation of the joint declaration in the way I have described. I think that is a common-sense approach, which allows China, or other countries around the world that are watching and that we want to stand up in support of international law, to see that we are proceeding on the basis of principle and on the facts.
The hon. Lady asked about the detailed arrangements. I have been working with Ministers, in particular, the Home Secretary and the Home Office, on this since last September. As I said, we will wait to see precisely what the legislation says before making any further announcements, but the Home Secretary will set out the details at the appropriate time.
Of course, dependants would be considered. The hon. Lady rightly pointed out that the threat to Hong Kong is not just to its autonomy and freedoms, but to its economy and to investment in Hong Kong, which the UK and many others have serious interests in. The actions of China are, inexplicably, putting at risk what has long been regarded as one of the jewels in the economic crown for China. So she makes important points on that.
The hon. Lady asked why we had not called for an independent investigation into the police, but in fact I called for it in August 2019 and made that clear, having spoken to chief executive Carrie Lam. The hon. Lady also asked about universal suffrage, which of course is envisaged in the basic law for Hong Kong; I set that out as our position in the House of Commons last September. On both points I welcome her support and that of the Labour party. She then asked about international action, where the United Kingdom has been in the vanguard. We have been co-ordinating with our Five Eyes partners—I had a virtual meeting with them yesterday evening, where we reaffirmed our solidarity on this point. I have had calls and been engaged with the European Union, which has put out a statement—it is not as strong as the one we put out, but it shows that the EU is engaged actively on this. I have been speaking to my German, French and other European partners about it, and I also spoke to my Japanese opposite number today. The issue was discussed in the UN Security Council, but of course China, and indeed Russia, will veto any more substantive debate.
The hon. Lady asked about the specific measures we are proposing. I have been very clear on BNOs. Equally, we will work closely with our international partners on what the right next steps are. I think the focus right now, in order to proceed in a productive way that is likely to give ourselves the best chance of the outcome we want, is on setting out our position clearly and working with our international partners, and the ball is in the court of the Government in China. They have a choice to make here: they can cross the Rubicon and violate the autonomy and the rights of the people of Hong Kong, or they can step back, understand the widespread concern of the international community and live up to their responsibilities as a leading member of the international community.
I hugely welcome the statement from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. May I also say that I welcome a noticeably different attitude from the Opposition Front Bench in standing up to communist tyranny for the first time in a political generation? What we are seeing in Hong Kong is an attempt to impose a very different form of government on the people there, who have rights, as agreed, as my right hon. Friend said, in the Sino-British joint declaration.
My right hon. Friend has already spoken about working with countries in the Five Eyes community and Japan. May I ask him what work he has done with African countries, South American countries and middle eastern countries, and what work is he looking to do in perhaps asking for a UN special envoy to help protect the rule of law that our nation, and indeed his former career, was so important in guaranteeing—not just in Hong Kong, but around the world?
I thank my hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Select Committee, who makes a range of really important points. He is absolutely right to focus on what is the most effective way to build a groundswell of support for the principled stance that we are taking and for opposition to the actions of China where they flout international law. He will also know from his position and his widespread experience, to which I pay tribute, that beyond Five Eyes, the European Union and others, there is a whole range of different opinions on how to engage and deal with China and a range of approaches that China takes—from inducements to intimidation—to cajole, sway and, frankly, coerce countries to bend to its will.
The approach that we are taking is trying to maximise the number of countries around the world—not the usual suspects that China will dismiss as trying to weaken it or to keep it down—to make the most powerful statement and, ultimately, to moderate the actions of China. Unless we can build up that bigger caucus of opinion—my hon. Friend mentioned Africa and South America, and we are working with all of those partners—we will be less effective when it comes to facing down what is clearly egregious behaviour in relation to Hong Kong and some of the other matters that he referred to.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and, like others, I welcome much of what was in it. SNP Members of course stand in full solidarity with those in Hong Kong, and indeed those in Taiwan, who see this as a glimpse of what Beijing might have up its sleeve for them in the future. In fact, anyone who has the heel of state oppression on them right now—let us be honest, that is increasing by the day—deserves our support.
I can accept that this is tricky: it is not a black-and-white situation, given the nature of the actors involved. I think that what the Government are doing on BNOs is right, but is there not a danger that allowing so many people to leave is actually exactly what Beijing wants? While I think it is the right thing to do to allow people to come here and, as the Foreign Secretary mentioned in his statement, to provide them with a path to citizenship, when West Berliners were threatened with oppression, we did not just offer them all visas to leave; we actually stood up for them and offered to defend them. Beyond the statement on BNOs, which is I think right, what else are the Government planning to do in future to support those who are not BNOs and who will be left behind in Hong Kong to deal with the effects of this new law?
I would also like to ask the Foreign Secretary—the Chair of the Select Committee took the question out of my mouth—to expand on how he is teasing together a greater international coalition, because that will be tricky if he is going to bring in the middle east, Africa and others, given China’s enormous global economic footprint through such things as the belt and road initiative and the China strategy. Can I ask him when he expects to see the text of the law? Is there anything in the joint agreement that allows the UK Government to see that sooner rather than later? At what point does he envisage having to take further steps? No one is calling for sanctions just yet, but surely work must be going on to put together something that constitutes a price for Beijing’s heavy hand. Can he confirm whether the law that the authorities in Beijing want to impose has directly led to a reversal on the Huawei decision?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the substance and the tone of his position. We fully welcome his support, as indeed we welcome the support from all sides in the Chamber. This is a powerful opportunity for us to show a united position on this. It is something that successive Governments have agreed on. He asked whether, if we offered to change BNOs’ status, that would be a gift to Beijing. I do not think that that is true. I do not think, from the response of the Chinese Government, that that is correct. They are very sensitive about this, and in any event it is a point of principle. We have fought to live up to our international responsibilities and commitments, and, as I explained in my statement, we regard this as part of the package that went with the joint declaration. If that is upended because of action on the national security legislation, it is only right that we should rethink the position of BNO passport holders. That also explains, in relation to the question from the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), why we have been quite careful about timing. We have been prepared for this, and we have hoped it would not come, but as has often been said in this House, we hope for the best and prepare for the worst. The hon. Gentleman asked about how we build up international support. In my view, we do so based on principle and the rules of international law. The obvious riposte will be that we are intervening in internal affairs, but we are not. We are seeking to uphold China’s own freely assumed international obligations. And no, I am not expecting advance sight of the legislation from Beijing.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement, but does he not now think that the position of China is altogether too obvious, and that since President Xi arrived, its ambitions globally, both militarily and economically, are now fully on track and Hong Kong is but one manifestation of its global reach through the South China sea, through its abuse of human rights and through its ambitions over Taiwan? Is this not a case, as a previous Prime Minister once said, that this is
“only the first sip…of a bitter cup”,
and that it is going to be offered to us again and again? Appeasement, which has been the case for the free world, is now no longer an option, so will my right hon. Friend now explain how he intends to organise the free world so that we stand up against this? Also, will he now work with all our allies around the world to get them to give all Hong Kong passport holders right of abode, if necessary?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his excellent questions. I do think Hong Kong is part of a pattern, although it is not a uniform one. He referred to the violation of the UN convention on the law of the sea—I think that is what he was referring to in relation to the South China sea—and we could add cyber-attacks and the treatment of the Uighur Muslims. At every step, the right approach for the United Kingdom, as a matter of principle and also of effectiveness, is to call out behaviour that is contrary to international law on its own terms. In answer to the Chairman of the Select Committee and others, that is how we will build a coalition of like-minded countries to stand firm in the face of such behaviour.
My right hon. Friend asked about BNO passport holders. We have made a commitment, which he has heard today. It is important that we did that as a matter of principle, rather than waiting for others to agree in concept. However, we are already discussing with our partners—I raised it on the Five Eyes call yesterday—the possibility of burden sharing if we see a mass exodus from Hong Kong. I do not think that that is likely in the last analysis, but he is right to raise it, and we are on the case diplomatically.
May I particularly welcome the commitment in relation to BNO passport holders? The Foreign Secretary has heard me make that plea on many occasions in the past. He will be aware, though, that the BNO offer was closed in 1997, so the announcement today does not offer any protection to those born after that date, who are, by definition, the brave young Hong Kongers who are out there demonstrating on the streets, and who are most vulnerable and in most need of protection. Will he look at what we can do to assist these people?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman and pay tribute to him for his long-standing and principled position on this issue; he is absolutely right, and we appreciate all the cross-party support on this. He asked about those who do not qualify for BNO passport status. I would just point out that we are talking about over 300,000 people who do qualify. Of course, he makes a reasonable point about the cut-off date, but that would not apply to dependants. We have set out—based on principle, in the right way—the commitment that we are making but, as others have already mentioned, what will be important is that the international community comes together to ensure that there are options for the wider group to which the right hon. Gentleman refers.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s clear statement, and I am glad that he agrees that China’s national security law for Hong Kong totally conflicts with its obligations under the joint declaration. Will he say a little more about what we plan to do with Australia because, of the countries around the world, it has the most to fear from this law coming into effect in Hong Kong?
I thank my hon. Friend, and welcome his remarks and comments. He is absolutely right about the violation of the joint declaration, whether that is through the infringements of peaceful protests or the legislation regarding the national anthem. He specifically asked about Australia. As he will have seen from the statement that the UK has put out, we work closely with the Australians on this matter, as we do with all our Five Eyes partners: the Canadians, the Americans and the Kiwis as well. I spoke to Marise Payne yesterday evening about this subject, and we will be working even more intensely in the future.
Of course, even to get to this point—the work that we have done and the commitment that we have made—we have been talking to the Australians and our other international partners for months, and that will continue constructively. I know that the Australians feel very much that this situation is in their neighbourhood and backyard, and are taking a very principled point of view, but they are right up against it; they see all the impacts of what China is doing, even closer than we do, and we will be working hand in glove with them.
Amnesty International found that the Hong Kong police force has indiscriminately arrested over 1,300 people in the past year at peaceful protests, and has tortured those in detention. It has used extreme force against pro-democracy protesters, including the use of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. In America, we see a brutal state crackdown against protests in response to the latest police killing of an unarmed black man, and in England and Wales there have been over 1,700 deaths following contact with the police since 1990. What are the Government doing to oppose state-sanctioned violence and racism in Hong Kong and across the world?
We stand up in the United Nations, the Council of Europe and all the other international forums, as we are doing regarding Hong Kong, and call out those flagrant violations of international law. I have set out the approach that we are taking in relation to Hong Kong. We have raised the matter in the UN Security Council, of which China is obviously a permanent member. China is extremely influential. It deploys all its economic and political leverage—and, indeed, intimidation—to get others to stay quiet. What the United Kingdom has shown—and I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s support—is that we are standing up as a matter of principle and saying, “This is unacceptable”, and we are taking the actions that I described.
