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.
What action are the Government taking to prevent a rise in harmful online gambling during the emergency?
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.
Pre-covid, local councillors in Tettenhall Regis in Wolverhampton launched online and social media training for over-65s. What is my right hon. Friend going to do to upskill those with little or no online skills?
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—
Order. I have the greatest respect for the Minister, but he cannot take all this time reading the full- length answers. I am sure his officials can shorten the briefing papers.
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?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I am very keen, as we have done throughout this crisis so far, to engage constructively with the devolved nations. I am very happy to look into that point and come back to him on it.
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.
Tourism agency VisitBritain has proposed a bank holiday this October to help the tourism industry. It has been estimated that that could raise £500 million for the economy. Will the Minister seriously consider that proposal?
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.
I shall now suspend the House for one minute while we have the changeover, so people can leave carefully and safely.
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.
What learning can the justice system take from this period and will virtual hearings continue in future?
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.
Justice delayed is often justice denied. What discussions has my right hon. and learned Friend had with the Lord Chancellor in order to deal with the backlog of cases in the system?
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.
Order. In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am now suspending the House for five minutes.
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?
Yes. The largest disparity found was by age. People diagnosed who were 80 or older were 70 times more likely to die than those under 40. My hon. Friend is right, and that is something I will be doing.
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.
The report on disparities in the risks of contracting covid-19 is extremely concerning, so how will the Minister ensure that everybody is treated equally, regardless of ethnicity?
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 short answer is no. The report is a welcome first step, but it certainly has not gone far enough. We will take it to where we think it needs to get to.
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?
Yes, is the short answer. We can look at that.
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?
Yes, absolutely. We will look very closely at the health inequalities aspects of the report. That is part of the work that I am going to be carrying forward.
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.
The Cabinet Office Race Disparity Unit supports Departments in driving change where disparities are found. Will the Minister ensure that the unit is dedicated to understanding how to close the gap in respect of coronavirus?
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.
Lloyd Russell-Moyle—not here, so I call Jane Stevenson.
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?
We are distributing funds in many different ways. I have spoken to, for example, the mayors of combined authorities, and they have raised this issue with me as a Treasury Minister, and we will continue to look at it.
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?
I am afraid I am not sure I have seen the specific report that the hon. Lady is referring to, but if she writes to me, I can give a much more comprehensive response than at the Dispatch Box. Without seeing the recommendation she is referring to, I am not sure I can fully comment, but I look forward to seeing that letter, and hopefully it will have things that we can include in there.
Abortion Regulations: Northern Ireland
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the abortion regulations for Northern Ireland.
As the Minister responsible for this policy area, I shall answer the question.
The Government originally laid the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 in Parliament on 25 March on the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland. The regulations came into force on 31 March 2020 and became law on access to abortion services in Northern Ireland. The regulations were originally required to be debated by 17 May to remain in force as law. However, the unprecedented situation created by covid-19 has impacted on parliamentary processes, and virtual voting systems were not yet fully implemented in time for the regulations to be debated in both Houses. Therefore the Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No. 2) Regulations 2020 were laid and came into force on 14 May, revoking the earlier regulations. That gives Parliament an extra 28 days to consider and scrutinise the regulations properly, given the nature of this policy.
This approach has ensured that the law on abortion in Northern Ireland itself, a requirement specified by the House in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, continues to apply with no risk, gap or legal uncertainty, and services can continue on the same basis in Northern Ireland as they are currently operating. The regulations are due to be debated in the House in a Delegated Legislation Committee on Monday 8 June and in the Lords after that. I understand that a committee has been empanelled to consider the regulations. I welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman’s party will be represented on that committee so that its voice can be heard. That will be the appropriate time for a full debate on the regulations.
I thank the Minister for his response. When this House voted for section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act, it was argued that Parliament had the right to legislate on abortion in Northern Ireland in the absence of a functioning Assembly. However, that Assembly has now been restored for almost five months, so it is absolutely not the right way forward for Parliament to vote on the regulations. That point is greatly strengthened by the fact that not only has the Assembly been restored, but on Tuesday this week it voted in a motion by an absolute majority to reject these unamendable regulations. An absolute majority of the Assembly of 90 Members voted to reject them. The will of the people of Northern Ireland has spoken.
The Government have said that their hands are tied because the law is clear: they must bring the regulations forward for a vote in Northern Ireland. However, having taken legal advice at the highest level, I discovered that the law is not at all clear on that. There is actually as good a legal argument that the Government are under no such obligation. In that regard, I note the submissions of huge importance to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee from two QCs who also argue that the Secretary of State is under no obligation to press the regulations to a vote. To do so will fundamentally breach the devolution settlement and cause a constitutional predicament of the Government’s own making.
The Secretary of State would also be well advised not to bring the regulations to a vote because they sanction abortion for non-fatal disability up to birth, something that around 75 Members of the Assembly this week voted against. It is unthinkable that the Government should present such a discriminatory provision, which was not even required by CEDAW.
As Heidi Crowter, the very powerful disability rights campaigner with Down’s syndrome has said:
“I would now call on the Government not to ask MPs and peers to vote for regulations that contain discriminatory provisions that tell people like me that we should not exist.”
I today would do the same. The Government should withdraw the regulations, respect the fact that devolution has been restored and, rather than seek to further undermine devolution, allow the Northern Ireland Assembly its rightful place to legislate on its own abortion law.
I recognise that this is an issue on which the right hon. Gentleman and his party, as well as many others in Northern Ireland, have deeply held views, and I know that it is an extremely sensitive issue that many across the House have a deep interest in. I do not intend to rehearse matters of detail that we will rightly address in the Committee that has been convened to scrutinise the legislation.
The Government were placed under a statutory duty to deliver abortion law for Northern Ireland by implementing the recommendations of the CEDAW report. That duty came into effect, given that the Executive was not restored by 21 October 2019. That followed many months, if not years, of the issues receiving ongoing attention at Westminster on human rights grounds, including parliamentary questions, Committee inquiries, amendments to other legislation requiring the Government to report, and so on, leading to this particular amendment being voted through with a significant majority.
The statutory duty in section 9 of the EF Act did not fall away with the restoration of the Executive, nor with the making of the initial regulations that came into force on 31 March 2020. That is why we have had to re-lay the new regulations. Even if the regulations had not been approved by Parliament in time, or the deadline had not been met, the Government would still be under a statutory duty to introduce new regulations.
We have always been clear, when we consulted on this, that the consultation was about how we would deliver an abortion framework for Northern Ireland in line with the statutory duty that Parliament placed the Government under. It was not on whether the Secretary of State should be exercising this duty in the first place. That matter was decided by this sovereign Parliament. We think that, following the consultation and the publication of the Government’s response to that consultation, we have struck the appropriate balance in providing a framework that can be effectively commissioned in Northern Ireland and meet the needs of women and girls, as well as providing certainty and clarity for the medical professionals providing the service. We have always been clear that, in doing so, we would be respectful of the restored devolved institutions.
We hope that the regulations provide a solid framework for abortion services to be provided within Northern Ireland, although I appreciate that this remains a devolved issue and the Assembly can amend the regulations in future, subject to the usual Assembly and other procedures, including compliance with the European convention on human rights. Repealing section 9, which I know some in the right hon. Gentleman’s party have asked for, has never been a viable solution. This would have required primary legislation before Westminster, which would have been subject to a free vote on grounds of conscience, but we would still have a legal obligation to propose an alternative human rights-compliant model by 31 March to ensure we complied with convention rights.
