House of Commons
Thursday 4 June 2020
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
I know how hard my right hon. and learned Friend worked on online harms during his time as Secretary of State, and I pay tribute to him for the work he did. I can reassure him and all hon. Members that I remain committed to introducing this important Bill, which will enable us to have world-leading regulation that protects users while not imposing excessive burdens on business. We will publish a full Government response to the White Paper later this year and will be ready for the Bill to be introduced later in this Session.
I am grateful for what my right hon. Friend has said. Given that we have all been spending more time online recently, especially the most vulnerable among us, he will accept that the case for sensible, balanced regulation of online harms, centred on a duty of care for online platforms, is as strong as ever. I am grateful, too, for what he says about the timetable, but can I urge him to bring forward legislation as soon as possible so that the House can consider it? Also, what action do the Government intend to take in relation to the draft age appropriate design code and when?
I can reassure my right hon. and learned Friend that almost as we speak, and on pretty much a daily basis, I am taking the decisions necessary to ensure we bring forward the response to the White Paper and then the Bill itself. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) is seeking to intervene from a sedentary position. I can reassure her and other Members: it will be in this Session, as we have said consistently. On the age appropriate design code, I am taking the necessary steps to lay the code, as required by statute. I recognise concerns raised by businesses and indeed hon. Members, however, which is why I have asked the Information Commissioner’s Office to produce an assessment of its economic impact, and I will be including frequently asked questions for the news media sector in the code’s explanatory memorandum when I lay it.
With the exception of Parliament, we are all of us online now: grandparents and schoolchildren, businesses and book clubs, theatres and tea parties, scammers and paedophiles. Online fraud has risen 400%, and the former Home Secretary and Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), described the pandemic as a perfect storm for child abuse, yet the Government refuse to introduce any draft legislation—neither the online harms Bill nor the age appropriate design code—although they have been discussed and announced, including in manifestos. The Secretary of State talks about bringing it forward in this Session, but we do not even know how long this Session will last. Parents, the NSPCC and three Select Committees all say we need legislation now. The tech giants say it would be burdensome. Whose side is he on? Can he give me dates for the code and the Bill?
I have great respect for the hon. Lady, as she knows, but I fear she did not listen to my answer to the previous question. I am on the side of young people—I have a daughter myself who is just entering adolescence—and of course I understand completely the need for stringent regulation. That is why, as I said in my answer to the previous question—I am happy to reassure her again—that the age appropriate design code will be laid imminently, and as I have said repeatedly we will respond to the online harms White Paper and introduce legislation in this Session.
Can the Secretary of State say with any certainty whether online harms legislation will be delivered in the next 12 months, and will its scope reflect the lessons from our experiences of disinformation in this covid-19 pandemic? Also, does he agree that online harms are a much broader and more substantive issue that speaks to the functioning of our society, rather than solely a matter of child protection, however important that is?
As ever, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I can see that the House is trying to nail me down to an exact date for a Bill that will be introduced in this Session. I can assure him that it will be introduced within the year. As all hon. Members will appreciate, there are usual channels to go through to introduce the Bill, but I think I have given a clear assurance on that, as I did to the Select Committee. On his question about lessons learnt, I would restate the point about younger people. It is really important that we have robust protections for young people online but also that we hold social media companies to their own terms and conditions. That is an important part of the online harms legislation.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this point. That is why my hon. Friend the tourism and sports Minister has engaged extensively with gambling companies on measures they can take and why the Government have already introduced a ban on using credit cards for gambling and will be issuing a call for evidence on loot boxes, which are also a way gambling can take place online.
Covid-19: Civil Society and Charities
Charities and civil society are playing a pivotal role in the response to coronavirus, and in April the Government announced a package of support worth some £750 million to ensure the continuation of this vital work. That is in addition to the business support measures that are available to the sector, including paying no business rates for their shops this year and furloughing staff where possible. It is a comprehensive package that will prevent immediate unnecessary closures, keeping vital services open and providing a basis to continue their contribution to the national effort, and we will keep it closely under our eye.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I want to take this opportunity to thank a number of charities in Wimbledon that have done so much during this crisis, including the food bank, the Dons Local Action Group, Old Ruts and Old Wimbledonians. My hon. Friend is right that there is an impressive package. However, a number of local and national arts charities are experiencing real problems. Will he look again at charities that specifically promote the arts, and particularly local arts, such as Wimbledon BookFest, because they keep culture going in our communities?
My hon. Friend is right that now, more than ever, arts and culture are vital to our society as a whole, and these are immensely challenging times. The £160 million emergency funding package announced by Arts Council England is an important part of that, but we are working closely with the Arts Council to consider what additional support may be needed for the long-term recovery of the sector in the future.
I have been heartened by two particular charities in my constituency: Wakefield Hospice and Penny Appeal. Their work and that of many in the area forms the gold and silver threads that run through Wakefield’s rich tapestry. Both those charities, like many others, face significant funding deficits. Since they are prevented from fundraising through traditional measures at this time of national emergency, what steps are being taken to ensure that their work can continue?
There is significant support available for hospices in particular, with £200 million of the £750 million ring-fenced specifically for hospices, and I pay tribute to the work that they have done. Local charities can access the £200 million coronavirus community support fund. Crucially, as we go forward, reopening the broader economy and allowing charity shops, for example, to reopen from 15 June with social distancing measures in place will allow fundraising to start to get back to normal, so that the vital work that hospices and other charities do can get back to normal.
Voluntary and community organisations are desperately financially fragile, caused by loss of revenue, fundraising and all other forms of income, with many not qualifying for grants and loans but still having significant outgoings, while demand on them escalates. They face a precipice, demanding cuts to vital research, services and support or closure. They are beyond the point of warm words or pennies dropped in the tin. They desperately need a full charity rescue package. When billions are being spent elsewhere, charities are the poor relation. They need further guarantees now. What will the Minister do?
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the vital work that charities do and to say that they face immensely challenging times. That is precisely why we have announced a £750 million package. It is precisely why we continue to work with the Arts Council and other organisations in a host of areas to ensure that we can continue to support the ongoing recovery. I understand the point she makes, and that is why we continue to work closely with a whole host of sectors.
The treatment of the volunteers who came forward to make the 2012 Olympics a big success is nothing short of a scandal—the Government wasted all that good will. What is being done to harness the good will of the people who have volunteered during this crisis and ask them what they would like to contribute towards the voluntary sector going forward? That could be a vital part of getting many voluntary organisations up and running when we come out of this crisis.
In the course of this extraordinary pandemic, an additional 4 million people or thereabouts have volunteered in some form or other, with 750,000 people coming forward for the GoodSAM app to help the health service. Harnessing that good will and ensuring that it persists is a key focus of my noble friend Baroness Barran as Minister in the Lords. We will ensure that we do not let that ball get dropped.
Broadband Providers: Competition
The Government are committed to encouraging greater network competition between broadband providers by removing as many barriers to commercial roll-out as we possibly can. We have legislated to help the deployment of broadband in blocks of flats and our efforts are already making a significant impact. More than 80 network operators are now deploying fibre across the UK; that competition is good for consumers and good for businesses as well.
There is, no doubt, resilience in the data networks, but more people are homeworking in Shropshire and throughout the United Kingdom, and we have seen mobile phone networks such as EE, Vodafone and O2 fail spectacularly. What are the Government doing to ensure that that does not happen again, given that people are losing money and losing connectivity with their families at a time when we all need to be connected?
In the main, the resilience of internet connectivity, both mobile and fixed, over the course of the coronavirus crisis has allowed people to work from home in a way that they would not have been able to just a few years ago. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the vital work of the networks to make sure that they continue to function. I speak regularly to the chief executives of the organisations that he mentions and know they are absolutely committed, through initiatives such as the shared rural network, which we announced in the course of the pandemic, to making sure that connectivity only continues to improve, because we now know that it is more vital than ever.
Covid-19: Online Fraud
The Government are concerned about online fraud and are very much aware that criminals and fraudsters are attempting to exploit the concern around covid-19. My officials have been working closely with the Home Office, as well as with the National Cyber Security Centre and the National Crime Agency, throughout the covid-19 outbreak. We have published official Government advice to help the public to stay safe and secure online, and we launched the new Cyber Aware campaign in April, offering the public online security advice.