At the 1997 Hong Kong handover ceremony, Lord Patten said:
“Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. That is the promise. And that is the unshakeable destiny.”
Will the Foreign Secretary take this moment to reaffirm this Government’s commitment to the commitment that we made in the joint declaration, and reassure people that Hong Kongers must continue to run Hong Kong and that that resolutely remains British foreign policy?
It is precisely because that is at stake—in respect of not only the national security legislation but the previous elections we saw and the forthcoming elections later this year—that we are taking the approach that we are. We are calling out what is a clear and manifest breach of the joint declaration, and I reassure my hon. Friend that we will continue to do so, with our international partners.
A number of British businesses with headquarters in Hong Kong are likely to be quite concerned right now. What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the likely risks to the Hong Kong dollar peg, as well as the potential for control creep in Hong Kong’s regulatory bodies and fiscal structures?
My hon. Friend is quite right to reflect, as others have done already, on the fact that if China is willing to interfere on political and autonomy grounds, it is also likely to pose a longer-term threat to the economic prosperity and economic model that Hong Kong reflects and embodies. We in the UK are mindful of that, not only from an investment point of view but, frankly, from the point of view of individuals who are trying to run livelihoods or invest in Hong Kong. The sad reality is that if China continues down this track, it will strangle what has long been the jewel in the economic crown. It is clear to me that China is putting politics, as it views it, ahead of economics. I am afraid that is a natural consequence of the creeping violation of Hong Kong’s autonomy that we see.
Freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are precious human rights the world over. I am sure we have all been reminded of that as we have watched the situation in the United States of America develop over the past 48 hours—I heard what the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) had to say about that—but what specific representations and specific pressure is the Secretary of State bringing to bear on the Government of Hong Kong to ensure that police handling of protests is necessary and proportionate?
I totally agree with the hon. and learned Lady on that point. We disagree about many things, but one thing about which we have always firmly agreed is the upholding of those elementary human rights, including the essential freedoms of peaceful protest, which are the aspiration of the people of Hong Kong. As I mentioned to the shadow Foreign Secretary, the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), I raised the need for a fully independent and robust investigation into the recent events, including the police treatment of protesters, in my first conversation with Carrie Lam back on 9 August. I made that clear then and we have done so consistently since. We recognise the concerns about the Independent Police Complaints Council and we have been working to see what we can do to reinforce it and to make it stronger. We also recognise the inherent weaknesses in it, which is why we will continue, in line with the shadow Foreign Secretary, to call for a fully independent inquiry into those actions. I hope the hon. and learned Lady will support that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) has often pointed out, only 500 veterans of the former Hong Kong Military Service Corps and royal naval service were offered UK passports in 1997; the rest were disregarded. Has not the time now come to pay this debt of honour to around 250 additional former servants of the British Crown by allowing them and their families the right to relocate to the United Kingdom if they wish or need to do so in future?
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important and forensic point, as ever. As a Government and as a country we are extremely grateful to those who served in the Hong Kong Military Service Corps. He is right that under the scheme, which was introduced in 1990 and ran until July 1997, only a limited number of Hong Kong Military Service Corps personnel who were settled in Hong Kong could apply to register as a British citizen. The Home Office is listening to representations made on behalf of those former service corps personnel who were unable to obtain citizenship at that time too see what, if anything, further may be done.
Rubber bullets, tear gas, central Governments clamping down on local authorities—this is not just, of course, what we are seeing in America, but it is a long-term trend in Hong Kong. I welcome what the Secretary of State has said, but I implore him to see this not just as the enactment of a particular Bill in Beijing but as a long-term trend of undermining the rights of people in Hong Kong. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that this extension of the right to be here for six months on a rolling basis for British national overseas citizens is not just granted on condition of whether Beijing withdraws a particular Bill temporarily? Whatever it does, we should ensure that rights is given, and not just to passport holders but to all people who are entitled to BNO status.
I think the hon. Gentleman is right on this point of principle. We want to make sure that we live up to our responsibilities, but it is also important, as we try to change the long-term trend to which he rightly refers, that we are clear about the basis on which we would do it. The basis is the ripping up of the essence of the joint declaration. We need to wait and see what the national security legislation looks like, to see affirmed the terms that have already been described by the Government in Beijing. We are right to say that that particular trigger point would change our minds, because then we would be able to stand on the firm point of principle and international law as the basis on which we were extending those rights. The stronger the position we are able to be in in that regard, the more likely we are to carry wide international support for the actions that we take.
In article 45 of the Hong Kong Basic Law, the Hong Kong people were promised universal suffrage. It is clear that that is being ignored. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK now has a legal and moral responsibility to protect the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend about the moral responsibility and our responsibility in terms of the commitments that we have made to the people of Hong Kong. We fully intend to live up to those responsibilities. There is still an opportunity for China to step back; we think it is unlikely that that will happen, but we will be steadfast in sticking to the word that we have given to stand by the people of Hong Kong and not just look the other way.
That quote has been much bandied around. It is absolutely right. The context for it was when I was asked what we would do in order to have a clear review of how the outbreak of coronavirus started and came about. I wanted to be clear, and the United Kingdom is clear, working with our international partners and as a matter of principle, that we need to have a sober and clear-sighted independent review and analysis of how the outbreak happened, how it was allowed to spread and what we can do to prevent it from ever happening again.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware of the concern of charities such as Amnesty International and Hong Kong Watch about how these laws could impact on the work that they carry out in the territory and that the political opposition more generally could be accused of subversion and imprisoned simply for speaking to foreigners with ties to foreign Governments. Will he commit to the hilt to support the work of charities and non-governmental organisations operating in Hong Kong for the protection and freedom of its citizens?
I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. Of course, the climate for NGOs, and for anyone speaking out in an independent forum, whether in the media or otherwise, has massively closed down. That is not just wrong as a matter of principle and the values that we share in the House. It is wrong as a matter of the joint declaration, but also as a matter of China’s view of Hong Kong’s future, reflected in Chinese law, and in particular the Basic Law.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Does he agree that the national security law proposed by Beijing undermines the one country, two systems framework? Will he assure me that the UK will continue to be robust to stop the creeping violations of Hong Kong rights and continue to work with our international friends and colleagues?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. Of course, we are dealing with a major economic power that relies on all its economic and political leverage and, indeed, other means, to bring different countries and Governments to its way of thinking or just to quieten them down. Our approach—as I have described, based on principle and international law—is therefore the most likely to be effective in building up that groundswell of support that has the best chance of changing China’s behaviour.
As far back as 1989, the late, great Paddy Ashdown called on the Government to institute safeguards just in case one day China not just overreached but breached the joint declaration. We now potentially find ourselves in that position. Hongkongers are finding that the world is shifting beneath their feet, with nowhere to go. I understand that former Foreign Secretaries have written to the current Foreign Secretary, asking him to set up an international contact group to look at international human rights and also a lifeboat policy for Hongkongers. Has he considered their call and will he set up such a group?
I pay tribute to the late Lord Paddy Ashdown for all his work. The UK is in the vanguard of the international response on Hong Kong. I am not sure that we are quite in the same situation with China and Hong Kong as we were with the former Yugoslavia, on which I worked as a war crimes lawyer in the early 2000s. None the less, the spirit of the hon. Lady’s question is absolutely right. As I have described, we want to build up a groundswell of those who share our commitment to the basic tenets of international law. That is most likely to be effective in getting China to think again about Hong Kong and all those other areas. We have raised China’s conduct on human rights issues in the Human Rights Council and the United Nations Security Council, and we will raise Hong Kong in every appropriate forum that we conceivably can.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and his commitment on BNO passport holders. Back in the 1990s, this country, with a degree of regret, fulfilled its international legal obligations to China. We must be absolutely clear to the Chinese that we expect them to do the same now with the people of Hong Kong and with this country. Will he make it absolutely clear to the Chinese Government that although we want constructive relations in future, that will be incredibly difficult if they go ahead with a measure that completely breaches the agreement they have with us and sends entirely the wrong message to the international community about what China wishes to become?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his long-standing position on the issue. He is absolutely right. We are not looking for inevitable confrontation with China. This is a question of specific undertakings, which were made at the time of the handover, to the United Kingdom and, more important, to the people of Hong Kong—and, indeed, to the world. We will, with our international partners, press rigorously and robustly to try to require China to live up to its obligations and, frankly, the responsibilities that come with wanting to be treated as a leading member of the international community.
There has been a clear undermining of the human rights of the people of Hong Kong and a blatant breach of the Sino-British joint declaration. The Foreign Secretary says that he has been calling for an independent inquiry for 10 months. Why has nothing happened? What support are the Government giving to human rights defenders in Hong Kong?
We have called for a fully independent investigation in relation to police treatment of the protesters. We will introduce our mechanism for so-called Magnitsky legislation shortly. [Hon. Members: “When?”] We have been slightly disrupted because of coronavirus, but we will bring it forward shortly. I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who speaks from a sedentary position and has a long-standing position on the issue.
I agree with the spirit of my hon. Friend’s question. The ideal thing would be for China to step back. If China does not step back, we will consider all the possible actions and measures that we might wish to take. Fundamentally, rather than just wait for international co-operation on the specific issue of what will happen to those who are not willing to stay in Hong Kong, we feel that we have a duty—as a matter of international law, moral responsibility and historical responsibility—to come out and lead. That is why we have said that we will allow the 300,000-plus passport holders, along with their dependants, to come to the UK in the way I described.
It is right that we take our special historical responsibilities seriously and take a significant interest in this issue, but we know that, when we do take an interest in such issues, diaspora communities at home suffer more. The Chinese community and people of Chinese heritage in Nottingham and, frankly, across the country, have had a horrendous first five months to this year, with abuse increased in staggering amounts. Can I therefore seek assurances from the Foreign Secretary that, as well as the admirably assertive role he is going to play on the international stage, he is working with his colleagues across Government to formulate a sympathetic package and a thoughtful way of supporting Chinese people and those of a Chinese background in this country, because they really need us now?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have a councillor in my constituency, Xingang Wang, who is not only one of the most hard-working businessmen, but one of the most hard-working councillors, and I am sure we all have examples of that across the country and across the political divides. It is crucial that we say to the Chinese community here that we value their contribution, that our stance is in relation to the Government of China and their violation of the rights and the autonomy of the people of Hong Kong. We will extend warm engagement to the people of Hong Kong and embrace them in the way I have described with the change of status so that they can come here, and I fully support what the hon. Gentleman said.