Similarly, if the Executive and Assembly were to legislate for an alternative approach, it would still be required to be human rights and convention-compliant. I recognise that the Assembly did debate one aspect of the regulations on Tuesday—severe foetal impairment—and passed a motion stating that it does not support the provision allowing for abortions in cases of severe foetal impairment without time limit. While I respect the Assembly’s right to state its position on this, it does not have any bearing on the legal obligations that have been placed on us by this Parliament. Unfortunately, the motion that the Assembly debated and backed proposed no solution that would deliver a CEDAW-compliant regime in this regard.
The sensitive issue of severe foetal impairment has long been debated over many years right across the UK, and I recognise the strength of feeling on all sides of the debate, many of which have been expressed in this House over recent years. The Government are, however, under a clear statutory duty to allow for access to abortions in cases of both severe foetal impairment and fatal foetal abnormalities, and this is what we have delivered. This is also consistent with the provision in the rest of the UK under the Abortion Act 1967. We consider the regulations in this regard to be compatible with the requirements under the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.
We recognise that these are difficult decisions, particularly so far as fatal foetal abnormalities or severe foetal impairment are concerned, which often occur late in wanted pregnancies, and it is right that women have the time to be able to make individual informed decisions, based on their own health and wider circumstances, in consultation with medical professionals. Putting in place proper support and provision of information to support women in making these informed decisions, including where women want to carry such pregnancies to term, is an operational issue for the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to take forward, as part of commissioning and overseeing abortion services as a new health service, consistent with the regulations. We have written to the Department on this point and stand ready to support it.
The Government stand ready to provide whatever support and guidance we can to both the Northern Ireland Minister of Health and the Department of Health to assist them in progressing work to set up these abortion services in line with the new legislative framework. I look forward to debating the detail of that framework next week.
Progressing these regulations now that Stormont has returned and following Tuesday’s decision there would show a profound lack of respect for the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives, and the rushed manner in which they were proceeded with here has thrown up deep flaws. Sex-selective abortion is not lawful here. It has been described by the Government here as abhorrent, yet the Northern Ireland regulations allow abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks, with no prohibition on sex-selective abortions. It is now possible to tell the sex of an unborn child between seven and 10 weeks. Women could even travel here from Northern Ireland for a sex-selective abortion. Does the Minister think this Parliament really intended this, and does it not show why these rushed regulations should be scrapped and the issue properly returned to Stormont?
I respect the strength of feeling that my hon. Friend has always deployed on this issue. The UK Government take the issue of sex-selective abortions very seriously. They publish an annual analysis on the male to female birth ratio for England and Wales to see if there is any evidence for this. The most recent analysis was published in October 2019, and it found no evidence that sex-selective abortions are occurring in Great Britain. The regulations for Northern Ireland do not make any reference to sex-selective abortion and they follow the same approach as the UK on this issue.
This urgent question this morning is on an extremely sensitive subject—perhaps the most sensitive of subjects that we as legislators can debate—and I, as the Minister has done, acknowledge the strength of feeling already expressed today and earlier this week in Stormont. But the task now for Westminster is implementing a law that already stands. In 2019, this place passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act, which has taken legal effect. Abortion is now legal in Northern Ireland, and women there are entitled to the same rights and services as women in all other parts of the United Kingdom. We are now tasked with implementing the regulations setting out the legal framework that will bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK.
Although abortion is legal in Northern Ireland today, there is limited provision available and more needs to be done to get a full service up and running, so will the Minister commit to working with the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to ensure the full implementation of services as set out in the legal framework and to fulfil the UK’s international human rights obligations? As he has said, that responsibility remains with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Labour supported the recommendations of the United Nations convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women—CEDAW—and we are supportive of the regulations to be debated on Monday that provide safe, legal and accessible abortion services to women in Northern Ireland. We heard last year that the CEDAW report deemed that abortion law in Northern Ireland created a “grave and systematic” violation of rights, and in our own Supreme Court in 2018, the position was deemed untenable. It was seen to be treating women like vehicles and was found to be incompatible with article 8 of the European convention on human rights. We cannot pick and choose which parts of CEDAW or our international human rights obligations we do or do not like, and CEDAW explicitly recommended legislation on severe foetal impairment. That is not today’s debate, however.
As we look forwards, not backwards, will the Minister commit to a timeline for the full provision of services? Regarding signposting and the availability of current services, will he confirm what steps he has taken to ensure that public information is available, and will he further confirm that telemedicine, which is available in England, Wales and Scotland during this pandemic, will be made available to the women of Northern Ireland?
I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for setting out the position so clearly from the perspective of the Labour party. I recognise that it is a responsibility of the United Kingdom Government to deliver on our international human rights obligations. She is absolutely right in that respect. With regard to implementation, clearly this is now a responsibility for the Department of Health in Northern Ireland, and it is something on which we have written to that Department. We have written to other Departments that have responsibilities in this regard to ensure that the full detail of what was recommended in the CEDAW report is addressed, and the details of that are set out in the Government’s response to the consultation.
In terms of timelines, we all recognise that there have been additional pressures placed on services, and health services in particular, by the covid situation, so while it is the case that the full range of services are not available in Northern Ireland, we will continue to fund and support the travel for those—hopefully very few—women who will need to travel to the rest of the UK for terminations. The hon. Lady is right to say that we have an ongoing responsibility on this, and we will engage with that. We will continue to engage with the Department of Health to ensure that the full provisions are delivered on.
I thank the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) for bringing this urgent question. Although I agree with him on most things, he will know that this is not one of them. My views have been founded on the experiences I had when meeting women in particular in Northern Ireland and the experiences that they had to go through in order for the law to be changed. We had to work very hard in this Chamber to get the law changed, but it has been changed. I would respectfully mention that it was not just a question of the Assembly and the Executive not being formed in Northern Ireland; it was also a question of treaty obligations not being followed, and it was the role of Parliament to ensure that they were followed. Regardless, I want to ask the Minister this question. I appreciate his saying that we will follow the law, but will he put more pressure than just written pressure on the Department of Health? There are women beyond the 10-week gestation period who are getting no service provision at all, and that means that the law that we in this place moved to an Act is not being followed. That surely cannot be right.
I recognise the strength of feeling that my hon. Friend expresses, and his experience of meeting directly with some of the women affected by this. As part of the consultation process, I have also met some of those people, and their stories are in many cases harrowing, so he makes a powerful case. Absolutely, yes, we will continue not just to write to the Department of Health but to provide all the support that we can in getting it to implement this. It is important to recognise that this law is already in force and in effect, but this House will debate it in Committee in the coming week, and I hope that it will then be absolutely clear that the House fully supports these regulations and wants to see them observed. That in itself will send a message to the Executive.
Could the Minister of State further outline the reasoning behind the refusal to repeal the Act and instead allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to take the reins? Before the initial vote in this place, Ministers and Members underlined that this should be a devolved matter but that if the Assembly had not reconvened, Westminster would step in. Now that the Assembly is convened, this week the people of Northern Ireland have spoken through their elected representatives, and they have spoken in a largely ignored consultation process. Now we are speaking about this again in this House. Will the Minister revert to the democratically approved method? Let the Northern Ireland representatives and the people of Northern Ireland decide. That is really where it should be done—not here.
I have great sympathy for where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, in terms of the fact that the Assembly should have decided on this issue some time ago. It was a responsibility incumbent on the Assembly before it broke up to address this issue in a way that would satisfy our human rights obligations. Unfortunately, it did not, and to date it has still not agreed a way forward on this issue. As he will know, the legislation passed by this House set a deadline of 21 October for the Assembly to be back in place, beyond which the responsibility to legislate was placed on to this House, and that is the law by which we are bound.