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the councillors in Tettenhall Regis on that initiative. It is absolutely right that during this crisis, more and more people have been carrying out tasks such as shopping, banking and keeping in touch online. We are very much aware that it has now become all the more essential to tackle the digital divide that already existed. The Government are funding the future digital inclusion programme to give people the skills that they need to participate in this increasingly digital world. Since 2014, the programme has supported more than 1.4 million adult learners to develop their basic skills. We have also delivered a £400,000 digital inclusion innovation fund, which is designed to tackle digital exclusion among older and disabled people.
When the Public Accounts Committee last looked at online fraud, we raised serious concerns about what happens when fraud is reported and the inaction on most of the cases that are reported. The Minister has given us some warm words, but in the middle of a pandemic, with a lot of communication from Government to the people, how will he make sure that the key players, such as the banks, are sharing real-time information with each other and making sure that we catch the scammers before they raid our constituents’ bank accounts?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that online fraud is an increasing problem and there needs to be much more co-ordinated action to tackle it. However, a great deal has been done. A persistent stream of coronavirus frauds has been reported to Action Fraud—2,057 have been reported in the past few months, making up around 3% of all fraud reports. The National Cyber Security Centre has launched a major campaign called Cyber Aware to provide practical advice to the public, and has also launched a groundbreaking suspicious-email-reporting service, which allows members of the public to forward any suspicious emails to Cyber Aware to be analysed, and if they are found to be fraudulent, the harmful sites will be taken down—
I am delighted to be back. Loneliness is a very real issue, and I know that some people are finding things particularly tough during this pandemic, when we have asked people to self-isolate and socially distance to fight this disease. That is why I launched a new plan to tackle loneliness linked to this crisis. That includes £5 million for loneliness charities, a public campaign to raise awareness and new guidance for those who feel lonely or want help.
Age UK Teesside is giving amazing support to those elderly people isolating alone through its telephone befriending service. What are the Government doing to support charities and voluntary organisations on the frontline in the fight against loneliness? Will the Secretary of State join me in encouraging people to flick through their phonebooks and drop a call to their Auntie Ethel, their Uncle Norman or anyone else who might be isolating alone at this time?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Yes, I would of course urge people to do that. This is a really important time for people to catch up with one another. Actually, that was one of the great things that I and many people were able to do during the VE-day celebrations—to get in touch with relatives who had experienced VE-day.
Many people enjoy coming together at fairs and showgrounds, but I spoke to the Showmen’s Guild yesterday and it says that it has not been included in the taskforce for leisure. Will the Minister tell me why the Showmen’s Guild was not involved? Can it be involved in the future, to secure the recovery?
Covid:19: Tourism Sector
The tourism sector is hugely important to the economy, which is why we are meeting regularly with the industry. I have established a cultural renewal taskforce and, within that, a specific visitor economy working group to prepare guidance to help the tourism business reopen safely. As the Prime Minister has said, we have set a very ambitious target to try to get the sector back by 4 July, so long as it is safe to do so, and I am working to make that a reality. Of course, once tourism reopens, I will vigorously champion British holidays.
Figures last month showed that workers in seaside towns were being laid off at the fastest rate of any area in the UK, so will the Secretary of State look at greater flexibilities to allow the hospitality industry to open up sooner, particularly with outside premises; will he lobby the Chancellor to reduce the VAT rate on tourism to 5%; and will he ensure that our great British seaside towns can start to recover by making staycations a practical option? He is very welcome to visit the delights of Worthing for a staycation at any time.
I thank my hon. Friend for that; I would be delighted to visit Worthing. Indeed, I much prefer British holidays to holidays overseas, so I would be delighted to visit his constituency and others. He is absolutely right to highlight the importance of support for the sector. That is why, for example, we have had extensive support with the job retention scheme. I am working closely with my colleague the Chancellor, and we will be looking at further measures. Of course, once the sector is ready to go, I will be at the forefront of championing a campaign for British tourism.
Residents in Truro and Falmouth understand how hugely important the tourism sector is to Cornwall. It supports one in five jobs in our county. I thank the Government for the £444 million they have put into Cornwall so far to help us through this pandemic. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, when it is safe to do so, the Government will join me in promoting Cornwall as a world-class tourist destination and ensure that our businesses can get back on their feet as soon as possible?
I know that Cornwall is a world-class tourist destination. I spent many happy holidays there as a child and, indeed, have taken my own children there on many occasions. As I said, we are hoping to get tourism back as rapidly as possible, and when it is back we will invest extensively in ensuring that we have a major campaign to encourage British people to take British staycations.
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for that suggestion. That is an excellent proposal. One of the challenges we will have is getting the sector up and running as strongly as possible in the summer and extending it for as long as we can. This is a matter that I am discussing with my colleague, the Business Secretary.
Does the Secretary of State agree with the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, who warns that the tourism industry, which is already deprived of vital foreign workers due to visa restrictions and which supports more than 200,000 jobs and contributes over £7 billion to the Scottish economy, now faces the double whammy of a no-deal Brexit combined with the ongoing impact of covid-19? Does this not justify a further extension of the job retention scheme to support the sector, and an extension of the transition period to avoid a deeply damaging no-deal scenario, compounding the horrendous coronavirus circumstances?
We have already extended the job retention scheme through to October. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about a further extension of the transition period, I think the British people have been pretty clear about this. They just want us to get on and leave, and we will not be extending again.
Theatres, art galleries, music venues and concert halls are all really struggling, and without culture, we are nothing; our life is nothing and we are not an attraction for international visitors. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the amount of money that has so far been made available is at least doubled? Otherwise, we are simply not going to keep some of these major institutions, whether it is the Parc and Dare Theatre in Treorchy, the Royal Academy in London or the Old Vic. Will he seriously consider the idea of a 5% VAT rate for all arts organisations?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the rich value of culture both to individuals and to our wider economy in the creative industries. I have been engaging extensively with arts organisations and others. That is why I have appointed Neil Mendoza as a cultural renewal commissioner to come up with proposals in this area. I am absolutely determined that, as we go through this crisis, we ensure that we retain the huge strength we have in this nation in the cultural sector.
My constituents, Stuart and Laura McKay, sank their life savings into a holiday let in East Sussex. It was running successfully for a year, then coronavirus arrived. They are on zero income at the moment, and they do not qualify for any of the schemes because they are trading too newly. They ask whether the Government could introduce something to allow holiday lets for homes, to restart the sector, if we are all going to staycation? They say that, because of Dominic Cummings, they are not hopeful, but maybe the Secretary of State can prove them wrong.
As I have said, I am keen that we get the tourism sector going as rapidly as possible. We have set the ambitious target of 4 July, and if we can do it consistent with public health, we will do so. Self-contained accommodation has a lower risk than other areas, so I would hope that that will be at the front of the queue.
At this time of national crisis, accurate information is of course more important than ever. The cross-Whitehall counter-disinformation unit was stood up in March this year, and it provides a comprehensive picture of disinformation on covid-19 and works with partners to ensure that appropriate action is taken.
I thank the Minister for her response. Does she agree that, while a number of national broadcasters and newspapers have undermined the coronavirus measures by constant reporting of rumours and opinions rather than fact, it is small local outlets such as the Sentinel in Stoke-on-Trent that have been invaluable in informing communities and ensuring that people are aware of the support available in their areas?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Local broadcasters and newspapers such as the excellent Stoke Sentinel have played a key role during this crisis, sharing accurate information but also offering vital support to individuals and bringing communities together. That is why I am really pleased that they have been eligible to access most of the Government’s package of business support schemes.
Covid-19: Sporting Sector
Covid-19 has significantly impacted sport at all levels right across the country. To fully understand the issues faced by the sector, I chair a fortnightly meeting with more than 25 sporting organisations representing millions of people who participate in sport. Sporting organisations have been supported by the Government through their job retention scheme, business loan scheme, business rates relief and business grants. In addition, Sport England has announced £210 million of funding to help sport and physical activity organisations with the effects of coronavirus.