I welcome very much my right hon. Friend’s statement. Does he agree that China itself is now at a crossroads? It can either be a partner in the international community, which is what we want to see, or take the path to becoming a pariah state with disputes in the South China sea, at the World Trade Organisation and a lack of co-operation with the World Health Organisation over covid. Does he agree that if the Chinese Communist party applies these laws to Hong Kong in clear breach of previous commitments, the world will start to wonder what the value is of a Chinese signature on an international treaty? That would have profound international consequences.
I thank my right hon. Friend. He is absolutely right that at the core of this, beyond all the specific issues that he has raised—freedom of navigation in the South China sea, the issue of transparency and getting to the truth in relation to the initial outbreak of coronavirus, the wider issues around cyber-attacks that China engages in and, of course, the issue of the people of Hong Kong—this is a question not just of international law and rights and the violations of those rights, but of trust and confidence in the kind of partner that China wishes to become. As I have said unapologetically, we wish to engage with China. We do not wish to prevent its rise. We wish to welcome China’s rise, but I think what my right hon. Friend describes is absolutely right: China must live up to the obligations and responsibilities that come with that status.
In his statement, the Foreign Secretary mentioned that the UK will not look away when it comes to the people of Hong Kong. The Hong Kong protest movement has been driven by disenfranchised young people who just want representation, and that can only happen if there is democratic reform. As a co-signatory to the joint declaration, the UK Government have a duty to hold China accountable for the promise it made on this issue. Will he call on the Hong Kong Government to enact political reform and give the Hong Kong people universal suffrage?
I agree with the hon. Lady. I made my view clear in the House of Commons on 26 September 2019 in my first debate on Hong Kong, and I welcome her support for the position of the Government. Of course, the bottom line is that we cannot force China and no one is seriously suggesting, I think, that we can do so through coercive measures. What we must do is build up a groundswell of international support, based on standing up for principle, rights and the rules of the international system, to persuade China that it will be bad for China, bad for Hong Kong and bad for its own aspirations for it to continue down this path.
In the spirit of solidarity across the Benches on this issue, I pay tribute to a previous MP for Bath and the last Governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten, for all he has done and continues to do for the people of Hong Kong. One of my constituents was born in Hong Kong before 1997, but for one reason or another, his parents never applied for a BNO passport. Will the Secretary of State ensure that those who are eligible but have so far not been BNO passport holders can apply for one?
Of course, that is something we will look at. I agree with the hon. Lady about paying tribute to the noble Lord Patten in the other place for all the work that he did on the handover and as the last Governor. What we want to do—I think this is true across the House, from all the different parties—is live up to the responsibilities that we made at the time.
Is it not most unlikely that China will step back from its actions at this stage, because what it is doing is a projection of political power struggles at the top of the Communist party? If my right hon. Friend believes, as I do, that that is possible, does he agree that it is therefore necessary for the Government to prepare to permanently welcome a broader scope of people to the UK and, with them, their capital so that they can be permanently established here, where we are still free?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend because I know he stands for the cause of liberty wherever it may be—I have always been shoulder to shoulder with him and I am glad to be again. In relation to the people of Hong Kong, we have set out a very principled and generous approach. If we look at the numbers potentially involved, we are talking about over 300,000 holders of BNO passports and, in terms of those eligible, close to 3 million. So I think the UK, in the terms that I have described, is doing its bit, but we also need to work with our wider international partners who have significant Hong Kong communities, and a significant stake and interests in Hong Kong, to make sure that that is a broader international response. He is right to exude some scepticism about whether China will row back, but we have to give it every opportunity, even if it is only a marginal one.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary standing full square behind the people of Hong Kong. I believe that our economic standing is enhanced, rather than diminished, when Britain stands up for human rights across the world, but does the Foreign Secretary accept that we would be less susceptible to accusations of hypocrisy if he condemned President Trump’s words and actions in saying,
“when the looting starts, the shooting starts”
and in last night using tear gas to clear peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrators?
I understand the concern, as does anyone who has watched those distressing pictures in relation to George Floyd or indeed the wider protests and violence across America—we all want to see America come together, not tear itself apart. I just gently say to the hon. Lady that there is a federal review of what has often been state action under way and charges have already been brought in relation to the perpetrator. Therefore—I am not sure whether she was trying to do this—I would be a bit careful about the moral equivalence between what is happening in the United States, however sobering and troubling it is, and what is happening in China.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Where does he think the United Nations is with this issue? The democratic freedoms of the people of Hong Kong are enshrined in international law and an international treaty lodged at the UN, but given what he said a few moments ago about the way China uses its negative influence to try to silence other countries, does he regard the UN as a lost cause when it comes to defending the people of Hong Kong? What we should be seeing right now is a UN special envoy being put in place to help lead the international effort.
I pay tribute to the work that my right hon. Friend has been doing with other parliamentarians on this subject. He is right to press for what we are doing at the UN. There are, of course, some inherent limitations on what we can do in relation to a permanent member, with the veto that comes with it in the Security Council. We have raised this in the UN Security Council, although there are all sorts of challenges, as the hon. Member for Wigan described, and we have raised China’s behaviour in the past in relation to human rights in the Human Rights Council. Fundamentally, I think it is important—this is why we have framed our response in the way that we have to garner as much support in the United Nations and equivalent bodies as possible—to base this on principle, international law and the UN’s own international covenant on civil and political rights. That seems to me the surest way to build up the groundswell of support in the UN that my right hon. Friend described.
The Hong Kong people are rightly relying on us to show solidarity at this point, especially when Hong Kong police have used extreme force against pro-democracy protesters, including the use of rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear gas. Is the Foreign Secretary concerned about that and what precise steps has he taken to help avert this in future?
The hon. Gentleman picks up on a point that has been raised by a number of colleagues. I am absolutely concerned about it. I raised the issue with Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, the first time I spoke to her, back in August. We have consistently raised it since. The so-called Independent Police Complaints Council is in place. We have serious concerns about its independence. I think that is what fuelled the remarks by the shadow Foreign Secretary. Of course, though, as the hon. Gentleman I think will recognise, there are limits to what we can do in practice to force, or to require, either China or the authorities in Hong Kong to see sense on some of this. The way we will do it is by exercising our soft power and our influence and by building up a groundswell of support, and the best way to achieve that is based on principle, including human rights and international law.
A million Tibetans killed by Chinese oppression, 2 million Uighurs incarcerated in re-education concentration camps, and now 7.5 million Hong Kong citizens about to see their civil liberties and freedom of expression snuffed out. I acknowledge and applaud the Foreign Secretary’s strong statement, but closer to home, does he share my concern that a country with such a flagrant disregard for human rights is buying and bullying influence on British campuses and in British schools and British boardrooms?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the point of principle that we must be very mindful, across campuses and universities and generally, in relation to China and otherwise, to protect the freedom of expression and freedom of speech that we are now jealously guarding for the people of Hong Kong. He is right to raise the concerns around undue influence that effectively trails back to the Chinese Government. That is something we are actively looking at.
The very fact that we are debating here today and seem to be speaking with one voice will send a strong message to the people of Hong Kong of our support for them at this time. With the postponement of the G7, when does the Prime Minister plan to raise this issue with President Xi?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will raise this, as we have raised it consistently, with the Chinese Government at every level—of course, to the extent that they are willing to engage. The important point is to engage with China, to the extent that we can, on these very specific points and the specific basis that I have set out. Of course, China just looks the other way and wants to ignore and flout not just international law but international opinion, and of course there are going to be consequences for its own ambitions in the world.
The Foreign Secretary has talked about the potential to extend to BNO passport holders the right to stay in the UK for an extendable period of 12 months. What would happen after those 12 months? What specific discussions has he had with his colleagues at the Home Office? What rights will be extended to those passport holders’ dependants?
The purpose of offering extendable periods of 12 months is that there will be no guillotine that comes down. It allows BNO passport holders to come here. We are removing the six-month limitation. They can apply to work and study, and that will itself create a path to citizenship. I have been engaged with the Home Secretary and, indeed, other Ministers since last September, looking at the detail. There is further consideration that we are giving to it. Of course, it is about giving effect to those rights as effectively as possible, but also doing it in the most straightforward and swift way we possibly can.
The Foreign Secretary is right to suggest that the national security legislation has a sense of inevitability about it. Will he therefore go further and make it clear to Hong Kongers that they will always be welcome here and that the Government regard them as a potential boon, not a burden, and in so doing make it very clear that, post Brexit, we are global Britain and not little England?
I entirely share that spirit. As someone whose father and his family, to the extent that they were able to, came here as refugees, I think this country has a proud tradition of standing up as a haven for those who flee persecution, and I know the Home Secretary feels the same way. We absolutely intend to live up to our responsibilities, not just as a matter of obligation but because that is what the British people do at their very best.
The Foreign Secretary has rightly made known the Government’s concerns and our collective concerns about the erosion of autonomy and democratic rights in Hong Kong. I have listened carefully to his responses. Will he say more specifically what consideration he has given to our future trading relationship with China in the event that it continues down this very troubling path?
The hon. Lady raises a perfectly good point. We will talk with all our international partners about this. China’s size and scale and potential growth means it has asymmetric economic power in this regard, but of course we are not going to just turn a blind eye. I have set out the measures, and we will look very carefully with our wider partners at what further action we can take. We want to try to engage with China and moderate its conduct, and that will be the lodestar for the action we take and that we try to galvanise the international community to take.
The Foreign Secretary’s statement standing up for the people of Hong Kong is very welcome, not least given our historical ties and responsibilities. Will my right hon. Friend outline to the House what action he is taking with other members of the Commonwealth to combat the proposed actions of the Chinese Government?
I spoke last night to my opposite numbers from New Zealand, Australia and Canada, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but that is the starting point, not the point of arrival. We have got to make sure we build this up into a broader groundswell. Working with Five Eyes and our European partners is important, but I have also spoken both to people within the Commonwealth and outside—I spoke to my Japanese opposite number this morning—and we must try to make this as broad a group as possible, based on a like-minded attachment to the principles of, and adherence to, international law.
I thank my right hon. Friend and also the Home Secretary for the steps they are taking to support the BNO passport holders. China has an appalling track record when it comes to the rights of Christians and other faith groups, and there is growing concern among Church leaders in Hong Kong in light of recent developments, so what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the particular threat to Christians there, and will he ensure that everything possible is done to defend the rights of belief, worship and freedom of speech in Hong Kong?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, and he is absolutely right to pay tribute to the Home Office and the Home Secretary for assiduously working on this with my Department and others for months. We will stand up for freedom of religion and freedom of expression wherever it stands and whichever minority or group is seeking to avail itself of it. That is a point of principle—that is what we are about—and that applies to Christian minorities and to the Uighur Muslims as well. We have, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), the Prime Minister’s special envoy specifically dedicated to working around the world on this issue.