With regard to the suggestion that the hon. Gentleman and others have made to simply repeal section 9 of the Act, that would not excise from the Government its wider human rights obligations or the responsibility of this House to deliver on our human rights commitments. We would still have a responsibility to deliver on this, unless the Northern Ireland Assembly had taken it upon itself to do so. I would point out that the Northern Ireland Assembly can reform and take forward these regulations, so long as it does so in a way that is compliant with our human rights obligations and CEDAW.
It is worth saying that these regulations do reflect the very sensitive situation in Northern Ireland on conscientious objection and the locations that abortions can be performed in. I support the Minister of State in saying that we did give an option, at every stage since the Act was passed last year, for politicians to get back into power and shape these reforms. I urge him to keep pushing forward and have the best interests of women and girls at the forefront of his mind.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we have to keep the best interests of women and girls at the forefront of our minds throughout this process. He is also right about the sensitivity with which we have approached this process. I should perhaps thank him for the fact that I am here at the Dispatch Box, as he was the person who gave me responsibility for this. Throughout the process, he has shown extreme sensitivity to the concerns of women and girls in Northern Ireland and the deeply held views on both sides of the debate. It is absolutely right that we should do that.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has expressed a view, with a clear majority not supporting the proposed regulations on abortion. For another legislature to impose these abortion regulations cuts right across the Assembly and the principles set out in the Good Friday agreement and shows an imperialist contempt for devolution. It is time for real pragmatism. It is not beyond the wit of this House to be respectful of the devolution deal and to enable the Northern Ireland Assembly to move this legislation forward. Why will the Minister not do that?
As I made clear in my response to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the Northern Ireland Assembly can take this issue forward, but it needs to do so on a basis that is CEDAW compliant and consistent with our human rights obligations. This House does have a standing in that respect, to ensure that we live up to those human rights obligations. Many of the hon. Lady’s colleagues have recognised that and supported the legislation, which required us to take further action. It is important that we move forward in a way that is respectful of the devolved settlement but also recognises our fundamental commitment to human rights, including the rights of women and girls.
I was under the impression that these regulations were no more liberal than those in the rest of Great Britain. I am a bit worried by some of the questioning, which might imply they are not. Can my hon. Friend reassure me that the regulations will simply be a reflection of what is happening in England, Scotland and Wales?
My hon. and gallant Friend makes a very important point. I direct him to the Government’s detailed response to the consultation, in which we set out the importance of using the legal basis that has been established in England, Scotland, Wales for this process and ensuring that we stick to it as closely as possible, particularly on issues such as conscientious objection. There is a fundamental difference in how the regulations have had to be built up because of the way the EF Act repealed the illegality of abortion before putting in place the new framework. Whereas the Abortion Act 1967 works on the basis that abortion is illegal unless carried out under that Act, in Northern Ireland we have had to build up a framework and then say that everything outside that framework is illegal. That is the reason for the main differences between this and the framework in England and Wales. However, our approach throughout the design of this framework is to ensure that the outcomes are as consistent as possible.
I am speaking on behalf of, and in agreement with, my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), who was unable to travel here today at short notice. He has asked me to note that there is considerable support among people and elected representatives in Northern Ireland for CEDAW-compliant regulations. Does the Minister now agree that the priority must be to ensure the full commissioning of services, rather than the current piecemeal interim provision?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and I know that the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) would have expressed that view had he been in the House today. It is vital that we get the services in place as quickly as possible. We recognise the additional pressures facing the Department of Health as a result of covid and we want to support it with that, but it is right that we should end a situation whereby women and girls from Northern Ireland have to undergo travel to access these services. Putting in place a proper CEDAW-compliant system will do that.
These regulations enshrine a more liberal abortion regime in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom, against the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland and against the spirit and principle of devolution. I am grateful to the Minister for his engagement on this issue so far, and I appreciate that he feels that the Government are under an obligation to bring these regulations forward, but is he aware of the eminent legal opinion that the Secretary of State has already met his obligations under the emergency powers Act, and that now the Assembly is restored he is free to withdraw those regulations? That is something that the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy)—who is otherwise engaged—recognised in the debate on her amendment to the legislation last year, when she said that if Stormont was up and running, it would be absolutely not the right thing to do to impose regulations on Northern Ireland from London. She was right then, and will my hon. Friend heed the call from Northern Ireland to allow Stormont to decide whether it wants a more liberal regime than in the rest of the UK?
I absolutely respect my hon. Friend’s views, but I disagree with him about the regime being more liberal than in the rest of the UK. We set out the detail of that in our response to the consultation and the detailed reasoning that the Government have provided in that respect. However, it is in the hands of the Assembly to propose reforms and a way forward on the regulations, so long as it can do so in a way that is CEDAW compliant. I would be very happy for it to take that opportunity. There is nothing to prohibit it doing so, and it is a matter of regret that, having been in place for a number of months before the regulations came into force, it has not. However, my firm understanding of the advice that the Government have received is that the legal obligations on us to ensure a human rights-compliant model in every part of the UK, including Northern Ireland, remain in place.
The Minister has to be absolutely clear about this. CEDAW does not require legislation for a full-term terminations. CEDAW does not require regulations for disability terminations. CEDAW does not require regulations for sex-selection terminations. That is that what is going to happen in Northern Ireland as a result of what has occurred in this place. On Tuesday, 78 MLAs, from a total of 90, rejected the CEDAW recommendations in a series of votes in the Assembly, whether the Minister likes it or not. They were right to do that, and if the Minister really wants to respect the Assembly, and indeed this place, he should urge the Assembly to go back, give it the space it needs and allow it to legislate on these matters and come to its own conclusions. That is the democratic thing to do, the right thing to do and the appropriate thing to do, and it is in line with what the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) said when she addressed the House on 9 July last year. I urge the Minister to allow that to happen and not brush this hideous vista under the carpet.
Again, I respect the hon. Gentleman’s view, but the Government have been clear about what we are legally required to do under the EF Act. That has not changed. We have to bring in a set of regulations that comply with CEDAW, which specified that in cases of severe foetal impairment there would have to be the ability to have terminations. As the hon. Gentleman will recognise, many of those cases become apparent only late in term. It was therefore necessary to address that CEDAW requirement in the way that we have. However, I encourage the Assembly to engage with this issue and ensure that it can in future assess details of the framework and look at aspects of the issue to meet the rights obligations constructively. Any consensus that can be built in the Assembly on those matters would be extremely welcome
I again welcome the Government’s work to ensure that, after many decades, women in Northern Ireland have proper access to abortion, as women in the rest of the UK do. I particularly thank the Minister for the way in which he is handling the matter. I think the whole House greatly appreciates that. The Government are quite properly protecting those women’s human rights and rights under international conventions. I thank the women who have had the courage to speak out about their experiences, which has shed so much light on these issues.
Last year, the Women and Equalities Committee identified a lack of medical facilities and clinical expertise on abortion in Northern Ireland because of the climate of fear on the matter in the Province. How will the Minister ensure that, in the absence in Northern Ireland of a separate, independent regulatory body overseeing the provision of health services, the regulations are put into practice? Will the Department of Health in Northern Ireland have a clear legal duty to ensure that facilities are in place? How will my hon. Friend ensure that they are in place in rural areas as well as towns, and that he gets independent advice on whether our international obligations are being acted upon?