With all these Ministers running in and out, it is less like a Westminster farce and more like a Whitehall farce, but I hope that the Minister will appreciate my tone slightly more than the Home Secretary did yesterday, because I want to congratulate him on his efforts in getting live sport back, which is not only a huge boost to morale across the country, but a major provider of jobs. To take one example, racing alone supports more than 80,000 jobs, but in addition, the betting industry supports 100,000 jobs and pays £3.2 billion in tax each year to the Treasury. Will he ensure an early return for a properly regulated, job-providing, successful, British-based gambling industry?
I do appreciate the right hon. Member’s tone, and I agree with him. Indeed, we are very relieved. Millions of people across the country were very pleased to see racing back this week, and other sports are coming as well. It was great to see Newcastle races on Monday. We have Newmarket today. I would like to thank everybody involved in making sure that we are able to get sport back safely.
Sport England’s research tells us that one positive aspect of the lockdown is the increase in people doing physical activity, but, as we might expect, its data shows that the trend is not so strong for people who have limited access to outside space. What specific and permanent change will the Secretary of State make so that we can tackle that health inequality?
I thank the hon. Lady for that comment. She shares my passion to make sure that we get sport and physical activity really high on the agenda. There are all sorts of things we can do. At the young people’s level, we will be revising the sport and activity action plan so that we can get young people engaged in 60 minutes of sporting activity and we will be looking again at the sport strategy, and I look forward to her comments in developing that as well.
The current advice has hit many sectors covered by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport the hardest. That is why, in addition to schemes announced by the Chancellor, we have provided specific support for charities, newspapers, tech start-ups and rugby league, and support to tackle loneliness. As we start to ease lockdown restrictions, through the cultural renewal taskforce we are working to support and guide people to safely resume activity. That has included the resumption of live sport behind closed doors and getting cameras rolling again on films and TV programmes. We are working intensively with culture, heritage, arts and tourism to support them resuming as soon as it is safe to do so.
As it is national Volunteers’ Week, I would like to commend the many volunteers in the third sector who have shown dedication throughout the covid-19 crisis, such as the Kingfisher food bank, which demonstrated relentless dedication to serving the local community throughout the lockdown, as I saw when I visited them. Will my right hon. Friend give an update on his support for the third sector? Will he consider launching a third sector covid recognition scheme to celebrate the heroic volunteers who have sacrificed so much to help us throughout this difficult period?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right to highlight the huge role played by volunteers and, indeed, the wider third and voluntary sector, and I join him in marking Volunteers’ Week. One of the big things we have done is provide £750 million to support charities and, indeed, just a couple of weeks ago I announced the start of the coronavirus community support fund, which provides £200 million for small and medium-sized charities. That went live on 22 May.
Our valuable cultural sector is starting to collapse. It will be one of the last to reopen, and its desperate pleas for Government support have been ignored. Tens of thousands of workers excluded from the job retention scheme and the self-employed scheme have been completely ignored, but we then had a tiny glimmer of hope just over two weeks ago, when the commission for cultural recovery and renewal was announced, but since that date there has been silence. There is no information about participants in the working groups, no terms of reference, nothing on what has been or is being discussed and considered to help the sector, no timescales—nothing. This is yet another example of poor communication adding to the plummeting levels of trust and confidence in the Government. So, I ask the Secretary of State: why the complete lack of transparency?
I do not really recognise the hon. Lady’s characterisation. First, we have announced the members of the overall cultural renewal taskforce, but the important thing is the groups that sit underneath it, which provide the specific guidance. I am happy to run through all those groups and write to the hon. Lady subsequently, but just to give her a flavour, they include one on recreation and leisure, one on tourism, one on sport and one on library services. The point of each of those is to provide the guidance to help us open as rapidly as possible, consistent with the public health guidance. That is why I was delighted that at the beginning of this week, we announced that high-end film and TV could resume. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the need to support the cultural sector. I have engaged extensively with people from across the cultural sector and we are working to see what we can do to support them.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the important role that local radio plays. During this time of crisis, reliable news is more important than ever and local radio stations provide that. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Media and Data has been working with them very closely, looking at issues such as the RAJAR rebate. We are determined to support them through this period.
The short answer is yes. That is why we have provided a £750 million package and announced £200 million being administered by the national lottery to go specifically to small and medium-sized charities. The charity in the hon. Lady’s constituency and others are very welcome to bid for that.
I know how much my hon. Friend cares about this subject. I have taken great note of his letter on this and I would be happy to meet him to discuss it further. The most important first step is to get sport going behind closed doors because that helps secure revenue, so we have got the premier league and then the championship. I look to sports first to look after themselves and I am meeting extensively with the EFL, the premier league and the Football Association, but of course we will continue to work on that.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight that sector. In my constituency, I have Elstree film studios and BBC Elstree where indeed I saw the hon. Lady for “Strictly Come Dancing” when it was filming. The most important thing is to get the sector going again. That is why I was delighted that at the beginning of this week, we published guidance to allow high-end film and TV to resume production. Of course, I continue to engage with the Chancellor and others about wider support.
Does the Secretary of State agree that ahead of the post-covid-19 recovery, now is a prime opportunity to look at investing in arts and culture facilities for some of our left-behind communities, which have deep and rich cultural back- grounds, such as the colliery and performing arts heritage of Dinnington College and the town and surrounding mining communities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of supporting the whole of the United Kingdom. Culture is an important part of levelling up. I saw that at, for example, Walsall art gallery, which is a fantastic institution. Levelling up will be central to any proposal that we bring forward to support the sector.
At this time of year, my constituency is normally preparing for the Royal Highland show, which brings £65 million to the economy. We then have the Edinburgh festival in August, and there is also Edinburgh zoo. We have already lost the six nations championship. Communities like mine depend on the cultural and sporting events throughout the year which we have lost. Many workers are on short-term contracts and self-employed. Will the Government look at a way of supporting those communities post-covid-19 and how to re-establish those fundamentally important cultural events?
I have great affection for the Edinburgh Festival. I took a show up there myself in my younger years. We provide an awful lot of support, for example, to the self-employed. The No.1 thing that we can do, though, is to get these activities back up and running again, because every time I speak to artists and others the thing that they want to do is to start performing again. As they start performing, we will look at how we can support them transitioning through this period of social distancing.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). When the FA took the decision to null the season for lower-league clubs it financially impacted clubs such as Redcar Athletic in my constituency. What is the Department doing to support these clubs and ensure that grassroots football remains in our communities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the fact that grassroots football is central to local identity, and I am determined that we work with the EFL to ensure that money flows to those clubs. It is also worth noting that Sport England has brought forward £195 million, which will be able to support those clubs.
In Volunteers’ Week, I wish to say a huge thank you to all the volunteers working in charities and organisations in my community, including Age UK Gateshead, the Rowlands Gill Live At Home Scheme and the Winlaton Centre. What will the Minister do to ensure that we can capture the learning and the enthusiasm from this sector in the future?
I am delighted to join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to all those volunteers, and I think that the NHS volunteers responders has been a marvellous way of people volunteering and showing their support. Over time, we are getting more and more charities to sign up to that, so that people can volunteer. I hope that we can continue that spirit of volunteering, and I will be working closely with wider civil society to see how we can continue that post-covid.
Local media outlets, such as the South London Press, are essential in providing up-to-date and accurate information to communities across the country. They struggle at the best of times, but this pandemic has posed unprecedented risks to their survival. What are the Government doing to ensure they are receiving the support that they so desperately need?
Local newspapers are absolutely vital in bringing forward trusted information and our free press is a cornerstone of our liberties. That is why I have worked extensively with local newspapers—for example, to resolve issues around ad blocking, so they can get more ad revenue. The Cabinet Office has provided a lot of Government advertising, which has helped some of the shortfall in income for those charities, and we have looked at other issues such as business rate reliefs.