As the Foreign Secretary has acknowledged, there is concern not just about what is happening in Hong Kong but also the treatment of the Uighur Muslims and Falun Gong practitioners and what is happening not just in terms of human rights abuses in Tibet but the terrible environmental destruction going on there, too. The Foreign Secretary mentioned the asymmetric economic power of China, and also implied that, basically, China’s refusal to engage on human rights dialogue means it can get away with doing whatever it wants; is that really the case?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question and understand the spirit in which she asked it. She made some important points, and the asymmetric economic size and growth of China is a fact and the important thing we can do is engage with China as it rises and wishes to take up the mantle of being a leading member of the international community—trying to shape the rules of the international system, which it is undoubtedly trying to do, as we can see from the number of elections in which it runs in international organisations—working with our partners to say, “I’m sorry, but unless you’re willing to live up to the obligations and responsibilities that come with that role, you won’t get the kind of support that will allow you to realise those aspirations.” I have had previous conversations with State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on this subject and I will continue to engage with him as constructively as possible at any moment in time, but of course it requires the Chinese Government to be willing to engage on their side as well.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his exemplary approach to this crisis so far. Will he recognise, not least from our exchanges this morning, that he has the chance to unite the House and the country behind a complete reset of our approach, recognising that the Chinese Government are implacably hostile to our democracy, to our values and to our global interests, and that Government policy should in future reflect that sobering but realistic analysis?
I thank my right hon. Friend, and he is right to say that the actions in relation to Hong Kong and in other areas are opposed to our values as well as our interests. I certainly welcome the fact that we have, it feels to me, a groundswell of cross-party consensus on this issue, because we are stronger when we are bigger than the sum of our parts and we are more effective in getting our message across. We now have to translate that into the wider international community.
I applaud the Foreign Secretary for what he has said; he is being very, very reasonable and, as the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) said, has the whole House behind him. I just want more oomph from him—a bit more vim and determination—because these are really important principles; the rule of law around the world must hold. So I say to him: please, please, please, bring forward the blasted Magnitsky regulations, which he proposed when he was a Back Bencher. I want him to bring them back to the Dispatch Box, not in weeks, months and years, but in days and hours.
I will do my level best to get this before the House before the summer recess. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who is most understanding, will recognise that one or two other things have displaced our focus—[Interruption.] I should point out to the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) that the Government have not been in power, and I have not been Foreign Secretary, for two years, but we will get on with it. I share the hon. Gentleman’s restlessness to deliver it and look forward to his support when we do.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. This country has long and historic ties with Hong Kong, and we must take this relationship extremely seriously. Can he assure me that we continue to stand up for British nationals overseas in Hong Kong, who will see their freedoms curtailed by Beijing if this law is passed?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. We have tried to proceed at the right moment and in the right way, with the generosity of spirit that defines this country at its very finest and in a way that reaches out to and shows people in Hong Kong that if China follows through on this they can come to the warm embrace of this country. We will make the practical arrangements, which of course are not straightforward, to give effect to those aspirations.
People in the House have rightly taken note of the fact that we must protect freedom of expression and assembly, and 4 June would normally see people marking the Tiananmen anniversary, but the authorities in Hong Kong do not seem to be allowing it to go ahead. What representations have the British Government made that would allow people to mark the anniversary in a socially distant way so as to allow that freedom of expression and assembly?
The authorities in Hong Kong have today confirmed that they will not allow the Tiananmen commemoration, which has typically taken place for many years. In fairness, they have explained that on the grounds of coronavirus, but I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns within the wider context. It is worrying and disturbing, and we will continue to raise all these points, whether on the issue he has raised, the British national overseas passports, the national security law, the new legislation on the national anthem, or the wider panoply of measures that China is taking.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s explanation of the Government’s position and his recognition of the growing list of acts of intimidation, authoritarianism and expansionism by the Communist party of China. Is this announcement an individual response to an isolated incident or part of a wider reappraisal of our foreign policy towards China? Does he think that the long-applied and hopeful policy of positive engagement with China is not having the desired outcome? If so, how should this approach change?
I certainly agree that there are huge challenges in engagement with China across a whole suite of issues, from cyber through to intellectual property theft and of course the people of Hong Kong. We have said throughout that we are not seeking to contain China as a matter of dogmatic strategy; we are seeking to engage with it. There are also opportunities in the relationship—on trade and on climate change, with some of the green technology it is capable of innovating as well as in relation to its role as a major emitter—and we want to engage to accentuate those opportunities and mitigate the risks involved. The issue with Hong Kong is different. It is a point of principle and relates to the historic ties to which Members on both sides of the House have referred. That is why we have set out such detail. We will stand by this relationship and continue to seek to engage, as difficult as it may be, but we will also be clear that if China flouts international law, or those wider values and principles that we hold dear, we will stand up and act. Equally, we will defend the key equities that we have in this country, whether in relation to intellectual property theft or telecoms.
Yesterday, I was contacted by a constituent who is an overseas student at St Andrews University; he did not apply for a BNO passport at the time of the original offer because he was a toddler, and his parents did not apply on his behalf. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement, but there are many Hong Kong citizens who, like my constituent, did not receive a BNO passport in the first place and missed out. Will he consider the proposal made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) in his Hong Kong Bill, which I sponsored, which would offer a pathway to citizenship for all Hong Kong citizens.
We need to be realistic about the volume of people that we in this country could credibly and responsibly absorb. I do not think we can have this debate without acknowledging that. The fact is, though, that we have an historic set of responsibilities, as I set out earlier, and we will live up to them. Perhaps the hon. Lady should get in touch with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary regarding the particular case she raised, to see what more can be done around eligibility.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I had little hope but all faith in you to get me in at 50!
Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms are what have allowed it to become so successful and prosperous. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the new national security law will put that prosperity and Hong Kong’s international standing in grave danger?
With permission, I would like to make a statement on coronavirus.
Thanks to the collective determination and resolve of the nation, we are winning this battle. We have flattened the curve, we have protected the NHS, and together we have come through the peak. Yesterday, I was able to announce that the level of daily deaths is lower than at any time since lockdown began on 23 March. Today’s Office for National Statistics data show that the level of excess mortality is also lower than at any time since the start of lockdown, falling on a downward trend. The ONS reports 12,288 all-cause deaths in England and Wales in the week ending 22 May. That is down from 14,573 in the previous week. That latest figure is still above the average for this time of year and we must not relent in our work to drive it down, but it is now broadly in line with what we might typically see during the winter. We never forget that each of those deaths represents a family that will never be the same again. This House mourns each one.
We are moving in the right direction, but this crisis is very far from being over and we are now at a particularly sensitive moment in the course of the pandemic. We must proceed carefully and cautiously as we work to restore freedom in this country, taking small steps forward and monitoring the result, being prepared to pause in our progress if that is what public safety requires. So today I would like to update the House on two important aspects of the action we are taking.
First, NHS Test and Trace is now operational. That means we have updated our public health advice. Since the start of the crisis, we have said to people that you must wash your hands, self-isolate if you have symptoms, and follow the social distancing rules. All those remain incredibly important, but there is a new duty—and it is a duty—that we now ask and expect of people. If you have one of these symptoms—that is: a fever; a new, continuous cough; a change in your sense of taste or smell—you must get a test. We have more than enough capacity to provide a test for anyone who needs one and we have more than enough capacity to trace all your contacts. So, to repeat: if you have symptoms get a test. That is how we locate, isolate and control the virus. By the way, I make no apology for this overcapacity. The fact that we have thousands of NHS contact tracers on standby reflects the fact that transmission of the virus is currently low. If we were in a position where we needed to use all that capacity, it would mean that the virus was running at a higher rate—something that no one wants to see.
Secondly, I want to update the House on the work we are doing to understand the unequal and disproportionate way that this disease targets people, including those who are from black or minority ethnic backgrounds. This is very timely work. People are understandably angry about injustices, and as Health Secretary, I feel a deep responsibility, because this pandemic has exposed huge disparities in the health of our nation. It is very clear that some people are significantly more vulnerable to covid-19, and that is something I am determined to understand in full and take action to address.
Today, I can announce that Public Health England has completed work into disparities in the risks and outcomes of covid-19, and we have published its findings. PHE has found the following. First, as we are all aware, age is the biggest risk factor. Among those diagnosed with covid-19, people who are 80 or older are 70 times more likely to die than those under 40. Being male is also a significant risk factor. Working-age men are twice as likely to die as working-age women. Occupation is a risk factor, with professions that involve dealing with the public in an enclosed space, such as taxi driving, at higher risk. Importantly, the data show that people working in hospitals are not more likely to catch or die from covid-19.
Diagnosis rates are higher in deprived or densely populated urban areas, and we know that our great cities have been hardest hit by this virus. This work underlines that being black or from a minority ethnic background is a major risk factor. That racial disparity holds even after accounting for the effects of age, deprivation, region and sex. The PHE ethnicity analysis did not adjust for factors such as comorbidities and obesity, so there is much more work to do to understand the key drivers of these disparities, the relationships between the different risk factors and what we can do to close the gap.
I want to thank Public Health England for this work. I am determined that we continue to develop our understanding and shape our response. I am pleased to announce that my right hon. Friend the Equalities Minister will be leading on this work and taking it forward, working with PHE and others to further understand the impacts. We need everyone to play their part by staying alert, following the social distancing rules, isolating and getting a test if you have symptoms. We must not relax our guard but continue to fight this virus together. That is how we will get through this and keep driving the infection down. I commend this statement to the House.
There have now been 56,308 excess deaths since the beginning of March, 12,500 of which are not related to covid, but we do have one of the worst excess death rates in the world—why does the Secretary of State think that is? What does he believe is the cause of the non-covid excess death rate?
With respect to the PHE’s findings, which I am pleased to see published today, we have always known that there is a social gradient in health. The poorest and most deprived have inequality in access to healthcare and inequality in health outcomes. What the Secretary of State has confirmed today is that covid thrives on inequalities. Yes, indeed, black lives matter, but it is surely a call to action that black, Asian and minority ethnic people are more likely to die from covid and more likely to be admitted to intensive care with covid. He has seen the findings. I note that the Equalities Minister is taking work forward, but what action will be taken to minimise risk for black, Asian and minority ethnic people?
There are other vulnerable groups who are highly at risk. I am sure the Secretary of State will have seen today the Care Quality Commission report which shows a 134% increase in deaths of people with learning disabilities. Surely it is now time to expand testing to those under 65 in receipt of adult social care.
On the easing of restrictions, the Secretary of State said that this was a sensitive moment—well, quite, Mr Speaker. Our constituents have concerns and are looking for reassurance, particularly those in the shielding group. They really should not have had to wake up on Sunday morning to find out that they could now leave the house once a day. They need clarity and details. And why were GPs not informed in advance?