My right hon. Friend, who played a significant role as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee in the genesis of all this, makes important points. She will recognise that many aspects of implementation are in the hands of the Northern Ireland Department of Health, but she raises some extremely important matters, all of which we discussed during the consultation with some of the key medical professional bodies with which we engaged. She mentioned facilities and training. Those are important aspects of what will need to be delivered, but those responsibilities now fall on the Northern Ireland Department of Health. I assure my right hon. Friend that we will provide them with the support that they need. I know that my colleagues in the Department for Health and Social Care are also keen to lean in and provide any support on that front. We want this to move forward quickly. We recognise that the focus on covid-19 has presented specific challenges in the short term, but we want to ensure that the full range of services is available as soon as possible so that we can meet the challenge of providing human rights-compliant services to women and girls in Northern Ireland.
“It makes me feel like I shouldn’t exist.” Those are the words of Heidi Crowter, who was born with Down’s syndrome. The Government, whether we like it or not, continue to ride roughshod over the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. They are discriminating against people who have non-fatal disabilities and going far beyond their legal requirement. They have implemented the most liberal abortion laws in the whole of Europe. Will the Minister recognise the severe offence that the regulations cause to people with disabilities and also that the clear will of the devolved institutions is that the regulations are not wanted in Northern Ireland? What is the Minister’s message today to Heidi Crowter, who says that she feels she should not exist in this society if the regulations go ahead? [Interruption.] As I stand in this House, speaking on something I feel passionately about, I hear a little baby cry. I heard my own baby cry at 5 o’clock this morning—quite early. Both lives matter. It is not just about women’s health, but about both lives. It is not the Government’s right to impose such liberal abortion laws on Northern Ireland that will see abortion up to birth for disability.
The hon. Lady speaks very powerfully, as she always does, on this issue. Of course, nobody in the House wants to regulate or legislate in any way to the detriment of people with disabilities. We rightly have a huge body of legislation in this country to protect the rights of people with disabilities. It is not for the Government—and it is not the approach we take in the rest of the UK—to list specific conditions that it may or not be decided constitute severe foetal impairment.
This is an individual decision for each woman to make following medical assessments, the clear provision of information and proper support for medical professionals and others. In this respect, the law that we are introducing in Northern Ireland reflects the law in the rest of GB. Addressing SFI was a specific requirement of the CEDAW report, which is why it is included in the regulations.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on securing this urgent question. He knows that I agree with him on most things, but I respectfully disagree with him on this. Does the Minister agree that the laws we had to pass here in July and the regulations and framework that his Department has produced better align Northern Ireland with the rest of the United Kingdom in this respect and indeed with the Republic of Ireland and that, like same-sex marriage, we know from the data available that they accord pretty much with the overwhelming view of the people of Northern Ireland?
I agree with my right hon. Friend, who speaks with considerable experience in these matters, from his time as a Minister and Chair of the Select Committee. As we have set out in our consultation response, it is important that wherever possible we make sure the outcomes of the regulations in Northern Ireland are aligned with the outcomes in the rest of GB. It is important both because it is the right thing to do fundamentally—as a Unionist I believe it is the right thing to do—and because the approach in the rest of the UK has been legally tested and found to be compliant with the relevant human rights law. For those reasons, he is right to make that point.
We all recognise that this is a difficult issue for many and that there are strongly held views on all sides of this debate, but one reason the House stood up for the human rights of all women in the United Kingdom was that just because it was difficult did not mean their rights should be denied, and devolution does not absolve us of our responsibility to uphold the human rights of every UK citizen. I respect the Minister’s argument—[Interruption.] —as does my daughter—that human rights are at the heart of this and that the Assembly should come up with alternative proposals if it does not like the regulations, because not to propose regulations would mean further delay and possibly women making unsafe choices in Northern Ireland because there is not clarity about the services available to them.
I want to press the Minister on something he said. He recognises that travelling is not a sustainable option and that many women cannot travel—indeed, in the current crisis it is unacceptable. When we talk about these cases, let us also talk about the case of Sarah Jane Ewart, an incredibly brave woman who had to come forward. Her baby had a fatal foetal abnormality, and at the moment there is no provision to support anybody else in her tragic, horrific position in Northern Ireland. The Minister says he wants to see the Department of Health in Northern Ireland providing these services. What is his plan if the Northern Ireland Assembly continues to say it will not commission these services? How do we uphold the rights in CEDAW that we have said every woman in the United Kingdom is entitled to be covered by?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. I recognise that, along with thanking the former Secretary of State, I can probably thank her for the fact that I am here answering this urgent question. It is important that we end the need to travel, which is what these regulations properly implemented should do. She will recognise that that cannot necessarily be done instantly, because of issues with facilities, training and other such things that my right hon. Friend the former Chair of the Select Committee has raised. We recognise that fact in continuing to fund and support travel in the interim. As I have said, however, we will work with the Department of Health in Northern Ireland, provide it with the support it needs and continue to engage with the relevant medical bodies to make sure that this process can be completed as quickly as possible. I join her in once again urging the Assembly to engage and support this actively in order to make sure we have a set of measures in place that can deliver for women and girls in Northern Ireland.
I thank my hon. Friend for the sensitive and careful way he has approached these regulations. Does he agree that for every eminent legal opinion there is always an opposing view and that the right place to scrutinise that is in Committee, where these regulations will shortly be, and that the right thing for the Government to do is to uphold the CEDAW regulations, be compliant with our human rights obligations and do the right thing by all women and girls in the United Kingdom?
I can only say yes.
To follow on from the comments from the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), which I completely endorse, there is an incredibly moving account by a 24-year-old lady, Heidi Crowter. Heidi said that the proposed regulations make her feel “unloved” as they permit abortion up to birth if a child has been diagnosed with Down’s syndrome, but only up to 24 weeks if the baby has no disability. This House has a responsibility to send out a clear signal that all lives matter and all lives have an intrinsic human value. On listening to Heidi’s account, will the Government not reconsider these regulations and ensure that they do not allow abortion on the grounds of non-fatal abnormalities?
My hon. Friend makes his case very powerfully, as does Heidi Crowter. I want to be very clear that this Government believe in supporting the rights of people with disabilities and do not in any way see these regulations as impinging on those. The regulations mirror the law in the rest of the UK, where abortions are permitted in cases of severe foetal impairment and fatal foetal abnormality, with no time limit. The Abortion Act does not define what conditions fit within this meaning, but similarly, it is an individual’s decision based on proper medical assessments and advice and other relevant provision of information and support.
Recognising the extremely sensitive and important issue that this is, will my hon. Friend provide an assurance as to the robustness of consultation on both sides of this debate?
My hon. Friend raises a really important point. This was a long and serious consultation in which we engaged with a huge variety of groups, from some of the medical professionals and royal colleges concerned to a number of the campaign groups and church groups from Northern Ireland, and all the parties were approached as part of this consultation. It is very important that we have listened to the views of all sides, but we were always clear, in opening the consultation, that this was about how we did this and not whether we did it, because there was a legal requirement on us to do it.
I thank the Minister as we move on to the next urgent question. Exceptionally, if not uniquely, it will be responded to by the same Minister, so we will pause for up to a minute while those who wish to leave the Chamber can do so while safely distancing, and others can occupy their positions.
Victims of the Troubles: Payment Scheme
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the implementation of the payment scheme for victims of the troubles.
The Secretary of State has asked me to pass on his apologies for not being able to answer this urgent question in person, as he is currently in Northern Ireland engaging in discussion on these and other matters and was unable to return to the House in time for it. I hope that the House will not mind, therefore, if I answer on his behalf. He has written to the hon. Lady, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and the Victims’ Commissioner on this matter today.