The Attorney General was asked—
Covid-19: Emergency Worker Assault Cases
A disappointing feature of this pandemic is the number of assaults on emergency workers, but I am reassured by the robust approach that the Crown Prosecution Service has taken. During the first month of lockdown, the CPS prosecuted more than 300 cases of assaults against emergency workers. It is clear that, when an individual threatens to infect an emergency worker by deliberately coughing or spitting, it will be treated extremely seriously by prosecutors.
The scenes experienced here in London yesterday show us at first hand the total disregard that some people have for our emergency workers, not least by flouting the social distancing rules and showing a total disregard of the safety of our frontline officers. What is just as disturbing is that one of our own colleagues allegedly decided to disregard social distancing yesterday and put all the House staff at risk, not to mention his own colleagues. Can my right hon. Friend say what changes have been made to our CPS arrangements for charging offences against emergency workers?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know people out there are feeling pain and anger. They must know that their lives matter—all lives matter—but violence and aggression are not the way forward. We are living through an unprecedented pandemic. The police are doing a heroic job in difficult circumstances and I urge people to follow the social distancing guidelines so that lives are saved. The Crown Prosecution Service issued an interim charging protocol earlier this year, which made it clear that covid-related offences are to be prioritised with an immediate charging decision, and I am glad that we have seen some robust approaches to such offences.
My constituents are extremely concerned about the increase in instances of assault against emergency workers and, after last night’s disturbing scenes outside this building, it is no wonder why. Does the Minister agree that an effective method of tackling these crimes once the individual has served their custodial sentence would be restorative justice, whereby the CPS works locally with the police to ensure they use restorative justice? For minor crimes that do not carry a custodial sentence, out of court disposals could be used.
My hon. Friend is right that those scenes of people attacking our heroic police officers were frankly sickening. It is obviously a matter for operationally independent police forces to use their flexibility and discretion as they see fit. My hon. Friend is right that out of court disposals can allow police to deal with low-level offending and first-time offending swiftly and efficiently. Whether that would be appropriate in those cases, I am not so sure personally: assaults on emergency workers are particularly callous. They are heroic men and women who are sacrificing their own health and safety in the service of others. It will always depend on the individual facts of the case and will always be a decision ultimately for the independent police force.
Can the Attorney General confirm that in assault cases, as in all other covid-related offences, the law should apply equally to all, and that as superintendent of the CPS by tweeting her support for Dominic Cummings, she undermined the impartiality of her role and the rule of law?
It is plain for any reasonable observer to see that there was no question whatever of my having provided any public legal view on the matter to which the hon. Lady refers. To suggest that that was somehow a legal opinion is simply absurd. She should know that I have no role whatever to play in the day-to-day decisions on individual cases. I respect and have full confidence in the operational independence of the CPS and the police, and I would gently encourage her to share my support and share my confidence in them.
This is the first time I have had the chance in the Chamber to welcome the Attorney General to her post. I hope that she will take up the invitation to appear before the Justice Committee before the summer recess.
The Director of Public Prosecutions has rightly detailed to the Committee the way that charging protocols and priorities work, but there has been concern that when we drop below the serious cases of assaults on emergency workers, covid-related charges were made by the police in other cases without reference to the CPS at the initial point of charge, and people were charged under the wrong section or when the evidential test was not made. Will she ensure that CPS advice is made available to the police for all charging decisions for all covid-related cases under the regulations or otherwise, to ensure that we do not get a repetition of that unfortunate state of affairs?
My hon. Friend makes me an invitation I simply cannot refuse, and I look forward to appearing before his Committee in due course. He will know that the Coronavirus Act 2020 and the associated regulations were brand new pieces of legislation introduced at pace and at a challenging time. The CPS has committed to reviewing all of its prosecutions brought under that legislation to ensure that the new laws are being applied correctly and appropriately in all cases. It has carried out a review and in a relatively small number of cases there was some confusion. The police and CPS have committed to instilling new guidance to ensure that mistakes do not get made again.
Transport workers also provide essential services and on 22 March, while on duty at Victoria station, Belly Mujinga was spat at by a man who said that he was infected with covid-19. Eleven days later, she was dead from coronavirus. British Transport police have decided not to refer the matter to the Crown Prosecution Service for prosecution—not even for common assault—so can the Attorney General demand the investigation be reopened and demand swift action, so that there can be justice for Belly Mujinga’s family?
This was a tragic incident and it was appalling, frankly, that Belly Mujinga was abused for doing her job at Victoria station. My thoughts are with her friends and her family. British Transport police did conduct an investigation following reports that a man claiming to have covid-19 coughed and spat at Ms Mujinga and a colleague. Their investigation found no evidence that an offence had occurred of that type.
Covid-19: Virtual Hearings
Prior to the covid-19 outbreak, CPS lawyers had participated in only a handful of audio and video hearings. I am now pleased to say that since 2 April, CPS prosecutors have appeared in over 4,000 virtual hearings across magistrates and Crown courts.
I am grateful for the response from my right hon. and learned Friend and I know that he will share my commitment to ensuring that all members of society can have equal access to justice and virtual hearings. In that regard, what steps is he taking to ensure that victims with hearing impairments are able to participate in remote hearings?
I thank my hon. Friend for that very important question. The CPS is working closely with the Courts and Tribunals Service and interpreters to ensure that victims, witnesses and defendants with hearing impairments of any sort can properly participate in virtual proceedings. It is important, and virtual hearings with hearing-impaired defendants have already taken place effectively. We will continue to monitor the situation.
The CPS will and needs to engage in evaluation exercises on this subject with partners as part of its future working programme to assess the impact of video hearings. There is a lot to learn and we can identify benefits and learn lessons. Where there are advantages for all court users going forward, we would want to see those in place.
My hon. Friend is right to ask about the backlog and I am concerned about it. It is inevitable that there will be a backlog. Almost everything has been disrupted by this awful pandemic and the courts are no exception, but work is ongoing with the CPS, cross-Government partners and stakeholders to contribute to planning on recovery and clearing the backlog. I am pleased to say that the CPS East Midlands—his region—has been working closely with the judiciary, the courts service and other key partners to get the Crown court in his area up and running as soon as possible. We need to focus on dealing with the backlog and I can assure the House and him that every effort will be made to do that.
One of the challenges of moving virtually is that it can act as a barrier to certain groups, and I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend would agree that justice needs to be fair, open and available to all. What measures are in place to support people with vulnerabilities—such as people living with disabilities and people with health and mental health issues—in navigating the criminal justice system?
Vulnerable witnesses are entitled to a range of special measures already, which are being utilised and are still in operation during this outbreak, including screens to prevent the defendant from seeing a witness, live links, remote links, giving evidence in private, the prerecording of evidence and the removal of wigs and gowns. Measures are in place and are still in operation to make it easier for vulnerable witnesses and defendants, but I accept that there are challenges.
Whether proceedings are virtual or otherwise, the Crown Prosecution Service must discharge its functions without fear or favour, and so must the Law Officers, given their responsibility for oversight of the CPS. Does the Solicitor General agree therefore that the Law Officers should in future refrain from joining in the sort of orchestrated political tweeting we saw about Mr Cummings’s cross-country travels, given that such tweets may have the potential to prejudice any subsequent police investigation or prosecution?
I do not agree with the premise of the hon. and learned Lady’s question. The fact of the matter is that she is seeking herself to politicise the situation. This is not a partisan issue; we all recognise, respect and cherish the independence of the Crown Prosecution Service, and that is a long tradition in this country.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) on her first physical appearance at the Dispatch Box as our shadow Attorney General?
There were 394 assaults on police officers in just the Thames Valley and Kent police force areas between March and April—more than the total number of prosecutions nationally. Given that assaults across the country must run into thousands, how is the CPS, bereft of resources, going to prosecute all those cases, virtual or otherwise?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I am pleased to say that the CPS is not bereft of resources. In fact, £85 million was sent to the CPS before this crisis broke out, which was 100% of its request for funds. Assaults against police officers and all emergency workers are taken extremely seriously by the courts. They are given priority by the Crown Prosecution Service, and we are dealing with those matters. The system is dealing with those matters robustly, and I think the evidence will show that.