We are still at around 50,000 infections a week, so may I press the Secretary of State a bit further on the easing of restrictions? The biosecurity level remains at 4, but his own Command Paper from 11 May said that changes to lockdown
“must be warranted by the current alert level”.
At the Sunday news conference, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government said that all the proposed easing of restrictions had been modelled and showed that the R value remained below 1. That is, of course, reassuring, but will he now publish that modelling so that it can be peer-reviewed?
The easing of restrictions was based on tests, so may I ask the Secretary of State a couple of questions? First, on NHS capacity, we know that the NHS has not been overwhelmed, but that has been on the back of cancelled planned surgery, delays to vital treatment, and the postponing of cancer screening. Arguably, it has been the biggest rationing exercise in the history of the NHS. Will he now publish the total number of planned operations that have been cancelled and detail them by procedure? As the lockdown is eased, is it his intention to step down some of that surge capacity so that this backlog of clinical need can start to be tackled?
On managing the virus, one of the tests is on whether we can manage the virus, but, as the Secretary of State has said, that depends on testing and tracing. There is now capacity for more than 200,000 tests, but there is still a lack of clarity about how that figure is arrived at. The UK Statistics Authority has written to him today, saying that his figures are still
“far from complete and comprehensible”,
that the testing statistics still fall well short of standards in the code, and that it is not surprising that testing data is mistrusted. That is quite damning, I have to say to him. Will he start publishing again the actual numbers of people tested? Will he stop counting tests mailed to homes as completed? Will he detail what proportion of the 200,000 tests are diagnostic PCR, what proportion are antibody, and what proportion are surveillance? Can he tell us how many care home staff and residents have been tested? When will he start weekly testing of all NHS staff, as that is crucial for getting on top of infections in hospitals? Will he tell us what percentage of the Deloitte-run testing facilities have been sent to GPs?
On test and trace, which is absolutely vital to safe easing out of the lockdown, the Prime Minister told the House before the recess that it would be “world-beating” and operational by yesterday, but it is not actually fully operational at a local level, is it? Can the Secretary of State confirm that local directors of public health have been told to prepare strategies for tracing with a deadline of the end of June, that they will not actually start receiving local individual data until next week, and that many have still not been told their allocations of the extra £300 million nor what they can spend it on? When will they get those allocations? Despite this, he said yesterday that test and trace is up and running. I am not sure how he can say that it is up and running when local directors of public health are still asking for that information. Will he publish the data and what percentage of infections have been contacted and how many contacts have been followed up? Will that data be published on a daily basis?
This is a crucial week, given the easing of restrictions, and our constituents want reassurance and clarity, but I am afraid that trust has been undermined by the Dominic Cummings scandal. Our constituents want to do the right thing for their loved ones and their neighbours. Can he give them those reassurances today?
I entirely agree that it is critical that people play their part in making sure that we continue the work of controlling this virus and driving down the number of new transmissions. I am glad that he recognises the work that has been done, not just by Government, but by all of us, to get this virus under control.
Let me answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions specifically. He asks about the inequalities in health outcomes. He is quite right to address that subject. It was important before we went into the coronavirus crisis, and it is even more important now. Black lives matter, as do those of the poorest areas of our country, which have the worst health outcomes. We need to ensure that all these considerations are taken into account and that action is taken to level up the health outcomes of people across this country, because there is no more important levelling up than the levelling up of a person’s life expectancy and the quality of health with which they live that life.
The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about those with learning disabilities and autism. That testing in care homes for those of working age has continued all the way through this crisis, and we are rolling it out further. He mentions the changes to those who are in the shielding category. I was very pleased that we were able to make these changes. We announced them at the weekend and they have been very well received, especially by those who are shielding, because they are now able, safely, to go outside. It is hard to overstate the impact of saying to people that the recommended medical advice was that they should not go outside for 10 weeks. I am glad we have been able to lift, just slightly, the restrictions on those in the shielding category.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the restart of the NHS. It is vital that we get the rest of the NHS going again, and that work is under way. The expansion of cancer facilities is under way. The demand for accident and emergency and urgent care is not as high as it was, but I look forward to the full restoration of our A&E facilities across the country, including in central Lancashire.
The hon. Gentleman asks, rightly, about the NHS test and trace capability. That is up and running, and working well. He asks how I can say it is working well. It is working well because thousands of people have been contacted and their contacts are being traced. So the system is working. We absolutely will publish data on that, but, as the letter from the UK Statistics Authority this morning shows, it is very important that we get that data publication right. We will work with the UKSA to make sure it is happy with how we are publishing that data, to make sure we get the data published in a reasonable and sensible way, one that also supports the operation of NHS test and trace, which we agree is a critical part of the next stage. I commit to publishing that data and to working with the UKSA on how it is put together.
The final point to make in response is that the goal here is to have a more targeted approach to the lockdown, so that we can carefully and cautiously lift the broader lockdown. That is what we are working to achieve, and I am very grateful for the support from right across the House for our efforts to accomplish that.
Let me start by thanking the NHS and care workers in my constituency in the Scottish borders, who are working so hard to keep us healthy. The Health Secretary will be aware of the very low levels of testing taking place in Scotland, which is clearly a concern as we move into the test and isolate phase. Given the UK Government’s role in providing test facilities in Scotland, what further assistance can they provide to the Scottish Government to help push up the testing numbers?
We have supported and helped the Scottish Government throughout this, because although they have missed their targets in the roll-out on tests delivered in Scotland, the UK programme of the drive-through centres and the home-test kits has also been operational in Scotland. I work closely with my Scottish counterparts to try to make sure that testing is as available in Scotland as it is in England, and that work is ongoing.
I am standing in today for my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), who is excluded from taking part, given the removal of the hybrid Parliament—for now. There are growing concerns that this Tory Government is taking a cavalier approach on coronavirus, by rushing to ease lockdown measures despite warnings from public health experts. There are serious questions to answer on the political decisions the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary have taken, which could increase the rate of infection and put lives at risk—or even cause a second wave of covid-19. The Government claim to follow the science, so why have they ignored the experts who have advised against opening schools or easing lockdown further, without pausing to evaluate each step? On what basis were the decisions made to allow groups of people from six different houses to meet in England, to tell 2.2 million people in the shielded group that they can go outside and to send people back to work in England on 11 May without a functioning test, trace and isolate system in place? The results from the Deloitte regional test centres are still not being reported to local public health teams. How does the Secretary of State plan to fix this, and by when? What financial support will be put in place for those called on to isolate as asymptomatic contacts, especially as this could happen more than once?
With test and trace depending on people being willing to isolate if told to do so by a contact tracer, does the Secretary of State not regret that he and his Cabinet colleagues have completely shredded their own lockdown rules to protect a man who thought he was above the rules? In refusing to sack Dominic Cummings for travelling 260 miles with his wife, who was symptomatic, the Prime Minister has destroyed his own “Stay home and save lives” message. We know that the Dominic Cummings scandal has undermined efforts to tackle the virus by eroding trust in the UK Government and its public health guidelines, and we have seen that people are breaking the rules as a result. Does the Secretary of State not recognise that the scandal has already undermined lockdown and could lead to more infections and even more deaths in the future? This is about leadership and responsibility. Dominic Cummings should go, and he should go now.
I look forward to my SNP opposite number returning and to being able to have a constructive discussion about how we might together tackle the virus; how we might together protect those who are shielding and for whom, thankfully, it is safe to go outside, based on the clinical advice; how we can ensure that the test and trace system is rolled out across the whole of the UK; how the systems can interact and work together to protect people, especially in border areas, where people may need to make cross-border journeys; how we can work together, as a whole country, to keep the number of new infections going down; and how we can work together to protect people and protect our NHS. Those are the conversations that I have with the Scottish Government and with my SNP opposite number here in Westminster, and those are the things that really matter.
Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking the teachers in Worcestershire, who managed to get 77% of reception classes open yesterday? I am told by these teachers that their schools are not large enough for them to welcome all pupils back and observe the 2 metre rule, so could he update the House on why the UK is continuing to maintain a distance that is double that recommended by the World Health Organisation?
We have reviewed the science on the 2 metre rule. The challenge is that the further apart people are, the less likely is transmission of the virus, so the rules we have in place are to slow the transmission of this virus. It is not really the rule that presents the challenge in schools; it is about trying to make sure that all places are as safe as possible. We keep this under review, as the Prime Minister has said. I congratulate schools across Worcestershire on reopening 77% of reception classes. It is a very important step forward. Making sure that we have the guidelines in place so that we can live with the virus while bringing the rate of transmission right down is very important.
In view of the Secretary of State’s statement confirming PHE’s findings that being black or minority ethnic is a high-risk factor, what guidance is he providing to the NHS and social care sectors on the rostering of BAME staff in high-risk covid areas? Will his Department be investigating whistleblower claims that BAME locums were disproportionately placed on the rota at Weston General Hospital, which has recently experienced a major outbreak?
The hon. Lady is right to raise the case of Weston hospital. We have been working hard to ensure that the local outbreak is brought under control, and we are making progress. She is also right, of course, to raise the PHE report that we published today.
The critical next step is to ensure that we understand the drivers of the disparities that are seen in the data and, in particular, that we address the question of the impact, taking into account co-morbidities has such as obesity and the impact of occupation, which are not taken into account in the PHE work thus far. That is the work that the Minister for Women and Equalities, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), will be taking forward.
I know the worry that has been felt by the BME community during this period. I have personally felt it, as have many of my family members working on the frontline in the NHS, so I sincerely thank the Secretary of State for commissioning the review and continuing its work. Can he confirm that its publication was not delayed due to the sensitivity of its findings?
I can absolutely confirm that. I know my hon. Friend understands this, not least because I think that both her parents are doctors who are absolutely in the heat of this. In terms of the data publication, when I asked PHE to undertake this piece of work, I asked it to produce it by the end of May, which it did. It delivered it to me on Sunday, and we have published it and brought it to the House at the earliest opportunity.
Further to the previous question, is the Secretary of State saying that the publication of the report by Public Health England into the wildly disproportionate level of deaths among ethnic minority communities was delayed purely because further work was needed on elements of it? In that case, at what point will it be published?
No, I am not saying that. I asked Public Health England to produce this work because I was very worried by the evidence of the increased morbidity and mortality among black and minority ethnic communities. I gave a deadline of the end of May. The work was delivered to me on Sunday, at the end of May. I considered it yesterday and brought it to the House at the first chance.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the British Ceramic Confederation for its work advising the Government on safety in the hospitality industry? A chipped plate is not covid-safe, so will he encourage the hospitality industry to buy high-quality chip-resistant tableware from our world-class manufacturers in Stoke-on-Trent?