Last summer, the House agreed that in the continuing absence of an Executive, the Government should make regulations establishing a troubles victims payment scheme. There was cross-party support for establishing the scheme, which was intended to provide much needed acknowledgement and a measure of additional financial support to those most seriously injured during the troubles. We made regulations establishing a victims payment scheme in January and did so, yes, to fulfil our legal obligation under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, but also because we are committed to doing what we can to progress a scheme that has been too long delayed by political disagreements. Having spoken personally to a number of victims’ groups and the Victims’ Commissioner in recent weeks, I am very aware of how long many people have waited for an acknowledgement of the physical distress and emotional trauma caused by injuries to themselves or loved ones during the troubles.
Much has been made in the media of the suggestion that funding is holding up the establishment of this scheme, but that is not the case. Funding is not preventing the Executive from being able to take the vital steps to unlock implementation; rather, the key step to unblocking the process is the designation of a Northern Ireland Executive Department to provide administrative support to the Victims’ Payments Board. I am afraid to say that despite this decision being the subject of discussion by Executive Ministers for some time and one on which the Secretary of State is currently engaging them in Northern Ireland, they have not yet designated a Department to lead on the implementation of this scheme. The Justice Minister is prepared to lead on the scheme, but Sinn Féin has been clear that it wants to reopen the criteria by which eligibility for the scheme will be determined. That is already set in legislation and provides a fair basis for helping those who suffered most throughout the troubles. It is therefore imperative that Sinn Féin, along with all the parties, enables the scheme to move forward, as the time for delay is gone.
The Government take this matter very seriously, and we are extremely disappointed by the current delay. It is because of the high priority we place on this issue that the Secretary of State has written to and had meetings with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. We have been offering and providing all appropriate support to help progress the implementation of this scheme. I assure all right hon. and hon. Members that the UK Government are committed to seeing this matter progress; victims have waited too long for these payments. The Northern Ireland Executive committed to finding a way forward on this issue in 2014. The UK Government have provided that way forward, through the regulations made in January, following public consultation. The Executive must now set aside their political differences and deliver for victims.
Thank you for granting this urgent question on this important and sensitive topic, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Minister for his response, and the Secretary of State for speaking to me last night and writing to me about the issue this morning. Last year, we were proud to join cross-party efforts to introduce the victims’ payment scheme, as has been laid out by the Minister, to provide a measure of support and, crucially, acknowledgement to those whose lives were devastated by the troubles. I wish to pay a particular tribute to my noble Friend Lord Peter Hain; to the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who is in his place; and to the many victims and groups in Northern Ireland who have been campaigning for this for so many decades, not least the WAVE Trauma Centre. Clearly, nothing will ever take away a lifetime fundamentally altered by sickening acts of violence, but ensuring victims can live in dignity was and still must be our overriding principle. I know it is one the Minister is deeply committed to, and I do not, for a moment, doubt his personal commitment to making sure those promises made to victims in Northern Ireland are now honoured. However, last Friday the deadline for the payments that victims are entitled to in law came and went.
The legal obligation under that law, passed here in Westminster, to start processing payments was not met, and victims in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the UK have looked on in horror. Many victims have waited a lifetime for some measure of support, and there is simply no excuse for victims to be so cruelly denied that support once again. They are victims such as Alex Bunting, who lost his leg when the IRA planted a bomb in his taxi in 1991, in a case of mistaken identity, and who has since campaigned on behalf of all victims of the troubles, from all communities. They are victims such as Paul Gallagher, whom I have met on two occasions. He was shot by loyalist gunmen who were waiting to attack an ex-republican prisoner who lived nearby but who tired of waiting for their target and fired into the Gallaghers’ living room with a submachine gun, leaving him permanently disabled. Despite that horrifying experience, Paul has described the past week, in which he has seen something he has fought so hard to see achieved not delivered, as the worst week of his life. It is hard to overestimate how re-traumatising this experience has been for many victims. All of us, as politicians, have a moral and legal responsibility now to get this scheme over the line. The legislation has been passed, the debates have been had and no one should be standing in its way. The legislation, as passed, allows a judicial panel to determine on the more controversial cases, so any attempts to frustrate this or reopen questions over eligibility are not only disrespectful to victims, but utterly misplaced.
In that spirit, I would like to ask the Minister a number of questions. He said that funding is not at issue, but the First Minister has said:
“It is unseemly that these deserving people are being let down due to the Government not releasing funding.”
So can he confirm what funding is with the Executive now and in place in order to implement this scheme? Can he further explain to the House whose responsibility it is to issue guidance and whether the Secretary of State will issue draft guidance to a Department when it is designated? It is very welcome to hear that the Department of Justice stands ready to be designated.
Will the Minister further confirm that the regulations are explicitly permissive and allow significant scope for the judicial board to consider cases on an individual basis, and that controversial cases should not be holding up payments to victims as a whole? What discussions have been held with the Lord Chief Justice and the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commissioner to ensure that once a department is designated, victims can have confidence that the payment board and president will be in place very quickly? Finally, does he accept that way victims have been treated, finding out about delays to the scheme almost by accident has, in the words of Judith Thompson, the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, literally added insult to injury? This cannot be another false dawn for the victims of the troubles. Surely it is now time for all of us, Westminster and Stormont, to meet our moral and legal obligations, and finally to deliver the pension and acknowledgement that so many have waited so long for.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the chance to answer this urgent question, and it is an area on which the Government and Opposition have worked closely and constructively in the past. I share the sense of frustration that is palpable in her question, as does the Secretary of State, and she gave powerful examples of some of the victims who have been affected by the process. We want this scheme to be in place as soon as possible, and to ensure that people begin to see some acknowledgement of the suffering they have undergone.
The UK Government have complied fully with their legal duties by establishing a victims payment scheme in January. We welcomed the opportunity to do so, as we wanted progress on the scheme that has been delayed by political disagreements for too long. It is important to remember that this is a devolved matter, which the Executive were to take forward under the Stormont House agreement, and which they are legally obliged to implement under the provisions of the 2020 regulations.
We take the recent delays in the implementation of the scheme extremely seriously. As I said, the Secretary of State has spoken to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to express his concern, and there have been multiple discussions with the parties in Northern Ireland. He will continue to raise this issue in his regular engagements with them, until such time as all parties, including Sinn Féin, have agreed a way forward.
We will continue to prioritise supporting the Executive in their delivery of the scheme for victims who have already waited too long. Officials from the Northern Ireland Office already provide support to the Executive Office on implementation, by advising officials about the intended effect of policy thinking behind the regulations. We stand ready to provide that guidance to the relevant Northern Ireland Department as soon as it is designated—this is a matter that that designation issue will unlock.
I appreciate the points that were raised about funding, but I wish to be clear that funding for the scheme is, and always was, to come from the block grant. This is a devolved matter, and devolved matters are traditionally funded from the block grant. Northern Ireland receives a generous financial settlement each year from the UK Government. It receives £12.6 billion for the block grant, and since January it has received £2 billion for the “New Decade, New Approach” programme, £1.2 billion in covid-19 support, and £216 million in the March Budget.
The Executive have tried to rely on a technical funding argument that because the UK Government decided the shape of the scheme, they should fund it. They also argued that it is our responsibility because the incidents took place largely during periods of direct rule. We are clear, however, that the Executive committed to establishing a scheme like this one in 2014, and the UK Government acted exceptionally in the absence of the Executive to legislate for it. Those were unprecedented times.