The Solicitor General has just said that he realises that there are concerns about virtual hearings. Can he be a bit clearer about what steps the Government are now taking to ensure that vulnerable witnesses and vulnerable defendants in particular are properly protected during this period? Beyond accepting that there is an issue, what is being done to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done in virtual proceedings?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that point, which applies, as she says, to vulnerable defendants as well as witnesses—to all participants in these proceedings. Each individual court—each tribunal—is responsible for ensuring the best possible course of action in each individual case. A virtual hearing will not be appropriate in every case. Where there are particularly vulnerable persons involved, perhaps a virtual hearing will not be appropriate, but we do not micromanage that. We ask each individual judge to have that in mind when making decisions about virtual hearings, but where they take place, we want and expect them to do so in the confines of a situation where everyone feels comfortable and able to perform the functions required of them.
The CPS has done sterling work to ensure that offenders can still be brought to justice in the current crisis, but can my right hon. and learned Friend give me more details about how it has ensured that the best interests of victims, many of whom may never have experienced the courtroom system before, are being served?
Sometimes alternative mechanisms are in place. For example, remote hearings can take place using more than one courtroom, and it is sometimes possible for hearings to take place via technology from the home of various individuals. However, each individual circumstance will have to be looked at in assessing each individual, appropriate measure in each case. Caution is being exercised, but 4,000 virtual hearings have already taken place in the magistrates and Crown courts, and we expect to see more of them.
Covid-19: Government Support for Law Firms
The hon. Lady asks an important question about support for law firms during the outbreak, and the CPS has made changes to its systems for paying fees to advocates to help support them during this difficult time. I joined a virtual meeting of the Bar Council, and the Bar is conscious of and content with the work that the Government have done—of course, there is always more that can be done—to relieve financial pressure. I see, and we are grateful for the fact, that the Inns of Court have been supporting junior barristers financially with ongoing funds. The Ministry of Justice is working closely with legal practitioners to understand the impact of covid-19, and streamlining the process for financial payments.
One of the biggest problems we have in bringing prosecutions against those who assault our emergency services is a lack of evidence. Could the Solicitor General set out what steps are being taken to make sure that the CPS has access to such evidence, including making sure that our emergency services have better access to body cameras?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question, and we will certainly take on board what he says. Body cameras are of course an increasingly used piece of evidence. This does, in effect, often add a workload burden on the court system because there is so much video evidence—so much more virtual evidence—now coming into play. However, the Crown Prosecution Service has seen a dramatic increase in its funding from Her Majesty’s Government, and we will be making sure that payment for members of the legal profession is expedited where we can do so.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed inequalities facing the black, Asian and minority ethnic community, and the legal sector has proved no exception: 55% of BAME barristers earn more than half of their income from legal aid, and 84% cannot survive a year without support. What urgent action will the Solicitor General take to reverse the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and to restore funds to legal aid?
We are supporting the legal aid system, as we always have done. The reality is that we are expediting outstanding fee schemes where payments need to be made more quickly than normal; we have reduced the stage lengths before payments are made in the cases that are ongoing; and we have concluded main hearings and ongoing cases and made payment before hearings have been concluded. A multiple series of measures is being made to assist everyone at the Bar and, in fact, in all branches of the legal profession, including payments of up-front fixed fees of £500 for covid-19 matters. Every measure is being taken to support the legal profession, but I accept that there are challenges, as there are in many professions during this crisis.
Public Health England Review: Covid-19 Disparities
(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for Women and Equalities if she will make a statement on the Public Health England review of disparities in risks and outcomes related to the covid-19 outbreak.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement.
As a black woman and the Equalities Minister, it would be odd if I did not comment on the recent events in the US and protests in London yesterday. Like all right-minded people, regardless of their race, I was profoundly disturbed by the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police. During these moments of heightened racial tension, we must not pander to anyone who seeks to inflame those tensions. Instead, we must work together to improve the lives of people from black and minority ethnic communities. It is in that spirit that we approach the assessment of the impact of covid-19 on ethnic minorities. If we want to resolve the disparities identified in the PHE report, it is critical that we accurately understand the causes, based on empirical analysis of the facts and not preconceived positions.
On Tuesday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care confirmed to the House that Public Health England has now completed its review of disparities in the risks and outcomes of covid-19. The review confirms that covid-19 has replicated, and in some cases increased, existing health inequalities related to risk factors including age, gender, ethnicity and geography, with higher diagnosis rates in deprived, densely populated urban areas. The review also confirmed that being black or from a minority ethnic background is a risk factor. That racial disparity has been shown to hold even after accounting for the effect of age, deprivation, region and sex.
I thank Public Health England for undertaking this important work so quickly. I know that its findings will be a cause for concern across the House, as they are for individuals and families across the country. The Government share that concern, which is why they are now reviewing the impact and effectiveness of their actions to lessen disparities in infection and death rates of covid-19, and to determine what further measures are necessary.
It is also clear that more needs to be done to understand the key drivers of those disparities and the relationships between different risk factors. The Government will commission further data research and analytical work by the Equalities Hub to clarify the reasons for the gaps in evidence highlighted by the report. Taking action without taking the necessary time and effort to understand the root causes of those disparities only risks worsening the situation. That is why I am taking this work forward with the Race Disparity Unit in the Cabinet Office, and the Department of Health and Social Care, and I will keep the House updated.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. On 2 June, Public Health England published its long-awaited review of disparities in the risks and outcomes of covid-19 for BAME communities. The review confirms what we already know: racial and health inequalities amplify the risk of covid-19. It found that those from BAME backgrounds were more than twice as likely to die from covid-19 than white people, and that BAME healthcare workers are at particular risk of infection. These lives matter, and it is time for the Government to take action on the devastating impact that this virus has had on BAME communities.
Public Health England’s review fails to make a single recommendation on how to reduce those inequalities, protect workers on the front line, or save lives. That is despite the fact that its terms of reference include to “suggest recommendations” for further action. Will the Minister urgently explain why the review failed to do that? The Government have said that the Race Disparity Unit will publish recommendations on the findings from the review. When will those recommendations be published, alongside a plan for their implementation?
More than 1,000 individuals and organisations supplied evidence to the review. Many suggested that discrimination and racism increase the risk of covid-19 for BAME communities. Will the Minister explain why those views were not included in the review? Does she accept that structural racism has impacted the outcomes of covid-19? Does she agree that it is now time to address underlying socioeconomic inequalities facing BAME communities, and will she confirm that the Government will take action to do so? BAME workers on the frontline of this crisis are anxious for their lives. Will the Minister listen to Labour’s demands to call on all employers to risk assess their BAME workforce? Coronavirus thrives on inequality, and there is no more important time to tackle racial injustices in our society and save lives during this crisis. It is now up to the Government to take action and show their commitment that black lives matter.
It is imperative that we understand the key drivers of those disparities, the relationships between different risk factors, and what we can do to close the gap. That way, we will ensure that we do not take action that is not warranted by the evidence. The hon. Lady is right: Public Health England did not make recommendations, because it was not able to do so. Some of the data needed is not routinely collected, but acquiring it would be extremely beneficial. As I said earlier, I will be taking forward work to fill the gaps in our understanding, and review existing policies or develop new ones where needed. It is important to remind ourselves that this review was conducted in a short period, and it sets out firm conclusions. As the author of the report said on Tuesday night, there is a great deal of background and detailed information that we think will be helpful. It is not easy to go directly from analysis to making recommendations, and we must widely disseminate and discuss the report before deciding what needs to be done.
The Race Disparity Unit is now in the Cabinet Office and at the heart of Government. My hon. Friend is right to say that it needs all the available data to make the correct recommendations. Will she reassure me, from the heart of Government, that this will not just be a matter for the Equalities Office or for the Department of Health and Social Care, but that it will include the Departments for Work and Pensions, for Transport and for Education? In all those areas we might expect to see real commitment to action that will make lives better for our BAME communities.
My right hon. Friend is right, and I thank her for that question. Equalities are not something that happens in the Equalities Office; equalities happen across Whitehall. Every Department has responsibility to ensure that it makes the right policies for all the people who are impacted by the activities that are carried out, and I will continue to work with them on that.