Yes, I will. The manufacturing of pottery and chinaware in Stoke-on-Trent has long been one of the finest things in this country. My hon. Friend is an inesteemable representative, along with her two colleagues, for Stoke-on-Trent—[Interruption.] Inestimable. Exactly. I think that is what I said. She rightly makes that case, but there is a broader point, which is that coming out of this, we are going to need many industries that work differently. The economy will not be the same on the way out as it was on the way in, and in many cases we can make changes for the better. She is absolutely sticking up for the pottery industry.
I very much welcome what the Secretary of State has said about the PHE report and the need to get to the bottom of why these racial disparities seem to be a thing, but it is not enough to work out after the event why there have been so many more deaths among the BAME community. What is he doing to support the public health function in local authorities so that they can work with local community groups to try to identify people who are more likely to be at risk, to prevent the illnesses and deaths from occurring in the first place?
We have put extra funding into those functions, obviously, because this is a significant crisis that demands massively more of our local public health capabilities in councils and in the devolved Administrations as they deliver local public health services on the ground. It is absolutely critical to look at these risks, but we have to look at them in the round. We have to look at all the different risks. For instance, there is growing evidence of the impact of obesity on the morbidity—that is, the impact of covid—and on people’s chances of dying, and that has to be taken into account as well.
I know my right hon. Friend feels a deep sense of responsibility for health outcomes across the United Kingdom, and not just health outcomes but how healthcare services are delivered. Will he provide an update on what the Government are doing to support social care in Dudley, the Black Country and the rest of the country?
I am delighted to say that the statistics published by the Office for National Statistics this morning show that the proportion of covid deaths in social care is falling, and that is very good news. I am very grateful to all those working in social care, and those working in local authorities to support those in social care, in Dudley and throughout the country. We have put in billions of pounds of extra funding, including £600 million just 10 days ago. We have to make sure that we support those working in social care, who look after some of the most vulnerable.
A growing number of constituents are getting in touch with me to express their concerns about the Public Health England report and the impact of coronavirus on ethnic minorities. The death rates of black and minority ethnic people are in many ways connected to people who have no recourse to public funds; people who are forced out to work when it is less safe for them to do so, because they are not entitled to statutory sick pay; and people who are in lower-paid jobs and, as in the case of Belly Mujinga, are less able to complain to their employers about their circumstances. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is one thing to say that black lives matter but quite another when he forces them out to work with no alternative?
It is very important that we look all the risk factors, including ethnicity, that have an impact. Indeed, that is what our broad approach has been, led by our shielding programme, whereby we have said that those who are most vulnerable should not leave the house at all until we were able to say this weekend—I am pleased to say—that it is safe for them to go, as long as they stay two metres apart from others.
Russells Hall Hospital in Dudley serves my constituency of Stourbridge well but, as we start to admit and treat those who require surgery and cancer therapy, the hospital urgently requires capital investment to create additional wards in a free-standing facility to maintain social distancing. Will my right hon. Friend join me in visiting Russells Hall Hospital to discuss this much-needed investment and, of course, to thank the staff there personally for their continued, compassionate and heroic efforts to protect patients and staff from covid-19?
The Dudley-Stourbridge massive are out in force today. I am delighted to thank everybody at Russells Hall for the work that they are doing. I am pleased to be able to confirm to my hon. Friend that we are working hard to restore cancer services. Many cancer treatment services have continued, but many were not able to continue because taking somebody’s defences down to close to zero, which is needed in much modern cancer therapy, is not the right thing to do when a killer virus is about. We are able to restore those services and I would love to visit my hon. Friend’s local hospital, whether virtually or physically.
Wales has 130,000 people who are considered most at risk from covid-19, and they deserve to be treated better than being caught up in a game of cross-border political brinkmanship. The Secretary of State’s Government’s changes to the status of shielded people in England were announced in the English media on Sunday. What procedure is in place to co-agree such announcements in good time with the Government responsible for health in Wales?
I work with my Welsh opposite number, Vaughan Gething, very closely. He and I have worked very closely indeed and the approach that the Welsh Government have taken has been to work through the four chief medical officers to try to do this in the best possible way.
Scotland has a daily testing capacity of 15,500 tests, but the Scottish Government’s own figures suggest that the most recent daily testing total was just 2,729. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is a woeful and alarming figure for many people in Scotland? What further support can the UK Government give to the SNP Administration at Holyrood to ensure that we are not left behind as the rest of the country moves to the recovery phase?
In the London Borough of Brent, which covers part of my constituency, two thirds of communities are from a BAME background, so it comes as no surprise that some areas in Brent have the third highest rate of covid-related deaths in the whole of London. The Secretary of State has said that he recognises the disproportionate impact that covid-19 has on BAME communities, and he has said that black lives matter, but BAME communities are not interested in slogans or empty rhetoric from us politicians; BAME communities want to know what concrete and practical steps the Secretary of State is taking right now to ensure that BAME communities are protected when the lockdown is eased, so that the lives of no more people from my communities are lost.
The hon. Lady is quite right to raise this issue and to discuss it in the way she does. Working with the council in Brent, where this disease had one of the highest impacts at the start, we have managed to bring the incidence of disease right down. For instance, ensuring the protection of those living in care homes in Brent has led to the outbreak there coming right under control. Brent is a very good example of where, when we saw a focused outbreak at the start, we put extra resources in; we have put support into Brent Council, and together we have managed to get this disease under control.
Along with many of my constituents, I am very concerned that the number of covid cases identified in Ashford has been one of the highest in the country. I recognise that there are complex reasons for this, but in these circumstances may I ask my right hon. Friend to fill the gap that exists in the regional testing centre network—in east Kent—by placing one in Ashford?
I am glad that the Secretary of State has announced the publication today of the report into how covid-19 has disproportionately affected black and minority ethnic communities, but it has taken far too long. It is because black lives matter that the Government must do all they can to address this disproportionality right across the UK, so will the Secretary of State update the House on what specific discussions he has had with the devolved Administrations about the impact on those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds across the UK?
The report was delivered to me on Sunday—on deadline—and I have published it two days later, so we have been moving at pace in this space. It is a Public Health England report and therefore focuses on public health in England. I am sure that Public Health Wales will want to look at the same questions.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on hitting both the 100,000 and the 200,000 target for testing. It is indeed correct that the capacity needs to be there; we do not use the Army every day but it is important that we have it there as a resource. We have had some issues in County Durham regarding some of the drive-through testing sites. Will the Secretary of State look at that to ensure that we do not have those problems in the future?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the importance of having the testing capacity, but I would tell all his constituents in Durham and people right across the country to get a test if they have symptoms. The tests are available, and it is so important for tracing the disease.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that as the virus increasingly comes under control, it is vital that we begin to plan for the swift resumption in full of local and urgent healthcare such as the minor injuries unit at Deal’s Victoria Hospital, and other important services provided there and at Dover’s Buckland Hospital?
Yes. The restoration of services across the NHS is critical, and it is important that it is done in a covid-secure way. It is critical that people know that the NHS is there for them; if they need the NHS or if they are told by a clinician to go to hospital, I ask them please to go.
Since being caught double counting tests for 11 days straight now, the British Government have refused to disclose how many people have been tested for coronavirus. Can the Secretary of State therefore explain how his test, trace and isolate system is world beating if he does not know how many people are being tested?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement about his focus on the vital research into the risk factors of serious illness from covid, especially the impacts of age, sex and ethnicity. I look forward to future research that takes into account comorbidities, which are a crucial part of the puzzle. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are now reaping the benefits of long-term investment in research in the NHS so that we can do these studies, but in going forward and understanding better the impact of comorbidities, can he give me an idea of when that may report back so that we can make policy decisions based on it?
This is clearly urgent work to disentangle the different factors that cause the disparities evident in the data in the report published today. The Equalities Minister will be leading that work, working with Public Health England and others, to get to the bottom of that as quickly as possible.
My constituency of Luton South is super-diverse, with a large BAME population, and it has significant pockets of deprivation. Given those risks, what do I say to my constituents who tell me they simply do not believe that it is safe to relax shielding, given the Government’s confused messages and apparent endorsement of breaches of public health guidance, with the lack of action taken over Dominic Cummings?
That is not an appropriate way to characterise the approach we are taking, because when it comes to people who are shielding, we have recommended that people shield for their own protection, but the clinical advice says that it is safe for people to go outside, because the incidence of disease is now lower than when we brought in the shielding policy, and I think—well, I know—that many of the shielded are so pleased to be able just to go outside. It has had a huge impact on them, when they have given up a great sacrifice.
I thank my right hon. Friend for ensuring that Redcar and Cleveland is at the forefront of the Government’s new test, track and trace programme. What assessment has he made of how test, track and trace will allow us to reduce social distancing in the weeks ahead from 2 metres to 1 metre, as per the guidance.
The success of test, track and trace is a critical part of making sure that we have a more targeted approach to lockdown, so that we can reduce the broader lockdown safely. That is what building the system is about—having more targeted interventions so we can reduce, when it is safe to do so, the broader interventions that everybody has been having to live under.
I have been sitting here desperately trying to give the benefit of the doubt to the Government, because we are in a national crisis, but I have to reflect the fury that my constituents have reflected to me on Facebook and in emails about the Dominic Cummings situation. I know the Secretary of State will want to shrug it off and will want to move on, but I have to say to him that it has been absolute fury. People think that there is one rule for the Government and their friends and another rule for everybody else. They have made massive sacrifices, and they feel that the Government are not standing by them. Please, please will he reflect that back to the Government?
I think the most important thing as we go forward in trying to tackle this together is that the social distancing guidelines we have set out are critical for the safety of the nation. We are able, safely, to make small changes, which will improve health because of the negative impact on people’s physical and mental health of being solely shut indoors. Therefore, it is crucial that people follow the social distancing guidelines, and that will in turn help us to lift these measures more broadly.
As my right hon. Friend is aware, my constituency of Kensington has some of the most extreme health inequalities in the country. The difference in average life expectancy for men is more than 16 years between the richest ward and the poorest ward. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that practical, concrete steps will be taken to alleviate these inequalities?
Yes, absolutely. As my hon. Friend eloquently puts it, there is levelling up to do not just between different parts of the country and different regions of the country, but even within individual constituencies. Hers is of course one of the greatest examples of this, as are some of the other inner-city constituencies in boroughs. I think the levelling up of health inequalities across the country is going to be an even more important part of the agenda after coronavirus than it was before.