In the 2014 Stormont House agreement, the parties in Northern Ireland agreed that further work should be undertaken to seek an acceptable way forward and deliver on a scheme such as this. In the absence of an Executive, the UK Government consulted widely on our approach, including with the Northern Ireland parties, and in January we legislated to establish the scheme. We acted in a devolved area in exceptional circumstances—we have already heard about that today—and it is for the devolved Administration to fund the scheme. I agree with the hon. Lady that any attempt to reopen questions that have already been settled about the definition of victims, or the role of the independent panel, are totally unnecessary and would upset the vast majority of victims who we want to help with this scheme.
In conclusion, I reiterate the Secretary of State’s total commitment to seeing the Executive make progress on opening this scheme. The Executive are responsible for delivering this much needed scheme, and they must communicate a timetable for opening it urgently. The current delay and lack of clarity cannot be allowed to continue. Victims and survivors have waited too long, and the scheme must open as soon as reasonably practical.
Order. I ask Members to keep their questions as concise as they can, because we have a lot of business today.
I commend the Government for the progress that they have made on this matter. I draw the Minister’s attention to the forthcoming report by Mr William Shawcross. Can he say how much tax has been received by Her Majesty’s Government on transactions involving Gaddafi-related frozen assets? Does he agree that it is morally questionable for the Treasury to be benefiting from those assets while Northern Ireland’s victims of Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism are being short-changed?
I pay tribute to the work that my right hon. Friend did on this as a Minister. The Government take this issue extremely seriously, which is why the Foreign Secretary appointed William Shawcross as special representative on UK victims of Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism. Mr Shawcross’s role will help to inform the Government’s approach to this issue. His report was recently received by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and is currently under consideration. I do not have the answer to the detailed question that my right hon. Friend asks, but I think this will be a matter for the Foreign Office to take forward.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State on sorting out this problem of victims’ compensation, but may I ask my hon. Friend whether he is applying equal vigour to veterans who are still subject to vexatious claims from courts in Northern Ireland?
My hon. and gallant Friend makes a very important point. Of course we are pressing forward with legacy proposals to make sure that veterans and victims alike can have certainty. We should focus on getting information for victims and make sure that people do have certainty, and we should not see vexatious claims of any nature. He is absolutely right that, as we move forward in providing proper treatment and support for victims, we must also take into account the position of those who served so well to protect many more people from becoming victims.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) to her role on the Front Bench and pay tribute to her predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who did such a wonderful job in that position. I am sure she will do an excellent job too.
May I follow up on what the right hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) said? The Minister says that a technical funding argument is an excuse for holding up justice for victims in this instance. That sounds particularly empty as an excuse. Can he not be more specific about when we can expect to see the scheme opened?
If I may correct the hon. Gentleman, I do not think I said it was an excuse. I think I made it very clear that it is not an excuse. This is a case of the Executive needing to get on and designate the Department, and then this can go ahead. There is no technical reason why any discussions about funding should hold this up. We need to move forward with the process. We have put the legislation in place, and it is in the hands of the Executive to nominate a Department to take that forward so that we can get on and do it.
I join the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) in paying tribute both to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) in her new role and to her predecessor, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who in my time as Secretary of State provided fair, reasonable and very constructive scrutiny of the work that I was doing. He was particularly keen that we should see progress in this area, and he raised it on a regular basis. I agreed with him that we needed to see progress made, and I commend my right hon. and hon. Friends the Minister and the Secretary of State for making that progress. However, does the Minister agree that too much time has been wasted arguing over small technicalities when, actually, the politicians need to put first the humanity of those victims—entirely innocent victims—who suffered? They have waited far too long for this money. They need it now.
My right hon. Friend obviously speaks with considerable experience. She is absolutely right. We need to get on with this. We need to make sure that this is delivered as soon as possible. The kinds of arguments that she refers to have held this process up for far too long and have been settled. They are settled in the legislation. We now need to get on and make sure that the money starts flowing.
It is not just frustrating; it is scandalous that the scheme and its implementation are being held up by Sinn Féin, who were so often responsible for the injuries that many victims experienced. Many of them have been left not just physically scarred but financially impoverished as a result of the damage that was done to them. But it is not just the designation that Sinn Féin is holding up; the financing of the scheme will be equally important. Despite what the Minister said, there was always an understanding that this would be financed outside the block grant. The scheme was widened by his predecessor, which made it more expensive, and there are many people outside Northern Ireland who will be able to qualify for the payments. It stands to reason that historical commitments and the financial obligations that are now in the scheme should result in at least some additional financial support being given to the Executive to ensure that payments can be made.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s call for these issues to be resolved and for the Executive to move forward on this. I recognise that the First Minister has made it absolutely clear that she is determined to move forward on this issue, so I think that is also welcome. With regard to the commitment to a victims payment scheme, it came out of the Stormont House agreement and was a commitment from the parties. The UK Government will absolutely meet their obligations with regard to financial support to the Executive which were made in New Decade, New Approach, and we continue to provide funding to the Executive on a range of issues, including legacy issues. Where he and I will perhaps part company is on the issue of it having been previously established that there would be a Treasury contribution. I think it is very clear that this is a devolved responsibility to take forward. It is vital that we build consensus on the way forward so that the Executive can deliver on that.
The Minister made mention of attempts to re-designate who would be classified as victims. Do such attempts include the likes of Gerry Adams, whose convictions for trying to escape from the Maze prison have recently been controversially quashed by the Supreme Court on the basis of a dubious technicality?
My right hon. Friend tempts me to comment on individual cases, which of course I cannot. Let me take this opportunity to reiterate the point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). To reopen this question, which has been settled through consultation and legislation, would be a huge retrograde step. The issue is settled. We should now move forward and make sure we get on with providing compensation.
Again, I am speaking on behalf of and in agreement with the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), who is unable to be here today. I thank the Minister for acknowledging the position of the Northern Ireland Justice Minister, Naomi Long, and her willingness to designate and administer the scheme. Does the Minister agree that the ongoing controversy around a victims’ pension illustrates the need for a comprehensive approach to legacy that promotes reconciliation?
Yes, the hon. Lady is absolutely right. I think it is agreed on all sides of the debate in Northern Ireland that we need to get on and address legacy issues. I welcome the fact that Ministers from a range of parties have already indicated their willingness to move forward with this. We need to make sure that the last obstacles are removed.
The Department of Justice stands ready to administer the scheme. The panel that has been set up will look at each case in its entirety and make an all-round judgment on it. My big worry is the victims who are, in many cases, in ill health and a difficult mental health situation. They are desperate for this to be resolved. I urge my hon. Friend to continue to press the Executive, to tell the Justice Department to get on with it, get the scheme going—the money will come—and get this thing started.
Again, my right hon. Friend speaks with huge experience and is one of the people who has contributed most to this issue being as advanced as it is. I totally share his frustration and desire to see it resolved, and to see it move forward. I agree with him that by far the most important people in all this are the victims themselves.
Will the Minister outline exactly how he intends to operate the scheme, regardless of the machinations of Sinn Féin? How will he ensure that a scheme that is designated to acknowledge and support those who suffered innocently during the troubles is not used to traumatise them yet again through the despicable abuse of office by Sinn Féin? Will the Minister of State commit to take steps to rectify that abuse immediately?
As I said in my statement, the Secretary of State is out there meeting with the parties and talking to the party leaders to address that very issue. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the huge importance of moving forward with this issue, addressing it and removing any blockages. It is absolutely essential that we get on and deliver it in the interests of the victims. The last remaining hurdle is the issue of designation, which we need to make sure is crossed. It requires the Executive to reach an agreement, but I think it is very clear where the challenges to reaching the agreement lie.