I wish to reassure Scotland’s BAME communities that the SNP takes this issue very seriously. On 20 May, the Scottish Government published Public Health Scotland’s preliminary analysis, which suggested that the proportion of BAME patients among those seriously ill with covid is no higher than the proportion in the Scottish population generally. However, the Scottish Government are treating those findings with caution, given the findings in England and Wales. Further work is under way to deepen understanding of the risk factors and improve analysis.
It was good to hear the Prime Minister agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) yesterday that black lives matter. However, actions speak louder than words and some Government policies impact more strongly on BAME communities. What action will the UK Government take to review their no recourse to public funds policies, given that the Prime Minister revealed that he was unaware that thousands of people are locked out of available support due to those rules? In addition, why will the UK Government not lower the earnings threshold for statutory sick pay, which is forcing people in BAME communities out to work when it is not safe for them to be working?
On Public Health Scotland having different results from Public Health England, we are finding this in a range of reports and it is one reason why we are not rushing to recommendations. It is important to note that the PHE review did not take into account other factors such as comorbidities. On no recourse to public funds, we have taken extensive action to support those with recourse to public funds. The range of such actions includes: protections for renters from evictions; mortgage holidays for those who need them; support for those who are vulnerable and need assistance with access to medication and shopping; the coronavirus job retention scheme; and the self-employed income support scheme. Those with no recourse to public funds do have access to statutory sick pay, which the hon. and learned Lady mentioned. Furthermore, if an individual has been working in the UK and sufficient national insurance contributions have been made, they may be entitled to claim contributory employment and support allowance. We have also allocated £750 million of funding for charities, which are providing vital support to vulnerable people at this difficult time.
Sensitivity to disproportionate risk is greater when the leadership of institutions includes representation of those most at risk. That is an issue for corporations such as Transport for London and, in particular, Govia Thameslink Railway, given what happened to Ms Mujinga. It is an issue for the NHS, where although there has historically been an over-representation of black and minority ethnic people among employees, they have been under-represented in the leadership of the NHS. In this instance, it is a case for the leadership of PHE, as I believe that not one of either the chief executive or his direct reports is drawn from the BAME communities. Will my hon. Friend look into how the Government can promote diversity in the leadership of our leading institutions?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question, which makes an important point. We do want to see diversity in leadership across institutions in this country, which is one reason why we asked Professor Kevin Fenton, who is a black surgeon, to lead on this review. This issue is close to my heart, and, as a black woman who is Equalities Minister, I will be looking into it as well. I can definitely take this forward and examine what is happening across our institutions.
In 2010, Professor Marmot published his report on how structural inequalities predispose the poorest to the worst health outcomes. We know how race inequality is entwined with that. A decade on, the inequalities have grown. The PHE report has now highlighted the fatal consequences of that. Even today, low-paid workers are exposed to the greatest infection risks, and lockdown easement is reinforcing that. Will the Minister pause the easement plan until a full mitigation plan is in place to address these inequalities?
It is important to reiterate that any easement plan is being made in conjunction with scientists. The Government have reviewed and explained guidance extensively across all sorts of occupational areas. It is important that employers make risk assessments for their staff so that they are not unduly exposed to the virus.
As a former employer, and as a new employer in this place, I am acutely aware of the impact I can have on the welfare of my employees. Will my hon. Friend therefore say how important it is to engage with employers in the work that she does?
That is a very good point, and I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Engaging employers as well as employees will be essential. Professor Kevin Fenton of PHE has already undertaken extensive stakeholder engagement on this issue, and I intend to assist him in continuing that excellent work. I also intend to ensure that this approach continues to cover other factors such as age, sex, geography and deprivation.
The Spanish flu epidemic led to huge, widescale social reform, and this report points to the need to do the same. Almost three quarters of health and social care staff who have died as a result of covid-19 are from black and ethnic minorities. Why does the review fail to mention the occupational discrimination faced by BME healthcare staff, which has been highlighted by the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing and needs urgent attention?
Again, it is important to remember that the purpose of the review was to look at specific factors. There are other factors that we will continue to look at. This is not the end of the process; it is the beginning of the process. I am going to take the information from the first stage, and that will be part of the work we will carry out in the programme. It must be said that we are working round the clock to protect everyone on the frontline during this pandemic for as long as it is required, and that will include BAME staff on the frontline.
Belly Mujinga died tragically from coronavirus after being spat at while at work at Victoria station. She was at increased risk as a result of her ethnicity and underlying health conditions. Thousands of BAME frontline workers recognise the risks that Belly faced as the same risks that they continue to be exposed to, and her appalling death must lead to change. There must be justice for Belly Mujinga and her family by way of meaningful action to stop unnecessary BAME frontline deaths now. When will the Government instruct employers to put in place the comprehensive protections that are needed for all BAME staff and other vulnerable workers who need protection to stop them dying now?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising the case of Belly Mujinga. I am extremely saddened and shocked by what I have read about her death. I understand, contrary to what the hon. Lady says, that British Transport police are not taking further action in Belly Mujinga’s case because senior detectives are confident that the incident at Victoria station did not lead to her contracting covid. Nevertheless, this was an appalling incident, and frontline workers like Ms Mujinga deserve to be treated with respect at work, especially during this challenging time. We know that there are a high number of BAME individuals working in healthcare, social care and transport, and it is vital that we understand more about their experiences during the next piece of work I am taking forward. It is important to reiterate that the Government have already done what the hon. Lady said, which is to ensure that employers know that they must risk-assess their employees before they put them out to work. We will continue to reiterate that message.
The report identified age as the greatest disparity. Can the Minister assure me that she is conscious of the sacrifices that older people are making and that she will do what she can to ensure that older people are treated equally as far as possible?
As I said to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care earlier this week, it is one thing to say that black lives matter and quite another to force black people and people from BAME backgrounds out to work who have no choice other than to go to work because they have no recourse to public funds. No recourse to public funds is a racist policy. Will she abolish it now?
I must push back on some of what the hon. Lady said. It is wrong to conflate all black people with recent immigrants and assume, which is what she just said, that we all have to pay a surcharge. That is wrong. I am a black woman who is out to work. My employer—[Interruption.] This House has done everything it can to make sure that I am following the guidelines and that all of us are. It is absolutely wrong to try to conflate lots of different issues and merge them into one, just so that it can get traction in the press. I go back—[Interruption.] I go back to what I said in my original statement. It is not right for us to use confected outrage. We need courage to say the right things, and we need to be courageous in order to calm down racial tensions, not inflame them just so that we have something to put on social media.
Every death in this pandemic is a tragedy, and we have to know how to better protect the most vulnerable, yet this Public Health England analysis is based on incomplete data for ethnic minority groups, because it does not include two key factors—occupation and comorbidities—in the deaths among ethnic minority groups. Why not, particularly given the undertakings given by the Office for National Statistics to the Women and Equalities Select Committee two years ago, when we did a report into the race disparity audit and when it was acknowledged that there were huge discrepancies and inconsistencies in the way data was collected for ethnic minority groups? Can the Minister address this?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I would have hoped to see more, but I understand that Public Health England did not have all the data it needed. Some of the things not present included comorbidities, population density, public transport use, household composition and housing conditions. That is why it is important that I take this forward. All the things she has listed are things we will definitely be looking at in the next stages.
Anyone in Westminster yesterday could not have failed to notice the Black Lives Matter protest, inspired by Minneapolis. The placard that sticks in my mind most said: “Being black should not be a death sentence”. The Minister talked about having courage and being a black woman herself. She and I are both BME parents. Can we really look into our sons’ eyes and say we acknowledged it? Surely we need action. It is not good enough. When will we see a detailed plan, with deliverables, objectives, dates and buy-in from all our diverse communities, so that this does not just look like a box-ticking exercise?
I agree that we cannot be seen to be doing a box-ticking exercise, but we also should not just accept statements such as “being black is a death sentence” in this country. It is not true, although it is true there are disparities and other factors that can make outcomes worse. Let us look at that, but let us not in this House use statements such as “being black is a death sentence”. Young people out there hear that, do not understand the context and then continue to believe that they live in a society that is against them, when actually this is one of the best countries in the world in which to be a black person.