The number of cases and deaths is falling, but several health officials, including the Association of Directors of Public Health, say they are not convinced that all five of the Government’s tests have been met sufficiently to ease lockdown restrictions. As of this morning, we hear that test and trace is up and running, but no figures are available. Given that easing the restrictions is risky—one could argue that having us all here discussing it is risky—and there has been, according to my mailbox, an undermining of public confidence in the Government’s approach by the Dominic Cummings scandal, what additional metrics will the Government use to monitor and contain transmission, and how do they suggest we reassure the public that they are effective and being followed by everyone?
The hon. Lady is quite right about the devices that we need for monitoring. Through the public health authorities, extensive operations are already in place to monitor outbreaks, and we have spotted some outbreaks, as per the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), who discussed the outbreak in Weston-super-Mare. She is also right to say that more is needed. The new joint biosecurity centre will be an important part of that operation.
It is deeply distressing to see the toll that the disease has taken on people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. It is also worrying that so many transport workers have fallen foul of the disease. In London, many of them come from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Will my right hon. Friend urgently engage with transport companies and authorities across the country to keep our transport workers safe, especially those from BAME communities?
That is an incredibly important point, because there has been a disproportionate impact on transport workers, particularly those who, by the nature of their work, have to be in close contact with others, for example taxi drivers. That factor was not taken into account in the Public Health England analysis. It is exactly what we mean when we say that we must understand the different causes of the disparities in the data on the impacts according to people’s ethnic background. Disentangling how much is due to occupation and how much is due to other factors is an important part of the analysis that we need to undertake to be able to take action such as protecting those who work in the transport sector.
Public health professionals I have spoken to tell me that the success of the Government’s track and trace system is limited by the turnaround of up to five days for coronavirus test results. That delay severely impacts the ability of public health teams to prevent onward transmission and protect the population from the virus. Does the Secretary of State recognise that problem? If so, how does he plan to achieve a 24-hour turnaround for every test? When will that be achieved?
The hon. Lady is quite right to report the views of local public health staff, who are right to raise the question. I am pleased to say that the turnaround speed has significantly improved in the past couple of weeks, and now 83% of tests are returned from the drive-through centres within 24 hours. There is continued work to speed that up and get the proportion even higher, and the Prime Minister has very kindly set me a goal of ensuring that all tests from the drive-through centres are returned within 24 hours.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the excellent work taking place at Colchester and Ipswich hospitals in partnership with local independent providers to increase capacity for dealing with non-covid cases such as cancer. What more can we do to increase capacity in the independent sector so that we bear down on the backlog in elective surgery?
That is an incredibly important point, because the backlog has of course built up as we had to protect the NHS in the heat of the crisis. The independent sector has played a critical role in helping us get through the crisis and will play a critical role in future. That has put to bed any lingering, outdated arguments about a split between public and private in healthcare. What matters is the healthcare that people get. We could not have got through the crisis without the combined teamwork of the public and private sectors.
Professor Newton spoke today of the vital importance of increasing serology to tackle the virus. Capillary blood from fingerprick tests has long been used to test and control viruses, from measles to dengue fever. Will the Secretary of State therefore explain why the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency guidance asks providers of fingerprick tests to stop offering the service? Can he point to any published scientific data that suggests a clinical difference between capillary and venous blood? If not, why is he blocking the serology roll-out that Professor Newton considers so important?
First, serology tests are very important, and I am glad we are now doing over 40,000 a day. Given that they first got approval only two weeks ago, that has been a fantastic effort by the NHS and social care to get the roll-out going out so quickly. Secondly, fingerprick tests would be a big step forward. We are currently assessing the clinical validity of a number of fingerprick tests, because a bad test is worse than no test at all. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree with that.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the outbreak has taught us the importance of investing in domestic PPE manufacturing to increase our supply chain, and that south Yorkshire towns and villages with a textile heritage, such as Thurcroft in Rother Valley, are prime locations for new PPE facilities?
Yes, absolutely. I congratulate my hon. Friend not only on his new beard but on his support for Rother Valley. He is absolutely right that the domestic manufacture of PPE is one of the most important things we could be doing right now. We are pushing that incredibly hard, with the support of Lord Paul Deighton.
I agree with the Secretary of State that retaining the public’s trust is absolutely crucial if we are to tackle the virus, but that trust needs to be earned and honoured. I want to put on record my constituents’ deep frustration at the Government’s response to Dominic Cummings breaking the rules. There are deeply felt fears among doctors, nurses and other frontline health professionals about coming out of lockdown too quickly and all the sacrifice that so many people have made going to waste. We know that some people are asymptomatic and could be spreading the virus unchecked, so how will test, track and trace work for those people if they are not being tested?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that we must move cautiously and carefully. Those were not her exact words—I am putting them in her mouth—but she is nodding in agreement. We must not lose all the advantages and progress we have made. The number of people sadly dying from the disease is down to almost a tenth of what it was at the peak, but that is still far too high. Test and trace will be critical. The precise answer to the question she asks about testing is that if you are contacted by an NHS contact tracer and asked to self-isolate, you should do so. That period of two weeks of self-isolation is the time in which if you were going to get symptoms and pass on the disease, you would. Therefore, that is what breaks the chain. It is the isolation on instruction from the NHS that breaks the chain. That is the power of the NHS test and trace programme.
I start by thanking my right hon. Friend for moving so swiftly to make the bet365 stadium in Stoke-on-Trent a regional testing centre, after hearing the case for it from Councillor Abi Brown, the leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, and myself. It will allow many of my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke rapid and easy access to vital tests to help to drive down R further still. Will he confirm to the House that regional test sites will remain in place for as long as they are needed to ensure we remain able to continue an effective test and trace strategy?
I join all the tributes to the public health workers in my constituency who are helping to fight the virus. We hear the Secretary of State sing the praises of public and private partnership. I hope he will not be using the crisis as an opportunity to increase privatisation and profiteering in the NHS through the back door. If it is proving such a success, will he explain why the Deloitte regional test centre results are still not being provided to the local public health authorities?
The drive-through centres are a classic example of the public and private sectors working in a team spirit. I just wish that people would not try to drive teams apart, because this is a combination of the private diagnostics companies that provide the tests; Boots and Deloitte, which have provided the logistics; the armed forces, without whom we could not have made this happen right across Great Britain; and, of course, the NHS, Public Health England and the relevant Scottish authorities—they have made it happen. I will look into the specific data point that the hon. Gentleman raises, but I want to congratulate all those involved, no matter their employment status, and I urge him and others to back the team.
With couples sat together one minute and one of them taken away in an ambulance the next, with people not being able to see their partner in hospital or in the chapel of rest—those living in Calderdale could not even pay their last respects at the crematorium either—and with grandparents not seeing new-borns or their grandchildren for 10 weeks, on the whole, people have made huge sacrifices to maintain the lockdown and the Government’s public health message. Can my right hon. Friend advise whether an assessment has been made of what, if any, damage has been done to the Government’s public health message by the actions of the Prime Minister’s special adviser?
The critical thing is that, given the sacrifices that my hon. Friend lists and that are heartfelt, as a nation, we have the resolve to see this through. We can see that the number of cases is coming right down and the number of people dying is coming right down, and we have got to see the back of this disease. We are not there yet.
Given the disproportionately negative impact that covid-19 is having on BME men and women, has the Secretary of State given any consideration to the additional risk that the reopening of schools will have on this community? What discussions has he had with the Department for Education about the concerns around BME children returning to school, particularly among parents, and what steps are being taken to mitigate those concerns directly?
The hon. Gentleman is right to ask that question in the sensitive manner in which he does. Of course, I have had discussions with my colleague the Secretary of State for Education, and both of us have taken clinical advice on the decisions around schools. I would not support the changes and the reopening of schools if I did not think they were safe. One of the reasons to bring in three years in the first instance in primary school is to ensure that there is the physical space that my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) spoke about earlier. We have got to be careful, cautious and sensitive, especially to the needs of those who might be disproportionately affected, and we have got to do the research to get to the bottom of why.
A great deal of work has been done by local policing teams in Richmond and Kingston to inform my elderly constituents about the risk of scams both online and over the telephone. What shall I tell my constituents to look for, if they are contacted by a contact tracer, before disclosing personal data?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that. It appals me that people would try to raise a scam in response to this mission-critical national project of NHS Test and Trace. NHS contact tracers will never ask for your personal financial information. They will never ask you to pay for anything, and they will never disclose your personal medical information. If any of those things start to happen on a call, it is not a call from NHS Test and Trace. We have worked closely with the National Cyber Security Centre to ensure that we get the scripts right and that we protect against these risks, and she is right to raise it.
My constituent Dr David Flavell, the scientific director of Leukaemia Busters, has sent a face mask to every Cabinet member, every shadow Cabinet member and, indeed, the entire Health and Social Care Committee. I hope my right hon. Friend has received his. Will the Government consider upgrading their advice on the use of face masks from recommended to mandatory?
I have not received mine, but I would like to. Let us try to find it, wherever it has got to in the system—it might be in the bowels of the Department of Health and Social Care somewhere. I will go and dig it out; that is an unfortunate image. The serious point is that face coverings are important, especially in areas where you might come into contact with people you would not otherwise frequently see, such as on public transport or in some shops. I will look into the issue that she raises.
No disrespect, Mr Speaker, but I would rather be in sunny Manchester today, being cautious and careful, than here. None the less, does the Secretary of State agree that public confidence is critical in this next phase of dealing with the virus? There is no doubt that confidence has plummeted over the last few weeks. Does he agree that to restore that confidence we need a great deal more transparency about the test, track and trace system—numbers, who has been contacted, and so on—so people feel that if they are contacted action will follow?
If it’s sunny in Manchester, it really must be hot. [Interruption.] Coming from the north-west myself, I know how much it rains in that part of the world. The, the—I have completely lost my train of thought. The hon. Lady raises a very important point about test and trace. Subject to patient confidentiality, which I take very seriously, of course we will publish data on the test and trace system and will work with the UK Statistics Authority on the best way to do that. I spoke to David Norgrove earlier today about that and how our teams should work together to make sure we can publish it in the right and appropriate way.
I welcome the progress that has been made on testing, but I have a specific case of a care home in my constituency that caters for people with disabilities. Because the residents are typically under 65 and do not have dementia, they do not have access to testing in the same way those in other care homes do. Could the Secretary of State look into this case?
The Secretary of State will know of the exceptionally high rate of infection in the north-west and he will also be aware that local authorities such as mine say that the peak of demand for social care has not yet been reached and will actually hit later in the summer. In order to facilitate transparent information to the public and good capacity for local planning, will he commit to regular publication of the R value on a regional basis?
With track and tracing now being rolled out, if there happens to be localised increases again in the rates of infection—localised second waves—at what level would the Secretary of State recommend bringing back localised restrictions? Would it be at a county level, a town level, a council level, a village level, or even a street level?