Does my hon. Friend agree that while we rightly remember those who lost their lives in the troubles, we perhaps do not talk enough about or remember those who were injured during the troubles and those who continue to live with the impact of those incidents every day?
My hon. Friend makes a really important point, and it is one of the points that we were seeking to address in the way we approached the victims’ payment scheme when it was consulted on and when it was set out. It is so true that there are so many people who suffered injuries, both physical and psychological, during the troubles who deserve our acknowledgement and support. That is one of the reasons why we want to get this scheme active as soon as possible.
In my constituency of Upper Bann, hundreds of homes still bear the scars of the terrorist campaign that brought much needless bloodshed and loss of life to our community. The suffering of those victims of terrorism cannot continue amidst this wrangle. I welcome the Minister’s recognition that Sinn Féin is the stumbling block on this matter, but does he recognise that the legislation passed in this House enables victims throughout the UK to receive this pension? Has he done any costings for the full implementation of the scheme, and will he expect the Northern Ireland Executive to pay for those outside Northern Ireland and across the UK?
The hon. Lady is right that the response to the consultation set out that this would cover victims across the UK, and that is built into the approach. She will recognise that the vast majority of victims—I think she made the point herself in terms of her own constituency—will be in Northern Ireland or from Northern Ireland. The basis of this scheme was what was agreed in the 2014 Stormont House agreement, and it was on that basis that it was something for the Executive to take forward. Of course, the UK Government want to support the Executive with that process, and we will continue to work closely with them to make sure it is delivered as effectively as possible across the whole of the UK.
I commend the Government for the positive work they have done in this area, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith). As a former special adviser at the Ministry of Defence, I am very aware of the difficulties involved in the discussions relating to Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that it is right that we support all victims from all sides of the troubles, particularly as they approach old age, and does he share my hope that this will enable families and communities in Northern Ireland to move on from this difficult time?
My hon. Friend is spot on, and it is really important to recognise that the way in which this scheme has been set out has taken account of all shades of opinion. It has engaged with all communities and with victims’ groups on all sides, and our response to the consultation reflects that. It is one of the reasons why any hurdle at this stage is really unacceptable, and we should be getting on and delivering it.
I congratulate the shadow Secretary of State on getting this important matter on to the Floor of the House today. There was no Northern Ireland Government from 1972 until 1998. These victims were made during a period of extended direct rule, and these victims were made all across the United Kingdom. I welcome the letter today that the Minister has referred to: it blames Sinn Féin. For the first time, the Government have called Sinn Féin out on an issue. I welcome them doing that, but it would be completely incompatible with reality if—as I understand Mr Shawcross has recommended—payments were made to victims of Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism and yet our victims, who have a piece of legislation made in this place, cannot have money drawn down to them that they are completely entitled to. So I plead with the Minister to stop using Sinn Féin as an excuse now, break the logjam, push Sinn Féin out of the way and administer this money to victims all across the United Kingdom immediately.
As always, the hon. Gentleman makes his case very powerfully, but he will recognise that the Executive committed to delivering a scheme of this nature six years ago and received a generous financial contribution connected to New Decade, New Approach and other provisions. It has revenue-raising capabilities, and it must make funding available for this scheme, which everyone agrees should exist. As I said earlier, the Shawcross report is being analysed by my colleagues at the Foreign Office, and I cannot go into any detail on its contents at this stage. But we all agree that we want to move this forward, and we all agree that the money should be made available as quickly as possible. That money can be made available as soon as the designated Department is sorted.
In media interviews this morning, I think Sinn Fein seemed to accept that this is its responsibility, but tried to blame what it calls “discriminatory” rules. I have looked at the regulations, and the only thing that is ruled out in statute, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) has suggested, is if you yourself were involved in committing the terrorist offence that led to you being injured, and I think everyone would accept that that is reasonable. All other cases of convictions are for a judicially appointed panel to decide. That probably goes further than many would like, but it is necessary, I suspect, for reconciliation purposes. Therefore, is it not right that Sinn Fein recognises that this is a balanced settlement and that it should get out of the way and facilitate payments to victims on both sides of the communities in Northern Ireland for everyone’s benefit?
Yes, my right hon. Friend is spot on, as he so often is. He is very much echoing the point made by those on the Opposition Front Bench that we should not be reopening arguments that have been settled and settled with great impartiality—settled with a really serious consultation process to look at how this could be done in as fair and impartial way as possible, and with a judicial element to that which protects the independence of decision making. I think we have found a way forward here, which is sensible and which can command support of all communities, and we should take it.
Thank you, Minister.
We now come to the potter’s wheel moment—for those of us of a certain age, and I am looking at Julian Lewis. For the safe exit and the safe arrival of Members, and also for any necessary hygiene, I am suspending the session for five minutes.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the forthcoming business?
The business for the week commencing 8 June will include:
Monday 8 June—Second Reading of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 9 June—Second Reading of the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill.
Wednesday 10 June—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Court of Appeal (Recording and Broadcasting) (Amendment) Order 2020, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Civil Aviation (Insurance) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Water Industry (Specified Infrastructure Projects) (English Undertakers) (Amendment) Regulations 2020, followed by a motion relating to the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020.
Thursday 11 June—Remaining stages of the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill [Lords].
Friday 12 June—The House is not expected to be sitting.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business, and for finding time for the debate on the adoption and children regulations.
There were two pictures of long queues: one was of us in Parliament; the other was outside a furniture store, with better social distancing than we had. When someone gets to the top of one queue, they get a cushion and perhaps some meatballs; with us, someone might even get infected. I notice that the Prime Minister and the Minister for the Cabinet Office were not voting with us all, but the Leader of the Opposition was there. That image of our Parliament is going to live with this Government forever—time wasting, shambolic, breaking the rules, putting people’s lives at risk.
I do not know whether the Leader of the House has seen the notice around Parliament saying, “Avoid crowded areas and don’t move around the estate”, both of which the Leader of the House has ignored when he switched off the hybrid Parliament. His response to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) was to talk about the Chamber, but my hon. Friend was talking about the 400 of us who were waiting in and confined in Westminster Hall. Parliament is a local setting where there is a risk of an outbreak. Those are the Government’s own rules.
The Government are putting the House staff, the Doorkeepers and all of us at risk. They are alarmed that one of the Government’s own Ministers—the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—has now contracted the disease. I was here yesterday evening when he was taken ill, and we wish the right hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) well.
This is discriminatory towards hon. Members. The Leader of the House has disenfranchised hon. Members. Quite frankly, it is disgraceful and it has brought Parliament into disrepute. Our position is that a hybrid virtual Parliament and remote voting should continue, at least until the R level has reduced and the alert level has gone down. Meanwhile, the other place is actually moving towards a digital voting system.
The other big returners this week were the schools. How is that going? Headteachers are saying that it was highly variable. A school had to close because seven teachers had contracted the virus. Could we have a statement next week on what the position is with each of the schools and what the next steps are for them? I saw the Leader of the House chatting with the Secretary of State for Education—actually, they were not social distancing—so perhaps he could encourage him to come to the Chamber next week.
I asked the Leader of the House on Tuesday whether a risk assessment had been undertaken on the effect on black, Asian and minority ethnic staff of their return to work. Has that been done? We now have a Public Health England report that seems to be floating from one Department to another. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has passed it to the Secretary of State for International Trade like a hot potato. We heard during the urgent question today that the Cabinet Office will now be taking it forward. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) is acting like a responsible mayoral candidate and has set up his own inquiry in the west midlands, where there are concerning figures about the number of BAME people who have died. He is not excluding submissions like the Government have. We need an urgent statement on which Department has responsibility for this report and the terms of reference.