We are considering the experiences and circumstances of people across society so that, while the UK will be changed by this experience, we can emerge stronger and more united. All parts of the Government must take care to pay due regard to the equalities impacts of policy decisions in line with the public sector equalities duty and our commitment to promoting equalities.
I join the Minister in her utter condemnation of the horrific murder of George Floyd. Black lives do matter! Does the Minister agree that the UK should be very proud of the huge contribution BAME workers have made during this crisis, both as key workers and in the health service? With that in mind, following this review, will she say once again what immediate action she is taking to address these disparities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In a time of crisis and great worry for many of us, it has been heartening to see different communities working together hand in hand and people acknowledging the huge contributions people from BME backgrounds have made to this country? As I have said, however, we must take the right action; we must not rush into doing the things people are asking for if it turns out they are the wrong steps to take but look right. It is not about optics; it is about doing the right thing, and that is why we are not rushing. We will have a proper programme. We will look at all the studies that have come out, not just the Public Health England one, and produce an appropriate set of recommendations that have the confidence of various communities.
The PHE report has no third-party submissions. Where are the missing submissions and will the Minister place them in the House of Commons Library? The Government have a reputation for whitewashing reports and hiding from the consequences of structural racism. The Minister says she is not going to rush. In 2016, the Conservative Prime Minister said she would tackle the burning injustices in society. What happened? Where is the social injustice office that was promised in 2016? There is not rushing, and then there is taking your time and avoiding the issue. The Windrush report was delayed and edited, and some parts were deleted. That is a worrying trend of this Government. The PHE report essentially says that there is nothing internal about why black, Asian and minority ethnic people are dying of covid at twice the rate of their white counterparts. There is nothing internal. That means that it is external, and it is accelerated by this Government.
I utterly reject what the hon. Lady has said. With permission, Mr Speaker, I think I need to clarify some confusion that seems to have arisen. The Government commissioned a review to analyse how different factors can impact on people’s health outcomes from covid-19. That is what was published this week. Separately, PHE has been engaging with a significant number of individuals and organisations within the BAME community over the past couple of months to hear their views. That was not a part of this. A lot of people think that that is something that should have been in the report. We will be building on, and expanding on, that engagement as we take this work forward, but that is different from the report that we have commissioned.
I have read the report and I do understand that it has been rushed, but it does raise a number of issues, such as the effect of age and ethnicity. Further examination is also needed of other issues such as comorbidities, socioeconomic issues and multi-generational living, which is the case in Italy too. Does the Minister feel that the report has gone far enough?
The coronavirus does not discriminate, but the system in which it is spreading does. Higher rates of poverty, overcrowded housing, precarious work and jobs on the frontline mean that if you are black or Asian you are more likely to catch the virus and to be hit worse if you do. “Black lives matter” is not a slogan. We are owed more than confirmation that our communities are suffering; we are owed justice. Will the Minister commit to a race equality strategy covering all Whitehall Departments, so that we can rebuild by tackling the underlying inequalities and systemic injustice that coronavirus has so brutally laid bare?
All I can say to the hon. Lady is that the Government are doing every single thing they can to make sure we eliminate the disparities that we are seeing because of this disease. We must remember that, as we talk about different groups, there are many other groups that have been impacted based on age and even based on gender. We are looking at all of that. I am not going to take any lessons from the hon. Lady on race and what I should be doing on that. I think the Government have a record to be proud of. We will wait and see the outcomes of the following steps in the recommendations.
What assurances can the Minister give my constituents in Hyndburn and Haslingden that the Government are recording covid-related deaths based on ethnic data? What steps is she taking in support of the NHS to ensure that BAME communities have the same positive health outcomes as all other communities?
This goes back to the point I made about making sure that everyone is treated equally. We need to look at some of the data that is being collected to make sure there is consistency across the board. That is something that has come out from the different reviews undertaken on this issue and we will continue to work on that.
The review, as we know, found that people of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, other Asian, Caribbean and other black ethnicity had between 10% and 50% higher risk of death when compared to white British, yet only 11 of the 89 pages explore the issue of racial inequalities in coronavirus deaths. We have also heard reports that there is a chapter, referring to individuals and stakeholder groups, which is not included. Can the Minister assure us that there is no reason why the people she referred to as being dealt with separately should not have been included in the report? Can she assure us that what we will see from the Government is the full unredacted evidence from individuals and stakeholder groups to address the imbalance in the evidence in this review?
Again—I will repeat this point—it is important that we understand the key drivers of the disparities. What we commissioned was a quantitative review. We want to be evidence-led. Stakeholder engagement is important, but we do not want to conflate the two things, and that is something that we will be taking forward in the future.
One of the biggest disparities in deaths from covid is the gender difference. The standardised mortality rate among men is 781 per 100,000; among women, it is 439 per 100,000. Across all communities, we are talking about fathers, brothers, sons, husbands, partners and friends. This affects the whole country. Will my hon. Friend ensure that resources are given to understanding why this gender difference is there and how we can tackle it in the future? I am sure that one thing the whole House can agree on is that all lives matter and they all matter equally.
That is absolutely correct; I agree with my right hon. Friend. At the risk of sounding clichéd, this is a Government that we want to work for everyone, but it is not yet fully clear what drives the differences in outcomes between males and females. Some could be driven by risks of acquiring infection due to behavioural and occupational factors—again, that is something that the PHE review was not able to look at—or by differences in how women and men develop symptoms and biological and immune differences. However, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right; this is something that does need to be looked into further, and we are actively working on that.
Twenty per cent. of all reported cases of covid-19 in prisons across England and Wales have been recorded in Welsh prisons, despite the fact that Welsh prisons hold just 6% of the total prison population. We know that a disproportionate number of those in the Welsh prison system are from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. What plans do the Government have to work with the Welsh Government to address that racial disparity and the health implications arising from it for BME communities?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he will know, the review was by Public Health England. I have not seen the Welsh figures that he talks about, but if he writes to me separately, I think I might be able to provide some more information after speaking to officials.
We talk a lot about levelling up, but normally in the context of the north versus the south. As my hon. Friend knows, in our cities—in particular in London—we have huge inequalities. Will she assure me that we will look out for all those left behind?
My hon. Friend is right. Levelling up is not just about north and south; it is going to cut across lots of different areas. Responding to the challenges of covid-19 specifically does not mean that the Government have forgotten that. We remain committed to a levelling up of every region and nation, and even within regions and nations of the UK, and that can still be a critical part of how we get back to normal.
Earlier, the Minister said that equalities is something that happens across Whitehall. Self-employed women, including BAME women, who have had maternity leave in the last three years lose out under the Chancellor’s covid-19 self-employed income support scheme. That is overt pregnancy discrimination, pure and simple, by the Minister’s Government. What is she doing to rectify it?
The Government have introduced an unprecedented scheme of packages to help all those people financially impacted by covid-19. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are using average earnings data based over the last three years. That does mean that some groups are impacted, but because of how Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs collects information, that is not necessarily something that we can address. That is why we have other schemes in place, which people hopefully should be able to access.
The recent report does not include recommendations for people with underlying health conditions or by employment type. Will the Minister commit to looking into those factors further so that we can properly address the causes of the disproportionate effects of covid-19 on BAME communities?
Blackpool contains some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the whole of England, and in some of those communities the life expectancy for the poorest is 20 years below the national average. The PHE report makes it explicitly clear that deprived communities such as those in my constituency have been disproportionately affected by covid-19, a fact that is supported by our high local infection rate. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is imperative that the Government redouble our efforts to reduce health inequalities between the richest and the poorest?
I commend the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) for what he has just said, because it is what I was about to say—although I am not going to sit down just yet, if that is all right. It is a simple fact that my constituency, the Rhondda, has one of the highest death rates per 100,000 head of population in the country, and therefore in the world. Being poor is certainly an early death sentence—by some 20 years compared with richer parts of the country—and that is because it is the people who are subsisting on poor wages, few hours and unsafe labour in difficult working conditions, without proper protection, with miserly benefits, with statutory sick pay that does not enable people to put food on the table, relying on food banks, who are dying. Surely, one lesson that we must learn from coronavirus is that we must pay our key workers properly so that they can put food on the table and not rely on food banks.