The answer is “needs must”: whatever is necessary to bring any local outbreak under control. We will take local action with local directors of public health using all the information we have, whether at a highly localised level, more broadly or on an institution basis—for instance, around a school, care home or hospital—if that is what it takes.
The pandemic has exacerbated mental health conditions and made it harder for people to access appropriate mental health services in many cases. This morning, I received an email from a constituent whose child has a severe psychiatric condition exacerbated by covid. The child has been in our local hospital for six weeks waiting for a specialist bed and is now hoping that there might be a bed in Birmingham—they are in north Paddington. What can the Secretary of State do to make sure that such urgent mental health conditions are responded to?
The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. Mental health services, especially for less severe mental ill health, have in some ways been strengthened by the crisis, because of the extent of psychiatric support online, which in some cases, we have discovered, has been more effective than face-to-face support, especially in paediatrics. That said, of course that is not the case in all areas, especially with some of the more severe conditions, such as the one she outlines, and I am happy to look into that individual case. We are doing everything we can to restore services, in a way that is safe and covid secure, so that people can get access to the services they need.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the guidance as we move through the phases of lockdown, but can he reassure my constituents in North Devon that it is not too soon for our beaches to be used safely, provided that people are maintaining social distancing?
We have learned a lot about this virus over the past three or four months. We have learnt, for instance, that asymptomatic transmission is a very significant problem and a challenge, but one of the things that we have learned on the other side of the ledger is that transmission outside is much lower than indoors. It is not risk free, but it is much lower, and that means that we are able to do things like recommend that being on the beach is one of the lower-risk activities—but that people should still keep 2 metres apart, because that is what the guidelines say is safe.
I am delighted that the beautiful beaches of North Devon are once again providing pleasure to local families so that they can really enjoy the weather.
Secretary of State, Teagan Appleby has been in intensive care twice in the past 10 weeks because her family were unable to pay for the medical cannabis that they need to keep her alive.
The families of these epileptic children have been put on the back burner by Brexit, a general election and now covid. The sums of money we are talking about are tantamount to what the right hon. Gentleman’s Department spends on paper clips. Will the Secretary of State make a call to NHS England immediately and right this wrong?
As the hon. Lady knows, I have put significant effort into trying to resolve this matter. We have made some progress. I am sorry to hear about the conditions that she describes, and I will ask my hon. Friend the Minister for Health to take this forward immediately after this statement.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on getting the track and trace system up and running. In Barrow and Furness our shipyard employs about 10,000 people, but we will struggle to gain the confidence of the community and the workers as they begin to bring their workforce back unless we can demonstrate that we are tracking and isolating infections. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that his Department will be working with large employers such as mine to ensure that confidence can be built back in the community and the workforce?
Absolutely. The work in Barrow and Furness is incredibly important, not least because at an earlier stage in the crisis a higher number of people tested positive. That is partly because there were so many tests in Barrow and Furness, and that itself is testament to the local health authorities that worked hard to make that happen. My hon. Friend has been an assiduous representative throughout this crisis, making sure that I am kept constantly informed of developments and the needs of Barrow and Furness.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Some 25 petitions are waiting to be debated in Parliament, with more than 5 million signatures from the public represented in them. However, as you know, petitions debates were suspended when we moved to remote proceedings. This morning I received a disappointing response from the Leader of the House suggesting that Government business would be the priority while social distancing is in place, which is likely to be some time.
Petitions are a crucial means by which members of the public and Back-Bench MPs hold the Government to account, and the sacrifice in bringing us all here in person has been very real for very many people, but it cannot be entirely on the Government’s own terms. So can you, Mr Speaker, advise the House what more we can do to ensure that this vital route of scrutiny for the public is resumed as soon as possible?
As the hon. Lady knows, that is not a matter for the Chair. The business of the House is for the Chamber to decide. No doubt today there will be an opportunity to raise the matter, and I would have thought that Business Questions on Thursday would be a good place to raise it with the Leader of the House. That will allow him to tell us what measures he will be putting in place, if any.
This is the new normal, Mr Speaker.
As you know, you, as Speaker, are defender of the liberties and freedoms of MPs— Government Members and Back Benchers, everybody equally. One of the historic liberties that the Speaker has always sought is not only freedom of speech but the freedom to attend and participate, which is why the House in the 14th century, 16th century, 17th century and at many other times has insisted that no Member of Parliament can be arrested by the Crown, except on indictable offences, and thereby prevented from attending Parliament.
The law at the moment requires—not just advises, but requires—those who are shielding or who have shielding responsibilities not to leave their home and therefore not to be able to come to Parliament if they are Members of Parliament. Mr Speaker, I just wonder what your feeling is about the liberties of this House if significant numbers of our Members are prevented from participating in debate or in Divisions by virtue of the decisions of the Government.
I will say that my sympathy is with those people who are shielding or who are of a certain age who cannot attend the House. I have been very clear and have put that on the record, but the business of the House is a matter for the Government, as we well know. They set the agenda. What I would say is that I hope those conversations are taking place now to try to come to an arrangement. I hope that those conversations will be very fruitful and done as quickly as possible, but there is a decision for the House to take, the House can take control of it, and there is no better champion than the hon. Gentleman to lead that.
What I would say is, let those discussions continue. I do believe there is a way to move forward. I think there needs to be a bit of give and take from different sides in order for the House to progress and to ensure that nobody’s franchise is taken away. We are working very hard to try to see how we can help with the voting system to match that as well. I am not going to take any further points of order on that; I think the House has time to deal with it later. I will now suspend the House for five minutes.
Business of the House (Today)
That, at this day’s sitting the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on (1) the Motion in the name of Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg relating to proceedings during the pandemic not later than 90 minutes after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order, and (2) the second reading of the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill not later than 8.00 pm; such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; proceedings relating to the motion on proceedings during the pandemic and the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill may continue, though opposed, after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.—(Tom Pursglove.)
Proceedings during the Pandemic
[Relevant documents: First Report from the Procedure Committee, Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: proposals for remote participation, HC 300; Second Report from the Procedure Committee, Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: remote voting in divisions, HC 335; Third Report from the Procedure Committee, Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: the Government’s proposal to discontinue remote participation, HC 392; and Transcript of oral evidence on Procedure under coronavirus restrictions to the Procedure Committee from the Clerk of the House and the Clerk of the Journals on 1 June 2020, HC 300.]
Mr Speaker has selected amendment (b) in the name of Karen Bradley and others. I will call Karen Bradley to move her amendment at the end of the debate. Once the House has come to a decision on amendment (b), I will then call Karen Bradley to move either amendment (c) if amendment (b) was agreed to, or amendment (d) if amendment (b) was disagreed to.
Mr Speaker explained in his letter to all colleagues, which went out yesterday, the basis of his decision on the method by which any Division on this motion and the selected amendments will be carried out. He also referred to the guidance that is available for Members on those arrangements for Divisions. It would be helpful if all hon. Members would please read that guidance.
There will be a further short statement before a Division is called, but let me just say that it would greatly assist with arrangements if Whips or other hon. Members gave advance notice of an intention to contest a decision, if the names of Tellers were provided in advance, and if Tellers were present in the Chamber to take their positions and start counting immediately.
I should warn hon. Members who wish to take part in this debate that there will be strict time limits applied because it is a short debate. For Back Benchers, the time limit will be four minutes. I cannot, of course, impose a time limit on hon. Members speaking from the Front Bench, but I hope that they will, out of their usual due deference and consideration for other Members, keep their remarks to a minimum.
I beg to move,
That the resolution of the House of 21 April (Proceedings during the pandemic) be rescinded and the following orders be made and have effect until 7 July 2020:
(1) That the following order have effect in place of Standing Order No. 38 (Procedure on divisions):
(a) If the opinion of the Speaker or the chair as to the decision on a question is challenged, the Speaker or the chair shall declare that a division shall be held.
(b) Divisions shall be conducted under arrangements made by the Speaker provided that:
(i) Members may only participate physically within the Parliamentary estate; and
(ii) the arrangements adhere to the guidance issued by Public Health England.
(2) Standing Order No. 40 (Division unnecessarily claimed) shall not apply.
(3) In Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions):
(a) At the end of paragraph (5)(a), insert “, provided that (i) Members may only participate physically within the Parliamentary estate; and (ii) the arrangements adhere to the guidance issued by Public Health England”.
(b) In paragraph (5)(b) delete “two and a half hours” and insert “at least two and a half hours”.
(c) In paragraph (5)(c) delete “after the expiry of the period mentioned in subparagraph (b) above”.
(4) The Speaker or chair may limit the number of Members present in the Chamber at any one time and Standing Orders Nos. 7 (Seats not to be taken before prayers) and 8 (Seats secured at prayers) shall not apply.
(5) Standing Orders Nos. 83J to 83X (Certification according to territorial application etc) shall not apply.
The rationale for returning to physical proceedings is a straightforward one. Parliament is the assembly of the nation. The public expect it to deliver on the mandate provided by last year’s general election, and they expect it to conduct the kind of effective scrutiny that puts Ministers under real pressure. Neither expectation can be fully realised while we are not sitting physically. That is why we are returning to work safely at the first opportunity in order fully to conduct the essential business not possible from our homes. This assessment is based on the facts. The stopgap of a hybrid Parliament was a necessary compromise during the peak of the virus, but, by not being here, the House has not worked effectively on behalf of constituents. Legislating is a key function of Parliament, yet there has been no ability for legislative Committees to meet since 23 March. This means that, for 10 weeks, there has been no detailed line-by-line consideration of Bills that will affect people’s lives. I remind Members that, in the week commencing Monday 11 May, we had no debates on secondary legislation, no Public Bill Committees, and no Delegated Legislation Committees. There was significantly less time for debate—just 216 minutes of debate on primary legislation compared with the example of 648 minutes in a normal sitting week—and far less flexibility to ensure proper scrutiny of the Government.
I should also like to remind Members that much of the business under the hybrid proceedings was deliberately arranged to be non-contentious. The time limits on scrutiny and substantive proceedings were also heavily restricted. This was to facilitate the smooth running of what was always a technically challenging arrangement. What was acceptable for a few short weeks would have proved unsustainable if we had allowed the hybrid proceedings to continue. This House plays an invaluable role in holding the Government to account and debating legislation, which can only properly be fulfilled when Members are here in person.
The Leader of the House will know, because he is an historian, that one of the ancient liberties of all Members of Parliament has been to attend. Such a liberty has been asserted even when the Crown has wanted to arrest people. The House has insisted that people should be allowed to attend, but at the moment, by law, there are many MPs who are banned from attending Parliament because they are shielding either themselves or others in their household. How can it possibly be right to exclude those people? How can it be a Conservative motion to exclude those MPs and thereby disenfranchise their communities?