Another inquiry was promised by the Prime Minister. On 26 February, he pledged to the House, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), that an independent inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal would be set up. It has left sub-postmasters devastated. They were innocent, and some of them have killed themselves. When will the Government release details of the timetable and the scope of the inquiry?
I do not know whether the Leader of the House has had time to make any further inquiries about Nazanin, Kylie and Anousheh. It is Gabriella’s sixth birthday. I do not think she has had a single birthday where both her parents have been there. All these innocent families are caught up for no reason.
The Leader of the House talks about the accountability of the Government. That is what we would like, so why are responses to written questions coming back saying,
“The information you have requested is not assured to the standard required by ONS for publication and as it would be too costly to do so, we are unable to provide it”?
That is a bit rich, when the chair of the UK Statistics Authority has raised concerns about the Government’s own reporting of testing data, which appears to contain a substantial number of as yet unpublished results, based on statistics for which no citation is available. I suggest that those Members who have contacted me because they have not had a response to their written questions write directly to the Leader of the House, and he will take it up with the appropriate Department.
Finally, I want to say to the staff of this House: I am sorry that the Government put you through the risk on Tuesday, and thank you for all your help and courtesy— that goes to everyone, including the Doorkeepers and the Clerks, who were sitting at the Table as we filed past to vote.
May I start by responding to the important question that the right hon. Lady raises every week about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe? Of course, the Government continue to be in touch, and the consular officials are working. It is good news that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe is still on temporary release, but I have no further news to report. I continue to welcome the right hon. Lady’s regular mention of this distressing case, because it ensures that pressure is kept up. I will continue to pass on what she says to the Foreign Office, so that the governmental systems are ensuring that representation is properly made for a British citizen.
The right hon. Lady asks why we were queuing when our constituents were queuing. I think it is fairly obvious why we were queuing: we were queuing because we have our democratic duty to do. We have a legislative agenda to get through. We made commitments to the British people in December to get Bills through Parliament. The Domestic Abuse Bill is a very important one. The Northern Ireland legacy Bill is another important one. There is also the Fisheries Bill and the Fire Safety Bill—I could go on and on. We have really important legislation to get through that we committed to the British people to get through. How many of those Bills do the Opposition want to abandon? Probably all of them, because they are the Opposition, and of course it is their job to try to stop us getting our legislation through.
We should lead by example. Across the country, people are going back to work. The right hon. Lady mentioned schools. How can we look teachers in our constituencies in the eye when we are asking them to go back to work and saying that we are not willing to? We have to be back here delivering on the legislative programme, but also being held to account. It is fascinating that the Opposition seem so reluctant to hold the Government to account, but it is right that we should be held to account, and that is done effectively by being in this Chamber. It is important that while we are here, we follow the social distancing rules. Look around the Chamber and through the whole Palace: there are marks showing the distance people should keep. In Westminster Hall, it was made remarkably easy, because the size of the flagstones was large enough to meet the requirements. Certainly I was standing at a safe distance from people. Most Members were. Most Members were standing at a safe distance, and it was marked out for them to do so.
As regards people who cannot attend the House, they will be able to be facilitated. There was a motion we put down yesterday but, as it happens, it was blocked by a Labour Member. It would have facilitated remote appearances by people who on medical advice could not appear. As it happens, we took the definition of who could appear from an amendment tabled by the Opposition, and then the Opposition blocked it. Let us hope we have a bit more success later today, but we are obviously willing to discuss who should be in those categories to try to facilitate people who are unable to come.
The Government’s position is that those who need to go back to work should go back to work, and it is obvious that people in Parliament need to come back to work for the business of this House to work properly. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) chunters away inaudibly. I am sure if he tries to catch Mr Deputy Speaker’s eye, he may get a question in, which is the proper way of running this process. People can send in an application—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) always chunters away, but it is noticeable that it was his chuntering last night that stopped people who have to stay away from appearing remotely. I hope he is suitably ashamed of himself today, and it is noticeable that he says one thing and does another.
The Leader of the House is accusing me of hypocrisy.
No, I certainly have not accused the hon. Gentleman of hypocrisy; I would not dream of doing that.
Let me come to the issue of schools and a statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He does not need any encouragement to come to this House. He is hoping to make a statement early next week. It is obviously important that the House is updated, but it is also really important for our children’s futures that they are going back to school and that, as with us, is the process of normalisation that we are getting under way.
With regard to coronavirus and the BAME community, the Minister for Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), is leading the work on that with Public Health England.
As regards written parliamentary questions, I am taking that up with Departments. We are looking at which Departments are issuing the most holding replies. I make a general point that I would continue to have sympathy with the Department of Health and Social Care, which has been exceptionally busy in leading the response to this crisis. Other Departments, I think, have more reason to be fully up to date with their written parliamentary questions.
I really do not want to take this past half-past 1, so Members should please make their points as concise as they can, starting with Sir David Amess.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the reopening of places of worship? Yesterday we heard the exchanges at Prime Minister’s Question Time, but as we are easing lockdown and will allow social distancing in shops, surely to goodness we can allow social distancing in places of worship, which at this particular time mean even more to so many people.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this question. I have heard what His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster has had to say, and he is a very important figure in this debate. He has called for places of worship to open, and they do indeed offer a great deal of spiritual succour to many people. The Government are working with the Churches to get them reopened as soon as is practicable. Having religious succour is going to be important for those who have faith.
Once again, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) has been denied the opportunity to do his job because the Government have removed his ability to participate remotely. Much of the drama this week could have been avoided by simply letting this week continue under the hybrid arrangements. The usual channels could have used the recess period to come to an agreement about the way forward. We understand that the Government want to get their business done, but we have a right to hold them to account, and that is being denied to us. I hope that there will be progress on the motions on the Order Paper this evening, because too many of Scotland’s MPs are being actively excluded by the lack of remote participation. Many, including our shadow Leader of the House, are doubly excluded because they speak on behalf of the party as well as of their constituents, and they can currently do neither. None of the events this week that the shadow Leader of the House mentioned has been edifying, and none of them has helped to strengthen the Government’s precious Union. The Leader of the House might want to think about that.
We have still been left with more questions than answers. There needs to be one clear definition of who can participate remotely and apply for a proxy vote, and it has to take into account the circumstances not just of the Member but of the household they live in. There will also need to be answers about how track and trace applies to the House. All of us hope that the Business Secretary recovers quickly from his illness, but do Members who take ill in the Chamber self-isolate in London or return to their constituencies? Do the Government have a continuity plan in place for the operation of the House if—quod avertat Deus—there is another serious outbreak here in Westminster?
Much of the business that has been announced for next week has little relevance to Scotland, but the Leader of the House can be assured that we will use whatever opportunities we can to hold the Government to account. He will need to find time for the Foreign Secretary to make a statement about the Government’s relationship with the United States of America and what steps they are taking to ensure that tear gas, rubber bullets and riot gear produced in or sold from the UK are not being used to oppress peaceful protesters in the States. That is a huge concern to many constituents.
Finally, I would like to echo the thanks to all the staff and support services of the House who are working under immense pressure and in difficult circumstances, particularly the chaplains, who are providing pastoral support. Father Pat continues to celebrate the Wednesday evening mass, and yesterday marked the martyrdom of the Ugandan martyrs. Black lives have mattered for a very long time, and that is a legacy that we all have to be aware of.