I do not think anyone in the House can disagree with what the hon. Gentleman just said, and I do agree with him. We are putting forward policies to address some of these things. We are looking at some things in the short term that relate specifically to coronavirus, and he and I can have conversations about medium to long-term interventions in future.
The lack of leadership and transparency in Public Health England and NHS England has been shamefully exposed, with BAME health workers dying at a greater rate. Covid has showed us what it means when these institutions are not equal, with BAME workers saying that they did not have the same access to personal protective equipment as their white colleagues and felt pressured to work on the frontline. As both Public Health England and NHS England are independent, how will my hon. Friend hold them to account?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the concerns that we have been hearing anecdotally. This is something that needs to be handled sensitively, because on the one hand, we know that there are areas that need to be addressed, but on the other hand, I do not want anyone to think that we are criticising NHS workers for not looking after their own. It is something that needs to be handled absolutely sensitively, but we are on top of it. I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point.
Does the Minister agree with the report that there are additional barriers that make it harder for BAME communities to access key services? In particular, will she press her colleagues to suspend the “no recourse to public funds” restriction, which has prevented thousands of hard-working BAME families, many with children born in the UK, from claiming universal credit during this crisis?
I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the answer that I gave earlier. I know that a lot of people are concerned about this issue, and we have taken extensive action to support those with no recourse to public funds. We understand that there may be difficulties for failed asylum seekers who cannot return home, and we are continuing to provide free accommodation to those who would otherwise be destitute. That is just another example of how the Government are looking at these things intensely. We have not forgotten anyone.
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to look at a whole range of areas. I go back to what I said earlier about this being not the end of the review process but the beginning. I urge Members from all parties, if there are areas that they want us to look at, to please write to me so that we can make sure that we include them.
Does the Minister not understand that “no recourse to public funds” reinforces the various structural inequalities that the Black Lives Matter campaign is trying to call out? It is not leaving my constituents looking for mortgage holidays; it is leaving them destitute. That is not just unequal; it is inhumane. So will the Government please review this situation and allow people to get the support that they so desperately need?
I will repeat the point I made earlier: we should not conflate black people with people who do not have any recourse to public funds. It is a very—I am not going to say the words “disingenuous argument”, Mr Speaker, but I do think that this is something that we need to be very clear about and not muddy the waters in terms of what is going on.
I have received many, many letters from constituents across the Bolsover constituency saying how proud they are of how many BAME people have contributed to our health service and to our care system. Does the Minister agree that they have made a fantastic contribution and that we should welcome that?
Absolutely. We do welcome that. It is very heartening, as I said earlier, to see that communities all across the country are not just saying, but showing, how much we value the contribution that black and minority ethnic workers—key workers in particular—provide to our society.
I am a very proud Wulfrunian and I am proud that many of my fellow Wulfrunians have roots all over the world. Does the Minister agree that people are now concerned about this report, and that we need to keep pushing hand-washing and social distancing? Does she also agree that it is up to Members in this place to set an example to the BAME communities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and raises a very important point. People do look to this House to set an example across the country, and those of us in this House must not just demonstrate that we agree with the guidance, but show that we are following the rules as well.
The research shows, among many disturbing findings about race disparities, that diagnosis rates are higher in deprived and densely populated urban areas, and that our great cities such as Liverpool have been hardest hit by the virus. Does the Minister accept that the reason why we must research covid disparities is so that effective action can be taken to address them? Will she undertake to ensure right now that the Government allocate resources to combat covid in such a way as to address these inequalities—she can do that now—rather than on a crude per capita basis that completely ignores the realities of who is hardest hit and why?
The report does reveal correlations between the virus and certain other conditions. Diabetes is mentioned on around 20% of death certificates, but that rises to almost half of the certificates for black and Asian deaths. Does the Minister agree that these links with other health conditions—co-morbidities—need to be studied thoroughly?
Yes, my hon. Friend is right. Within some medical circles, there is an expectation that when we do account for co-morbidities—I believe that there was an article in The Times which referenced the SAGE report—some of these differences do reduce to zero. That is why we are not rushing to take into account what one specific report is saying; we are looking at what has been said by all the different reports, such as the one from Public Health Scotland, to make sure that we find out exactly what is going on.
I have received a great deal of correspondence from constituents who are rightly angry at the Government’s delay in publishing this report. Given the lack of recommendations, guidelines or action plan, will the Minister also now commit to establishing a post-covid-19 equality strategy to take forward work to develop policies to tackle health inequalities post covid-19?
I think the hon. Lady is asking for what we are doing at the moment. That is what we are planning to do and that is what we will be looking into. On her accusation that the Government delayed this report, it is simply not true. We asked for a report for the end of May, and that report was brought before the House at the first available opportunity, Mr Speaker, which I am sure you will appreciate.
Health inequalities are also related to historical work conditions and industrial diseases, such as the high rates of silicosis and chronic bronchitis, as seen among some of my Rother Valley residents, many of whom are former miners. Does the Minister agree that these inequalities should be looked at as well in the context of the covid-19 outbreak?
Yes, as I said before, there are a range of things that we will need to consider. We want to be evidence-led. I shall raise this with the various bodies, not just Public Health England, to make sure that, more than anything else, we are being led by the science.
Almost three quarters of health and social care staff who were battling this virus on our behalf but who subsequently died as a result of covid-19 were black, Asian and minority ethnic, so I am hoping against hope that one of the few positives to take from this national crisis is that those espousing hatred against minorities and migrants will now be ignored, and that will lead to less racism and greater community cohesion. Can the Minister explain why the Public Health England review failed to mention the occupational discrimination faced by BAME healthcare staff, which has been identified by both the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing?
The hon. Gentleman is right. It goes back to what I said earlier. Public Health England did not necessarily have the data, because data is being looked at from different quarters and different institutions have different data. That data is something that I really want to see, because I think it will go some way to explain the gaps, and I will be taking that forward to see whether we can get the information out.
May I draw to my hon. Friend’s attention the information published this week by the Care Quality Commission on 2 June, which highlighted the much higher death rate among people with learning disabilities, both from covid and non-covid causes? There was a 134% increase over the past year. I ask her to talk to her Health and Social Care Department colleagues about what that implies for access to testing for working age people in the care sector.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that question. He raises an interesting point. We are aware that some of the risk factors associated with poorer outcomes are more prevalent in certain groups of the population, and that does include people with learning disabilities, so he is right to raise that, and I will speak to my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care on that issue again.
All lives matter. They matter now and they mattered in March and April, when many of my constituents could not get a test when they needed one. Will the Minister talk to her colleagues about changing the attitude of Public Health England towards working with the private sector to mobilise testing capacity?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need all hands on deck on this issue, and we definitely do not want silo working where people believe that only the public sector will be able to help sort the issue. We want them to be working hand in hand with the private sector. For other key workers—in supermarkets, heavy goods vehicle drivers and so on—we have seen that the private sector has done a fantastic job in helping us weather this crisis, and I would like to see more of that happening within the health space.
The report identifies death rates in the most deprived areas as being more than double those in the least deprived. Does the Minister agree that growing capacity in community development is essential in ensuring equality of opportunity and levelling up in cities such as Stoke-on-Trent?
Yes, I do agree with my hon. Friend. I do not think there is anything further to add. Levelling up is a priority for the Government, and I will never get tired of saying that. It is not something that I look at just in my equalities role, but also in my Treasury role, and I look forward to working with her on those issues.
In February of this year, Professor Marmot published his review of health inequalities a decade after his original report. He made several recommendations, the first being for the creation of a cross-government, cross-party strategy led by the Prime Minister to address those health inequalities. Given that covid-19 has shown how far we are from achieving a fair and equal country, will the Minister say whether the Government will incorporate that recommendation as a key part of the recovery from coronavirus?